The Case for Scrapping Tuition Fees | Rory Johnston

What do we want? Free education! When do we want it? Now!

It’s a strong rallying point for the left and many of its heroes in the western world. Look to Corbyn in Britain or Sanders in the US and the young grassroots base is energised by the prospect for yet another privilege afforded to them for zilch. Perhaps however, it may be time for conservatives to have a rethink.

The fiscal conservatives amongst our midst may rile at the notion of free university education. Quite rightly, it may be unwise to offload the mass expense of student tuition upon the coffers of the exchequer. Politically, conservatives would argue it would be a great mess for the state to carry universities on their back. Culturally, however, could be a totally different ball game.

Whilst under the current system the undergraduate student loan requires the student to pay their loan back to the government – not the university – and thus making the universities public enterprises and not private. However, the spike in tuition fees have given universities the appearance of a consumer product. How many times have you been speaking to your peers and seen perhaps a new project on campus and heard the phrase “what a waste of my £9,000”? For those amongst us who aren’t university students, how many times have you heard family and friends who are who have berated faculty or facilities at their university claiming it to be an ill use of their £9,000?

It is a story told a thousand times over. Daily.

We have turned students into a consumer, and therefore, the universities are hell bent on appeasing the demands of the customer. Whilst universities are certainly not above criticism and feedback from their students, let us not forget that every year potential students travel the breadth of the nation – accumulating mileages on road trips that would give The Proclaimers a run for their money – to view prospective universities, all with the desire of finding the perfect institution that will facilitate their desires and propel them to prosperous careers.

In days gone by, universities were primed to prepare students for the outside world. Whether it be ascertaining expertise for a pertinent vocation, broadening your mind to new ideas and ways of thinking or equipping you with skills of critical evaluation, the student was formally indebted to the institution.

Now however, it’s as if the institution is indebted to the students. This perceived notion of consumerism has allowed for students to rule the roost. In an attempt to accommodate the consumerist utopic desires, university now symbolises a place in which young adults prolong their childhood. A place to stagnate.

One rhetoric that is so prevalent on a campus is that it should be a home for the students. This in reality should be the antithesis of a university campus. First and foremost it is a hive for education. The imagery of a home implies that the university is a place of refuge in which one seeks comfort. University however should challenge the student. What use is a future employee if they are unable to emotionally cope with challenging ideas? In the deepest recesses of our hearts we know the answer to this is zero, yet the universities conform. In order to protect oneself from an idea; a thought; a simple musing; we witness the creation of “safe spaces”.

Now in the classrooms and lecture theatres, if there may be a passage that one finds upsetting or disturbing, we must now have “trigger warnings” so that everyone is safe in the knowledge that a distressing idea may be around the corner, ready to pounce. But what good does this do? When in the outside world does a potentially distressing idea walk around advertising its pre-eminence so that you have ample warning? It doesn’t happen. Why must we mollycoddle our students in such a way?

Last week we saw the University of Manchester Student’s Union implement a ban on clapping, whooping and cheering. Although born out of good intentions to look after the wellbeing of those with autism, it is an act of authoritarian despotism to not allow people to conduct the simple action of clapping on the Union’s premises. In the outside world, we don’t ban strobe lighting for epileptics. In an age of mass health and safety, it is reasonable to simply have health warnings. Why not apply these in the student union? We have to accept in the outside world that people will clap. Time will come for those to accept that whooping and jeering are inevitable evils of society. It would be outrageous for one to attempt to ban those in society.

And there we have it. Society isn’t a consumer product.

Like a scene out of Lord of the Flies, without the intricate themes and imagery aroused by William Golding, the children are running the universities. Whilst there are many students who express, and in many more cases, supress their disapproving thoughts towards the encroaching authoritative figure of political correctness on campus, the rampant self-appointed moral arbiters have absolute control of the campus vernacular. We see time and time again that when there is pushback, these authoritarians cry oppression, and we devolve back to square one.

It was amused by Jo Johnson last December that it was perhaps high time for universities to be fined over censoring freedom of speech. Whilst the idea was derived from sound purposes, fining institutions that don’t come under the domain of the state is also a breach of the institution’s respective right to free expression.

Therefore, if we are to ensure that universities protect freedom of speech and academic freedoms of thought, it could well need a new, radical approach. Whilst this level of pragmatism is conflicted with my own small government liberalism, it could meanwhile be an extremely viable policy electorally. In a move that would bring further elements of the education system under the remit of the government, it could potentially appease portions of left wing voters. Furthermore, the scrapping of tuition fees and interest rates would undoubtedly appease huge swathes of the “young vote” who were undeniably attracted to Corbyn’s proposal in 2017 of free education and the scrapping of existing student debts.

You may however be asking that if the universities were controlled by the state, then the academic freedoms and integrity of each respective institution would be vastly undermined. To honour these ideas would be paramount to the success of any radical change. Much like the Bill of Rights in the United States, a viable solution to this potential issue would be a guarantee or charter that enshrined the freedoms of universities to protect freedom of speech and the freedom of academic research. By eliminating the perception of university being a consumerist product, in theory the idea of student entitlement to rule through the mob would be significantly diminished, allowing for absolute freedom of speech to flourish on campus.

Secondly, the universities themselves will be able to conduct academic research without immediate recourse. One pertinent example that springs to mind is the backlash faced by Oxford University when their McDonald Centre announced that they were conducting research into the ethics of empire, led by professor of Theology, Nigel Biggar. Whilst academic criticisms against the “balance sheet” approach to the study were perfectly valid, student groups such as Common Ground attacked the basis of the research for being merely an apology for colonialism. This irrational attack without seeing the results of the research were farcical, with Biggar equating the scathing attacks on his proposal as “collective online bullying”. Whatever your views on the relevant subject are, one thing we should be able to agree on is that academics should have the freedom to conduct ethical research without remedy. Unfettered education is a cornerstone to societal progression, and it would be a crying shame if even research proposals became censored.

The ability to protect these freedoms would demonstrate the Conservative’s putative claim to be the party of liberty and would surely go a long distance to ensure universities became a safe space for all – before the rot sets too deep.

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