Capitalism in crisis is cutting away at the prospect of a free education for all. We publish here three articles from the Marxist Student Federation about education in the age of austerity.
The quality and quantity of education available to the public has always been a general measure of social progress. The greater the wealth of knowledge available to its citizens, the more civilised is their society and the higher its level of culture and the quality of existence it provides. Capitalism has always prided itself on making the intellectual riches of all humanity socially available through the development of the means of production and distribution of intellectual materials, primarily through the printing press, globalisation and more recently the internet, along with a public schooling system that has no parallel in human history.
Leaving aside the fact that this picture of things has never in fact been true for a great swathe of humanity, who live in entirely impoverished conditions, we can see that there is some truth in this. For workers in the advanced capitalist countries – Europe, America, and a few other areas of the world – the rise of capitalism offered a great leap forward compared to the past. Whilst capitalism was still expanding, the labour movement in these countries was able to win crumbs off of the capitalists’ table, which was overflowing with profits from colonial exploitation.
This is no longer the case today. Capitalism has reached its limits and has now entered into a phase of terminal decline. Lurching from crisis to crisis, it cannot afford the reforms of the past. All the fat must be trimmed.
As a result of these cuts, quality public education is under threat. Over the last five years, the average sixth-form college has lost 20% of its funding, with some losing up to 30%. Labour has warned that Osborne’s plans for the next few rounds of cuts could close 40% of sixth-forms whilst seriously reducing the quality of education of others. Sixth-forms and colleges have already begun to close A-level courses. Teachers and resources are already pushed to the limit.
Universities have also shouldered significant cuts in the last few years. The funding shortfall is being passed on to students and staff with the introduction of tuition fees, the casualisation of many junior academic posts, and increases in rents to balance the books. These policies, now compounded by the scrapping of maintenance grants, combine not only to reduce the quality of higher education in the UK but to make courses far less accessible to students from poorer backgrounds. Alongside this, adult education outside of universities has suffered 28% cuts to funding, drastically reducing the quantity and quality available to those who want to broaden their horizons and develop their skills.
The programme of austerity goes hand in hand with a programme of privatisation. The capitalist class are desperate to make an easy profit. Falling demand due to overproduction means that they cannot invest in the productive sectors of the economy. The greatest part of their money – some £800bn in Britain alone – is simply hoarded, but with the help of their friends in government big business is penetrating public services, healthcare and education. This is what is behind the upsurge in outsourcing and privatisation on university campuses. The privatisation of universities will mean an even further increase in costs such as textbooks and other learning materials, rents, and cafeteria prices, as the bosses scramble to squeeze as much out of students as they can.
In the US, textbooks – the production of which is controlled by a cartel of just five companies – have already seen their prices rise by a staggering 812% over the last three decades. Students are a captive audience for such extortion, as learning materials such as these are mandated by course programmes and without them students will be at a serious disadvantage.
It is not only the formal education system that has suffered from austerity. Since 2010, 463 library ‘service points’ (which includes mobile libraries as well as static) have been shut down. Another 500 are under immediate threat of closure. Once these have been cut, we will have lost a quarter of our library services. Those that remain are forced to reduce their book buying budgets, meaning that many have to rely on donations. The days in which the latest literature was available to the public for free are rapidly disappearing.
The greatest indignity of these attacks on education – on the very substance of society itself – is that they are wholly unnecessary. It is true that there is no money in the public purse, but the bank accounts of the bankers and the bosses are overflowing. On top of this, the capital portfolios of the super-rich are full of industrial potential that cannot be run at a profit, not because it is not needed, but because the exploitation of the working class means that they cannot afford the goods and services it would produce.
The vast technology of today could be used to bring educational materials to the masses on an unprecedented scale. The internet means that the wealth of world literature – and textbooks – could be available to each and every person for the cost of a kindle e-reader, but copyright gets in the way. This could be removed, with the writers maintained as part of a nationally planned socialised economy, under democratic workers’ control. Furthermore, such an economy could use the wealth that is currently squirreled away by the capitalists for a fully funded programme of classroom education that would last from cradle to grave, relegating the problems of today to the dustbin of history.
