Free Education isn’t the real issue, at best it’s just a good slogan.
I’ll start this with a confession, I went to the Free Education march. I wholeheartedly supported the movement. Since that march, I’ve been wondering what the point was. After Ed Miliband’s commitment to cut tuition fees and Oxford being labelled the most unaffordable place to live in Britain I realised what was wrong. Tuition fees essentially become a debt paid off in the future, one most of us will never pay off. Even if we do, at a rate of 9p for every pound we earn over £21,000, the repayments aren’t a horrendous burden. Living costs however, are a real problem for students in the here and now, yet nobody seems to want to do much about it. Maybe that’s because ‘cheaper rent, cheaper food and cheaper books’ isn’t as sexy a slogan as ‘Free Education.’
I’m not getting into the moral case for free education, I’m not getting into an argument about whether it’s a public good or not. This is frankly, because I don’t give a shit – that’s an academic debate that can be dealt with after we address the problem of the totally inadequate maintenance loan system.
According to the NUS, the average student (outside of London) gets a shade under £5300 in maintenance loans and grants, yet average out-of-London living costs are £12,000. That leaves a £6700 shortfall, which is a pretty hefty sum that students are expected to make up by either working part-time or help from the Bank of Mum & Dad. For a lot of students, their parents simply cannot afford to fork out that much a year to support students who are adults and supposedly independent.
Work is not a great option either, just to make up the shortfall they would have to work over 18 hours a week for the entire year to make up the money they are lacking. A regular job giving a student 18 hours of work a week is hard to come by, most students are on zero hour contracts if they can actually get a job.
Of course, this is assuming it is feasible to work 18 hours a week. When the average student also has around 30 hours a week of academic work to complete, time looks stretched. Let’s also consider that the government recommends academic work week is actually 40 hours. Ok, this never actually happens, but in theory students are supposed to have a 58 hour plus working week, to actually do well and make ends meet. Plausible.
The student ‘movement’, whatever that is, needs to pick its battles. Tuition fee debt is a mere afterthought for students struggling to find enough money to live on. Perhaps the leaders of the Free Education movement should get off their high horses and make a difference rather than fighting an un-winnable fight. Having witnessed a prominent Free Education campaigner shout ‘David Cameron, fuck off back to Eton’ in defiance of his Westminster education, it becomes pretty obvious many of these people are about ideology and raging against the machine rather than fixing the problem.