Reclaim your Education Speech Mark II (Or: what I would have said in 7, instead of 5 mins)

Last night I spoke – at short notice – at the University of Sheffield Students’ Union panel discussion on “What Next for the Student Movement and the Future of Higher Education?”. I thought I’d not have enough to say, and as it happens I had too much! Here’s all the things I would’ve said if I had 2 more minutes:


What Next for Higher Education?

In the last few years we’ve seen a huge assault on students in higher and further education.

We’re now being asked to pay £9000 a year for a University education. This will mean that the average student debt will rise from the already astounding £23,000 for a degree to above £40,000. Before students even want to take out a mortgage, they’ll be lumbered with crushing levels of debt.

The slashing of EMA will also cut thousands of students out of higher education. The Institute of Fiscal Studies found that the EMA increased the proportion of young people who stayed in education from 65% to 69% among 16 year olds. The figures were from 54% to 61% among 17 year-olds.

The EMA made a real difference to people’s lives and it’s a travesty that it’s been abolished.

Even if those students do actually make it to University, when they get here they’ll face bursary cuts, insufficient loans and rising rents. All of this has led to the finding, set out in a recent report from NUS, that poorer students who can’t rely on financial help from their parents have to work 33 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, in order to cope with a cash shortfall of £8,566. This is all because the loans that students are entitled to take-out don’t cover living costs.

It’s no wonder that UCAS has reported an 8% drop in applications. Students are being priced out of higher education

If all this is a bit bleak, it’s because – and I don’t mind repeating this – what we face are some of the biggest attacks on Higher Education we’ve seen.

So to answer the question: all this is what’s next for Higher Education. And the only way we change this is if we fight what’s going on.

Without continuing the pressure, we’d be giving a green light to the Tories to do whatever they want. The demo last week was a great start. I think it’s brilliant that so many students – from this University especially – went to London in the pouring rain to demonstrate against the new fees regime.

It really shows that there’s a passionate feeling against what the government is trying to do.

But we’ve said, repeatedly, here at the Reclaim Your Education Campaign, that this is just the beginning. We need further actions, demonstrations and lobbies of parliament. We need a vibrant campaign that continues the good work of the last couple of months; the work that’s mobilised – here in Sheffield – hundreds of students against Tory plans for higher education.

And I think one of the crucial things we need to do is argue for our own alternative. It’s all very well saying we’re against the government, but we won’t win without a clear idea of what we want.

We shouldn’t forget that before this whole process began – the process started by the Browne review – that British big business contributed the least to the higher education sector of all the European countries.

In a sense, it’s absolutely correct to say that the student finance system needed changing. British business should have been paying its fair share. In fact at that time, we could – and should – have abolished tuition fees altogether. The UCU tells us that – at that time – we could have financed a completely free higher education system by increasing corporation tax to the European average on just the largest 2 or so % of British corporations.

In this context it’s absolutely disgraceful that we’re witnessing a huge transfer of the cost of University from the state and industry, to the student. We were already contributing far more to the system than any other European country.

Let’s be clear, for all the Tories’ talk in the media that we need a return to economic growth, this policy of transferring the cost of education to students is an anti-growth policy.

The government’s own figures show that for every pound invested in higher education, the economy expands by £2.60. The Treasury’s models show that half of this – £1.30 – comes back in tax revenue. The OECD has published similar figures.

Money spent on education isn’t thrown down a wishing well. It gives the government extra income – on each pound spent – to pay off the national debt or invest in other public services. And it’s not just me saying this. Paul Krugman and Joseph Stieglitz – two Nobel laureates in economics – agree with me. Stieglitz has said:

Investments in technology, education and infrastructure […] will stimulate the economy and create jobs in the short run and promote growth and debt reduction in the long run.

We need to increase the level of investment, by the state, into education, not transfer the cost to students. We’ve seen the catastrophic effect on student numbers this has had. An 8% reduction in student numbers is the exact opposite direction in which we should be moving.

The choice here is stark and it’s all about what kind of society we want to live in. We can either live in a country which depends upon high finance and the City of London; where the majority of people work in low skills, low wage jobs with few employment rights; where a lost generation live in comparative deprivation and hardship.

Or we can invest in infrastructure, technology and I think – most importantly – a Green New Deal to create a new, green, economic programme dedicated to producing growth and green jobs.

To do this we need to increase the level of educational attainment, not lower it. It’s unacceptable that our level of university participation is at 42%, when the OECD average is 57%. It’s even more unacceptable when we look to much poorer countries than our own, like Venezuela, who have a participation rate of 83%! This is in no doubt due to the fact that higher education in Venezuela is completely free.

Of course, all this involves fighting to change the government’s current funding priorities. There’s one area in which I do wholeheartedly believe in cuts, and that’s military spending.

We need to fund education, not war.

Every year, without even factoring in the massive cost of the Trident nuclear missiles system, the government spends £33 billion on the military.

A quarter of this would pay to bring back EMA, scrap fees (that includes fees for international students) and bring in a living grant, instead of a loan, for home students.

So, I’ll close by saying that the future of Higher Education – what’s next? as this meeting asks – is pretty bleak. It’ll be pretty bleak unless we step up to what I think is a historic task – the historic task of defending Higher Education.

In my view the only way forward for the student movement is to argue for investment in a free higher education system that will service the needs of the kind of society in which we want to live; a society with high standards of living and a green, high skills economy. To do this, we need to continue to mobilise in our droves against the government’s plans for Higher Education. This meeting is a great place to start talking about how we do that.