A right, not a privilege

This post was written by Jacob on February 26, 2009
Posted Under: Capitalism,Education,Trade Unions

Students outside SOAS yesterday

Yesterday hundreds of students marched on London to demonstrate against fees. People came from as far away as Edinburgh to express their displeasure both at the government, and at NUS for taking a soft line on this (current NUS policy asks that the organisation campaigns to not increase tuition fees rather than actively campaigning for free education.) It is unclear whether a majority of students would agree with demands for free education, although NUS conferences tend to be rather unrepresentative. What is clear, though, is that tuition fees are not in students’ material interests. Something that is often forgotten in these debates is that the entire point of organisations such as the NUS is to defend interests like these. The current leadership seem more concerned with politicking, with engaging the government on their own right-wing territory, rather than actually making demands that would revolutionise our higher education system not only for current students but for all people who wish to learn at a higher level.

I was also glad to be on a demonstration for free education that wasn’t pushing the line of “education for education’s sake.” This is actually something I used to talk about but I’ve really gone off the idea. This doesn’t mean that I think we should all learn “skills” and that heavily academic education should be abolished. On the contrary, I think that there are very good arguments for academic education being extremely useful to society. Whilst the use of learning about Schoenberg’s Erwartung or Greek tragedies may seem somewhat oblique, I am convinced that both having people who know about these things, as well as the ongoing process of education, is good for our society and not just for individuals. The idea of education for education’s sake is a straying away from good dialectical thought; it at once justifies good education and denounces its use.

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Reader Comments


Personally, I don’t see why the tax money of factory workers should go towards paying for our higher education, especially for non-vocational degrees in the arts. Yes, I’m glad that people in our world know about Greek tragedy etc., but I don’t think that you’ve argued for your claim that such knowledge is for the greater good of society. What are the “good arguments” that you speak of? Frankly, I’ve found studying such things to be an extremely selfish pursuit which has benefited nobody but myself in any substantial way.

Written By George on February 26th, 2009 @ 11:26 am

Since those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, according to DoE statistics, are much more likely to attend ‘ex-polytechnic’ institutions, I always thought that some sort of solution to this whole problem seems sort of self evident (accepting for now that tuition fees are not going to be scrapped and student grants reinstated). Surely they should be given specialist status, reverted back to ‘true’ polytechnics and with enhanced emphasis on technical and vocational education (rather than ridiculously aping universities with sub-A Level degrees in the arts), their original strengths, and tuition fees at these places scrapped?

This would have the effect of getting rid of a large proportion of debt attached to those who are in a worse position than most to get rid of it, help increase the prevalence of important technical and vocational skills in society (which, for all of its associated benefits of sharpening analytical skills and thinking, a degree in English from Oxford or UCL does not provide), and get rid of the ridiculous ‘two-tier’ education system that seems to have emerged under which if you emerge from Liverpool John Moores University with a degree in anything that isn’t, for example, applied pharmacy or field irrigation science, you will be laughed at when applying for most jobs. Law of comparative advantage-switch resources into the areas in which you have resources most suited to production, and let others do the rest.

Written By Jack on February 26th, 2009 @ 11:37 am

I broadly agree with the sentiments of Jack. However the issue of two-tier education is not simply one of educational policy, but also of culture in the broadest sense. The real problem is that, for all the shallow romanticising of the trades, we as a society tend to accord higher statusto those who go down the academic path. And academic success still represents a powerful legitimising factor for inequality.

Written By Reuben on February 26th, 2009 @ 11:52 am

George, my point is that not only things that have an obvious use are useful. There is real value to having a thinking population who understands the history and content of our society, who can bring with them the sorts of critiques of society that arts degrees allow. There is no knowledge that exists without opinions surrounding them. There is no history that doesn’t reflect (or refract) within our own world. Knowledge one gains from concerning oneself with cultural products is not something that can be quantified, totted up in your head as your own personal achievement, and put to one side. No, that is not knowledge at all. Rather, what one brings to society with an examination of, say, Greek tragedy, is a critique of our own society. One cannot study history just as the historic, and hope to cut off any relationship it has to the here and now; its relationship to the present is part of the process of examining or engaging with the object. I’d also argue that the process of true education, not the filling up of minds with facts and figures, is as such a radical pursuit, and one which often our universities often carry out rather well. We must embrace critical consciousness however and wherever it is achieved.

In response to Jack, I disagree. I think such a policy of grants for polytechnics would only cause to exacerbate the problem of people at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum going only to do vocational courses. Why should they be forced into a position in which they may be forced to do that or nothing at all, with no prospect of studying the liberal arts at a higher level? If your suggestion is, as you say, aimed at creating less debt for those least able to afford it, the answer should be to remove fees and in their place introduce progressive taxation to the same value.

Written By Jacob on February 26th, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

Am pushed for time today, so I apologise for my first post on TTE being a plug, but this is my report of the demo yesterday.


I will post some thoughts later, but I do think we have to break with the traditional left notion of the NUS as being a ‘trade union’ – something which I touch upon in the report.

Keep up the good work!


Written By Ben L on February 26th, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

Jacob, I do of course support any measures aimed at facilitating the entry onto liberal arts courses at well-regarded universities for able students from deprived backgrounds. Your idea of a progressive tax to support this does seem positive (if perhaps a bit vague). However, we have to acknowledge that many people from such backgrounds, by virtue of the squalid nature of the schools that they have to attend, simply will not get the ABB at A-level minimum that is required to get into a reputable university to study the liberal arts or social sciences these days, even if they have the potential to do so.

Therefore I think resources ought to be increased in enhanced provision of and funding for relevant courses in polytechnic universities, towards which many will gravitate, so as to ensure that those who do choose this path (and for numerous socio-cultural reasons this figure seems destined to reamain high) are afforded the chance of well-regarded employment opportunities when they graduate rather than the disheartening prospect of rejection from myriad graduate schemes because of the perceived lack of quality or status of their institution of higher education in the teaching of non-technical disciplines (something I believe would be greatly ameliorated if these places were well-supported and resourced). It is very well to talk about the merits of a populace well versed in the liberal arts (and I agree in principle), but the reality is that many have neither the ability nor the inclination to take up such a pursuit and should be well-provisioned for in this case. More people seem to value a tangible skill than a grasp of social theory or Iberian literature. I hate to converge with crude productivist views in this respect, but as an initial step towards solving some of the problems that abound at the moment, this does seem to me to be fairly logical (in tandem, of course, with provisions for those who do seek a liberal education).

Written By Jack on February 26th, 2009 @ 5:12 pm
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