As the reforms of the past are hacked way, capitalism is losing the few redeeming features that it had. It no longer plays a progressive role in any sense. One recalls the words of Rosa Luxemburg that humanity must choose between ‘Socialism or Barbarism’. There is no third way: the fight for free public education is the fight for socialism!
by Mordecai Levi, Cambridge Marxist Society
Maintenance grant cuts: For a socialist education system
by Ross McKendrick, Swansea Marxist Society
Last month saw a significant drop in temperature across Britain, and a high of only 5 degrees in London made Thursday 14th January the chilliest day of 2016 so far, a seemingly natural event for the winter period. Yet the cynics amongst us couldn’t be berated for wondering if the warmth was sapped from the air by the coldness inside one particular room in Westminster.
Behind closed doors, just 18 MPs took the executive decision that maintenance grants for students were to be scrapped – the only cost to these representatives, a measly hour and a half of their time. Conversely, the one million most disadvantaged students face being plunged into thousands of additional pounds of debt, compared to their wealthier peers. This only adds to the mounting cost of education in Britain, but disproportionately impacts the poorest students, who do not have the safety net of financial support from relatives. According to the OECD, students in England already face the most expensive education in the world, and this latest action will only increase and perpetuate the exclusivity of higher education across Britain.
The scrapping of maintenance grants represents the latest step of capitalist austerity undoing the reforms of the past which aimed to make education more accessible, and the further commodification of education. Our demand is for free education, regardless of class, gender, or nationality, with maintenance grants for all students – education is a right for all, not a privilege for those that can afford it.
It is worth noting, however, that this cannot be achieved through small-scale, isolated activism, or through generous reforms from above. There are no ‘safe spaces’ for working class students, who are starkly disadvantaged by tuition fees and the absence of grants. Truly free education can only be attained by the socialist transformation of society, with universities placed under the democratic control of students, staff and lecturers.
Until then, as temperatures fall, Britain is destined only to become an icy tundra, barren of both affordable education, and compassion.
- For a fully funded education system accessible to all!
- For democratic management of schools and universities!
- No to austerity – yes to socialism!
School course cuts a symptom of crisis
by Keelan Kellegher, St Thomas More Academy Political Discussion Group
In pursuit of a budget surplus so as to continue the fragile capitalist system, the Conservative government is reducing spending by cutting education. Apart from the obvious consequences of falling standards, witnessed in my own school (St Tomas Moore Academy in Newcastle) with the worst set of A-level results since 2005, and a mass exodus of teachers, there are also unforeseen consequences. One of these has been the huge financial strain upon the exam boards which provide GCSE and GCE exams to students nationwide. Reforms to education have left these organisations with their own budget deficits as revenue from exam entries has been reduced and government support for the registered charities has dried up.
This has prompted the exam boards to consider the hiking of fees so as to make up for the losses they are now suffering. In the midst of Capitalism’s greatest crisis, no stone is left unturned as the bourgeoisie intends to squeeze every penny to protect its class supremacy. It will be the education system and therefore the state which will have to pay this difference, ironically contradicting the aim of Osborne’s austerity. However, this may not be the only consequence with regards to exam boards struggling to survive.
The entire exam systems of schools might have to be overhauled as it is simply becoming unprofitable to continue the current system. Already exam boards such as OCR are considering dropping the offer of exams in other languages, such as Polish or Bengali, as these have low entries and are therefore inefficient to run. This may perpetuate inequality for children of migrant backgrounds, already struggling to adjust to a new environment and now contending with an unfair disadvantage in examinations. Another consequence of reducing the amount of papers offered is job losses, something which appears to be marking the Tory’s first term in office as a majority since 1997. Edexcel is expected cut 500 jobs in the near future.
We should support any calls to renationalise the exam boards. This is an obvious retort to the bosses of these companies, who are only invested to make a killing on education – the real reason behind the cuts to unprofitable services. But we should also point out that nationalisation in itself is not a solution. Indeed, on a capitalist basis the cuts to exam boards would just come from the Tories in the form of austerity measures rather than the bosses in the form of profitability savings.
As with all the contradictions and problems of capitalism, there is but one solution; political and economic revolution based upon the philosophy of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Reforms may temporarily correct our education system, but until we have a system which completely takes the profit incentive out of education then we will always face similar problems in the future. Education must be about the betterment and empowerment of masses, not for the training of those masses as ‘model employees’.