It is clear in the view of many students and the eyes of the general public that on post-compulsory Education the government has got its priorities wrong. The NUS Demo on Wednesday was I hope the start of a new, refined and clarified campaign for change in the approach to UK University level Education.
In my mind it is crucial that educational institutions provide an open environment in which students can challenge themselves, learn, explore new ideas and become well rounded participatory citizens. A strong Education system remains critical for our economy and its future prospects; creative abilities and the development of knowledge are crucial to ensuring continued innovation, enterprise and economic growth.
Education provision is not a luxury, it is a necessity and a right, for a government which claims it is trying to ensure economic growth investment in Education should not and cannot be optional. If we are serious about maintaining our position in the world as a leading economy and a principled society which seeks to set an example to other nations worldwide then we better start living up to that. A University is not a production line for office workers, bureaucrats and the general workforce, going to University is concerned with more than that, it is where young adults find themselves; developing as people, creating their own unique identity and finding their place and engaging in society.
It is my belief that we need to move away from continued arguments over whether fees are £9,000 or £3,000 per year (especially as students on the £9,000 fees are unlikely to pay back much money at all compared to those on £3,000). Whilst I disagree with the rise in fees, I feel that the fees have been changed and there is no possibility of a change in policy before the next general election. Instead, we need to be pushing forward a clear argument forfree Education for everyone, Education is a human right, it is a public good and we should not hesitate to invest appropriately in the Education of those who will be the leaders of the future. Over the last decade, the changes to the Education system and government rhetoric with regard to University attendance have had the wrong focus and resulted in mixed messages about how we view Education in our society. All the major parties in government have been party to changes which saw the introduction of fees, the rise in fees, abolition of EMA and other support mechanisms, the drive to increase the student numbers in Universities at unsustainable rates and the increasing marketisation of Educational institutions. Now we have a system where the government issues loans to students which put them in unprecedented levels of debt. This leaves two scenarios; one where students don’t pay the money back due to the current terms of repayment and the government is left with a major black hole in years to come, and the alternative situation being that the government takes advantage of a loophole that allows them to change the repayment terms of the loans retrospectively, neither of which is a preferred option.
Therefore, moving forward we need to be clear about the value of a free Education, and a key task is to put the campaign for a free, fair Education back on the agenda for government. So far the effect on Education and its place in society has been affected in a regressive way; we need to clearly establish how much of a priority we feel Education is and this should be the starting point for future campaigns. Furthermore, it is clear that whilst demonstrations and protests can be effective or necessary in some circumstances and primarily as a last resort, at the current time it is crucial to spend time on educating and informing to ensure the issue is a key part of the agenda in future manifestos in 2015 and beyond and this will be a far more effective utilisation of the limited resources we have available.
There are several key areas that the government needs to address; a greater focus on providing a wider range of options to students as they leave VI form and the provision of clear information about which opportunities are available; the number of apprenticeships needs to be expanded, the diversity of courses should be maintained even those courses which may not obviously benefit society in a practical sense help ensure a diverse, flourishing society. There should also be an element of flexibility and financial assistance available for students to have the option to pursue further study by either taking a second alternative undergraduate degree, postgraduate degrees, masters, etc. to enable them to develop their knowledge further which will inevitably have a positive impact on society, not only are current cuts to investment on Education affecting those in Undergraduate study but they are having a detrimental effect on research across the country which fuels innovation and entrepreneurship.
In an article for the Independent Liam Burns calls for the governing bodies of colleges and universities to include students, alumni and members of the local community; whilst I’m not 100% sure I agree entirely with regard to alumni, it is imperative that students have a central role in any governance system within Universities to ensure Universities continue to act in the interests of students rather than on a short term, market based approach. Hopefully this will also encourage Universities to act in the University’s academic interests rather than based on market orientated decisions.
This change in approach to Education is not going to happen overnight, it is key for Student Unions to play an active role in encouraging their members to become active in politics. This activism should occur both within the University, on Campus, in local community politics, and at a constituency level – the more students bring their concerns and beliefs to the attentions of politicians the more likely it is that Education will be on the agenda in the coming years. Yet, to be clear, Education and calls for activism should not be partisan, it should be focused on the topics at hand and should not alienate unnecessarily those of various political views. The aim should be to make all parties see the value of a free Education system; the best way for this to occur is to encourage students of all political standpoints to pressure their respective youth branches, party executives and representatives for this change.
It is clear that there will be radical left wing groups on campuses across the country calling for change, whilst there are Conservative Future groups and other organisations that will defend the status quo on economic grounds, we should engage in debate and discussion to underline that despite the times of economic hardship and necessity for sensible fiscal policies Education is a priority and should receive investment over tax cuts, expensive schemes no one wants such as PCCs and other failed or misguided government projects. In the end it is a universal belief that Education is a right and is beneficial to society, therefore we must ensure it remains on the agenda and receives the proper amount of attention and investment appropriate to ensure it continues to help develop well rounded participatory citizens.
Finally, from a personal point of view, I and many fellow students feel let down by our University. The University of Birmingham has over the last few years made a massive onslaught against the principles of Education and undermined all the values and principles an Educational institution is understood to stand for. With an injunction against permanent protests on campus, undermining the principle of freedom of speech and thought in Universities. Furthermore, with the University’s ranking falling the Vice-Chancellor still gets a pay rise of £50,000 each year, yet still has the audacity to try to close departments which still have demand and are currently leading departments in the country. Moreover, the hypocrisy of the situation was even picked up by Private Eye – the University is currently trying to close down the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquities and yet at the same time the Vice-Chancellor was in the United States showing off all the achievements of the department and its involvement in a number of successful projects over the last few years.
We need to be very clear. This type of behaviour is not acceptable, and we will continue to challenge it.
Education is a right, not a Privilege.
By Edward Sainsbury