The future of education in Britain has been looking rather bleak recently. Since the trebling of tuition fees, students now graduate with a lifetime of debt; maintenance support has been slashed, courses have been cut and staff have been casualised.
There are fewer than half as many part-time students now as there were in 2010. Numbers of mature students are also declining, meaning thousands of adult learners locked out of a second-chance in life; and applications to nursing courses have fallen by almost a quarter since the bursary was scrapped.
Education in this country is in crisis. But for the first time in my political lifetime, the tide is starting to turn.
In June this year, millions of young people came out to vote for a Labour manifesto that pledged to scrap tuition fees and restore maintenance grants. Amongst the greatest casualties of the night – besides Theresa May’s thankfully ephemeral majority – was the staple of thought that governments could continue to depend on students as political cannon fodder, squeezing our living standards and strangling our public services without consequence.
We’ve now forced the government onto the back foot. Having not so long ago uncapped tuition fees, May has unilaterally frozen them once again and even pledged to look into restoring maintenance grants. The Conservatives’ vision for higher education – one of competition, of profit, of debt – is one that has nothing to offer the needs of our society.
For the first time in many years, the Labour Party – with its promise to install a National Education Service – entered a general election fighting unashamedly for the idea of education as a public good; one not only through which millions of individuals can reach their fullest potential, and develop their skills, but learn culture, and gain the capacity and the knowledge to transform the world. And it would be funded by taxing the rich.
We live in a deeply unequal society, where a small number of individuals hoard the wealth generated by millions of others; not only does it have to be redistributed, but used for social good – and there is surely no better way to start than by fully funding public education.
The momentum is quite ostensibly on the side of the many hundreds of activists who kept free education on the political agenda during a time when for most it was a fantasy.
But this is not a time to be either timid or complacent; we have to go further. Scrapping tuition fees would break the back of the Tories’ marketisation agenda, to be sure. But a return to means-tested maintenance grants, as Labour have promised, is simply not enough; we need universal living grants, so that no one falls through the cracks or has to work two part-time jobs just to get by.
We must also scrap fees for international students. Our universities must be accessible to everyone; borders divide society and ruin lives – and in education it is no different.
That is why I am marching on the national demonstration this Wednesday: to scrap all fees, to win living grants for all and to stop the hundreds of job cuts causing havoc in universities across the country. It’s not a utopian vision – there is enough wealth in our society to fund education for everyone. But redistributing it will require political courage and will never happen without a push from the grassroots.
It was through thousands upon thousands of young people mobilising by which we won a leader who put scrapping fees into the Labour manifesto and broke the Tories’ majority – and, ultimately, this will be how we win a truly free, fully funded education system for all.