At the start of August Theresa May announced that her government would seek to end the ban of grammar schools. The policy itself is a clear rejection of studies that show that grammar schools do not improve the educational outcomes for working class students. The justification for this policy is that, just like a capitalist marketplace, competition is king. Another example is in the case of universities, and what the government is trying to do is pit universities against each other because according to their flawed philosophy competition trumps co-operation. This philosophical approach is dangerous because it opens the door to commercialisation and consequently social mobility breaks down.
Earlier this year the government announced that universities would be allowed to charge more than £9,000 per year in tuition fees. The trick that the government did was that tuition fees would keep up with inflation, but because inflation is now predicted to hit 3.2% in 2018 tuition fees will reach over £9,500 per year. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing as it wouldn’t deprive universities of any funding, but because wages are growing below the rate of inflation the impact of this rise will be felt in real terms.
But the main point of this piece was to look at the general philosophical premise of Tory policy. As I mentioned in the introduction the Tories believe that competition is an inherently good thing, which is problematic for policy making. Ranking schools and universities so that they are essentially competing with one another creates demand for certain schools over others. As a result funding is reallocated to these oversubscribed schools, and the existing disparity between two schools will increase.
The government’s latest policy suggestion in regards to universities does exactly this. Jo Johnson, the Universities Minister, has said that he intends to introduce an “Olympic-style” ranking system with institutions given a gold, silver, or bronze award. This ranking system will apparently be about the quality of teaching, but the awards allow universities to charge higher tuition fees. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that higher tuition fees will be charged at the top universities in the country (red-bricks, some London unis, Oxbridge etc.), and this will discourage working class students from applying to these institutions. In February 2016 the Independent reported that the number of students from poorer backgrounds at top universities had declined despite a huge amount of money being spent. The continued rise in tuition fees, and the abolition of maintenance grants, creates the perception of university being financially out of reach.
The most frustrating thing about this whole conversation is that it’s the wrong one. We shouldn’t be talking about where tuition fees should be set, we should be talking about abolishing tuition fees, reinstating maintenance grants, and providing state funding for post-graduate students. The Tories are instituting education policies that will reduce the number of working class students in the top schools and universities, and as a result social mobility will crumble.
Education cannot be a route out of poverty if everyone who goes to university needs financial support from their parents and/or is saddled with huge amounts of debt. The Tories know that students will not vote for them so they have made a calculation to screw them over. The Left needs to mobilize these students as activists and campaigners to throw the Tories out of government once and for all.