So, I’ve been thinking a lot about student debt recently and I’ve concluded that it’s a bit shit.

Having never really thought about how I’m actually paying for my degree, the realisation that when I graduate later this year I will owe at least £20,000 made me feel a little ill.

It seems genuinely unfair that, like so many others around the country, I am going to begin my life as a fully-fledged tax paying citizen with such an albatross around my neck. The fact that a generation of graduates are being sent out into the increasingly competitive world of work burdened with debilitating debt – debt that is the consequence of disciplined self-improvement, not unrestrained self-gratification – seems odd, even perverse.

Attempting to swallow this large and unfair-tasting pill has led me to reconsider the case for free university education, focussing in particular on the assertion that ‘education is a right and not a privilege’.

However, even with my £20,000 of debt, I’m just not entirely convinced that university education should, in principle, be free. Moreover, I think that talk of education as a ‘right not a privilege’ confuses things. It confuses things primarily because university education has a fundamentally different role to pre-university education.

It is surely a right of all people to receive free and compulsory primary and secondary education. This is because the function of the education system up to and including secondary school is to equip children with the necessary tools, both intellectual and social, that will enable them to function and flourish in adult society.

For this reason, primary and secondary education is a profoundly important, perhaps the most important, social good and something that everyone has a right to. It is inconceivable that the young people in a society, or even a section of the young people, could be denied a decent minimum level of education. Given its importance, this level of education must be free to all.

At university on the other hand, it is assumed that everyone already has the skills that they need to function and flourish in adult society. Whether or not this assumption is justified is definitely up for debate, but it is certainly not the role of university to provide people with these skills.

The university system has a different and important function.  However, it is not something that people have a right to get for free.

Contrary to current opinion, I think that universities should be academic institutions that seek and teach knowledge for its own sake. The current obsession with ‘employability’ bastardises the concept of an academia. Knowledge is primarily a good in itself, though it can also be a means to an end.

There surely are arguments for fewer cuts and greater investment, or no to Trident and yes to philosophy, or for a radically different system of university fees. There may even be arguments for the teaching of some subjects to be free. I think that some already are. But these are practical arguments, not principled ones; they deal with matters of judgement and not justice.

The tuition fee system definitely has its flaws, it is clumsy and blundering for a start. But I’m just not that sure that I have a right to a free BA (Hons.) in Philosophy and Politics and I would not have been able to get one without the student loan system.

Now, obviously I think that everybody should have the equal opportunity to go to university; indeed, I think that it is the idea of equality of opportunity that leads people to think that university should be free. If somebody has the ability and ambition then they should be able to go. It cannot and should not be only for the wealthy. But that is very different from saying that everyone has the right to get it for free.

Given that equality of opportunity drives argument for free university education, I am shocked that those who campaign against tuition fees are not more vocal about the actual educational injustice that is private schools.

If we accept that primary and secondary school education is a fundamentally important social good, a good that can and does significantly define the life chances of children, mediating their access to a plethora of social, political, and economic goods – which I think that we must – then, it seems drastically unfair that we allow such an important good to be distributed according to parents ability to pay.

Those who complain about tuition fees should surely be up in arms about this.

I couldn’t care less if any particular individual went to private school, many of my best friends did. I just don’t think that the institution of elite private education can be justified – I readily welcome any attempts to justify it to me via the student paper (I haven’t got a letter yet).

I think that private education is a clear and violent violation of our professed valuing of equality of opportunity, and I cannot really see a relevant difference between distributing better education to those who come from families who can pay for them and distributing this social good on the basis of race, gender, or shoe size. Being born into wealth, like being born a woman or Welsh, is an accident of birth that should not define your chances in life.

I don’t think that it is satisfactory to say that a desire for excellence requires that there be private schools. If anything, the private sector takes money, resources, and the students most likely to succeed out of the state sector. Furthermore, if the injustice of private schools was more vigorously argued for and people were more convinced of the moral case against them, then it is possible that people will be inclined to support more progressive taxation and greater educational investment. Hence increasing the levels of excellence in the state sector. We would have more money for excellence if we just decided not to educate the least talented 5% or not care for the oldest 5%, but this would be unjust. No amount of excellence can legitimise injustice.

Neither do I think that it is satisfactory to say that parents just want the best for their kids and so everything that they do for them is unfair. It is true that there will always be tutors and people willing and able to pay for them, but this does not mean that we can ignore and even celebrate the aberration on our collective conscious that is the existence of elite institutions conspicuously and unashamedly distributing significantly better educations (the most important social good, remember), on the basis of the ability to pay. Not everything that makes one child better off compared to another is necessarily unjust. For example, studies have shown that kids who were read bed time stories do significantly better, but parents should be encouraged to do this.

Parents must be able to show partiality to their children, but this must be within the realm of what is just. Elite private education, I think, definitely falls outside of this realm. Either we should accept this fact or just stop pretending to care about equality of opportunity.

Those people who campaign for free university education, should instead campaign for greater justice in the primary/secondary school sector. Maybe not by seeking their abolition, that’s not politically viable and would probably overburden the state sector if done immediately, but at least by seeking the removal of their charitable status, that entitles them to £100,000,000 worth of tax subsidies.


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