The right to higher education

Michael Gove’s thinking on higher education beggars belief. And not for the first time.

“Everyone has the right to education,” says the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 26). “Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”

A thriving economy, adequate healthcare, pensions, social security, and education for its citizens are what is expected of good governance. Better educated citizens contribute to the nation’s general welfare: a higher GDP, higher earnings all round, and the higher the amount available for public spending from direct taxation.

So it’s all the more puzzling to hear Michael Gove (former Secretary of State for Education and currently Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) contest such an obvious investment. Perhaps, like Bo Peep, he has lost his way. As reported by Heather Stewart in “Michael Gove mounts defence of university tuition fees” (The Guardian, 2 July 2017), Gove said:

“If we have to fund higher education, and if people who get university degrees go on to earn well, they should pay something back, which is what the current system does. It’s wrong if people who don’t go to university find that they have to pay more in taxation to support those who do.”

Gove misses the point that the high cost of tuition fees (averaging £9,000 a year) plus student maintenance (averaging £4,000 a year) are a disincentive for many – perhaps the majority – of students. Before even starting a job, a student could owe upwards of £39,000 after a three-year course. Gove also seems to condemn the concept of education as a lifelong opportunity that could revolutionise how society imagines itself and how it literally works.

Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Gove said, “I believe fundamentally that the purpose of government policy is to support everyone equally, and if you don’t benefit from a university education, you shouldn’t have to pay additionally to support those who do.” A Jesuitical argument if ever there were one, since taxpayers support all kinds of schemes – like social welfare – under which those who are entitled fairly benefit.

Finland has long been at the cutting edge of public education. Students can choose from 14 universities and 24 polytechnics and, if they come from an EU/EEA country, there are no tuition fees. Towards the end of 2017 Finland will begin to charge tuition fees to non-EU students, but senior citizens will still be able to pursue lifelong education at little cost to themselves.

In Norway, university study is available free of charge to all students, regardless of study level or nationality. The majority of undergraduate programs are taught only in Norwegian, but at Master’s and PhD level, English language programmes are common and free tuition still applies.

Denmark and Sweden only extend their free higher education perks to students from within the EU/EEA and Switzerland, meaning that students from outside these regions must pay tuition fees for bachelor’s and master’s programs. PhD programs in both countries are fully funded.

In Iceland, there are no tuition fees charged at the country’s four public universities, with only a registration fee of around €400 a year. There are no undergraduate tuition fees at public universities in Germany, and this applies to both German students and internationals, regardless of nationality. Just how Brexit (supported by the short-sighted Mr Gove) will impact the European education system remains to be seen. Without a doubt, the UK will suffer.

In the UK in 1962, mandatory maintenance grants were introduced for university and college students to cover tuition fees and living costs. In 1989 the Tories froze the grants and introduced student loans. For 27 glorious years young people benefitted from free higher level education but since 1989, the system has faced review after review and is now in chaos.

It’s time to stop using higher education as a political football and to make it free for all. As Oscar Wilde said, “You can never be overdressed or overeducated.”

Education

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