“If the prospect of debt forces students out of the education ‘supermarket’, society as a whole will suffer, says Michael Mansfield
In the wake of the US civil war, President James A Garfield, a radical Republican, observed: “Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be maintained.” He had been a tireless anti-slavery campaigner advocating civil rights for African-Americans and most of all the need for an educated electorate.
These sentiments have been poignantly echoed as the rationale for various instruments of international human rights law relating to education. The UN committee that oversees the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) has stated in unequivocal terms: “Education is both a human right in itself and an indispensable means of realising other human rights.” The committee emphasises the vital role education plays in empowering those groups and individuals who are vulnerable and susceptible to exploitation. In other words, we are dealing with the quality and dignity of life, not products on a commodity market.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the normative terms of the covenant itself are in explicit and mandatory language: “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education”.
These provisions have to be read in conjunction with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966, to which the UK was a party, and ratified by the UK government in 1976.
There appears to be collective amnesia, or wanton disregard, over these obligations. We have regressed from free education, to modest interest-free loans, to huge loans attracting interest. We are not dealing with rocket science here.
If a younger generation cannot, or is afraid to, incur a massive millstone of debt, their right of access to education is being severely curtailed, if not extinguished. This is a generation whose economic future is bleak in any event. Universities have had their teaching grants cut by 80% and in July the axe fell upon the research students awards scheme.
No wonder Oxford’s vice-chancellor made clear that the university’s reputation as a world leader in higher education is being threatened by cuts. The funding gap, especially for international students, is the “single biggest reason why those to whom we make offers turn us down”, he said.
On the domestic front the draconian cuts have unsurprisingly forced a large number of universities to charge the maximum fee of £9,000 a year, saying that £7,000 barely allows them to break even. A mild arithmetic calculation in relation to average UK household earnings of £22,000-£23,000 shows how impossible the prospects are for vast swaths of the population.
Last month the Office for Fair Access (Offa) reported that a quarter of universities had failed to meet their targets to admit substantially more disadvantaged students. Sir Martin Harris, its director, illustrated the shortfall by highlighting the position at Cambridge, where in 2009-10 12.6% of students came from homes with an annual income of less than £25,000.
It is worth a moment’s reflection upon the grandiose statements of intent put out by the coalition soon after the general election in 2010. In section 31 it was proposed that “public funding should be fair and follow the choices of students” and should be judged against the need to increase social mobility, the impact on student debt, a properly funded university sector, improvements in the quality of teaching, advancement in scholarship, and attracting “a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds”.
But then along came the market entrepreneur the following October in the form of the Browne report, which suggested universities should charge what they like. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems are wishing none of this had happened and the Labour party is wishing it had not voted against a rise in fees from £3,000 – which it now does support up to a level of £6,000.
This is not the place to develop alternative economic strategies, but the debt crisis is not the fault of the public sector, let alone higher education. The shadow economy, derived from highly speculative and unregulated transactions, is yet to bear its lion’s share of financial responsibility.
No politician dare face down the vested interests of big business with initiatives such as the financial transactions tax (Robin Hood tax), the abolition of the bonus culture, and a crackdown on tax evasion together with corporation and individual tax avoidance.
Besides the ICESCR, there are other instruments enshrining rights to education. Section 3 of the UK Human Rights Act 1998 gives effect to European Convention rights. One of those provides that “No person shall be denied the right to education.” European case law suggests that states are under an obligation to afford an effective right of access to institutions of higher education that exist.
Interestingly, these issues are to be canvassed in a judicial review by two students challenging the increase in tuition fees with the assistance of Phil Shiner and the Public Interest Lawyers Group. Once again it is left to the efforts of ordinary people to raise fundamental challenges based on basic values.
Education is not a commodity and students are not consumers in a supermarket choosing which can of knowledge will attract the most wealth.
• Michael Mansfield QC is a candidate for the chancellorship of the University of Cambridge. Tonight he will be speaking at the Cambridge Union Society.”