Alex chats to campaigner and Manchester University’s Education Officer Harriet about the Free Education MCR movement – what free education means, why it affects us all, and their debut event with Akala and others on Saturday 25 April
The phrase ‘Free Education’ has become solely associated with the campaign for government-subsidised university places since the introduction of fees in Higher Education. But it’s not just finances – there are other ways that our learning is restricted in all parts of the education system from schools to community projects. It is these, alongside the fight to scrap student fees, that Free Education MCR are looking to tackle.
What telltale signs can you think of that show us our education isn’t free? The introduction of fees, which transform education into a product that we buy and sell, rather than skills development that allows us to think critically, creatively and practically about how we want the world to be? Or the lesser-talked about colonized education system (for which the Black Minority & Ethnic [BME] students’ attainment gap, explained below, is just one piece of hard evidence)? How about the systematic neglect of arts and humanities education in favour of subjects deemed more “economically efficient”? I sat down with Harriet, one of the key members in Free Education MCR, to find out more about the organisation and their hopes for next week’s all-day community event, Free Education MCR ft. Akala.
“Making education cost has changed the shape of knowledge”
Harriet has spent her recent years as a campaigner and as Education Officer at the University of Manchester Students’ Union, fighting for free education because privatising university learning (asking people to pay fees as opposed to the government subsidising it) has changed both what education is and what it means. Today, education has become a commodity, a product we consume to get a job and fit into society’s plans for us – but this was not always the situation with our education system. Tuition fees were first introduced across all UK universities in 1998 and since then, steadily rising fees have gone hand-in-hand with the transformation of the purpose of education. “Making education cost has changed the shape of knowledge: it has gone from being a tool for collective liberation and reducing inequality to being something people feel they need to buy into in order to secure employment as a ‘valued’ white-collar worker, just because it’s what the perceived majority (white, middle classes) are doing.”
But many aspects of the Free Education MCR campaign are not exclusive to Higher Education, with privatisation affecting all parts of the education sector. Notably, youth and community projects who rely on government support are suffering as they cannot afford to continue without sourcing funding from other private sources. Without steady funding, youth projects all over Manchester are forced to refocus their efforts on securing funding rather than delivering quality youth work. The solution to this so far has been for youth centres to apply for funding from private companies, meaning that community identity is often compromised in order to meet the requirements for the much-needed support. The companies are motivated to fund these centres because of their needs to meet their Social Responsibility targets.
Whilst it is great that youth groups are able to exist at all, these larger organisations mean that long-founded youth centres with a strong community are being threatened because they cannot support themselves whilst offering a free service. These closures are especially harmful because initiatives like youth and community centres are so often set up to support those who are continually failed by the formal education system. Not only do youth and community projects provide alternative creative and practical approaches to learning that are better for certain people’s development, they also deliver the kinds of pastoral support that are not available in schools where students are taught to obey rather than question; taught who to be at the expense of who they are.
Akala, one of the big names speaking at Free Education MCR’s debut event, looks to address this with a discussion about the ban of words like ‘bare’ and ‘innit’ in schools, which he argues is both classist and racist. The idea that there is only one correct way to speak the English language is elitist and, as Harriet (quoting Akala) pointed out, actually counter-creative and -critical. To limit how the language should be spoken to one particular dialect misrepresents what it means to be English and crams it into the American stereotype of British people sipping tea and saying please and thank you after everything. As I am sure anyone who has lived in the UK could account for this is not the reality. The question that arises from this is how can it be justifiable for the education system to value one dialect over another? As Harriet explains this line of critical thinking can be applied to many more aspects of the education system and to the conclusion that the system functions to engender white middle-class, male-stream, able-bodied norms and values. The issue identified here is that those who do not comply to these norms and values are automatically devalued by the education system.
What many like Harriet involved in the Free Education MCR believe is that this devaluation contributes to issues such as the BME attainment gap. However, issues like the BME attainment gap do not have one singular cause. Instead such issues occur due to the existence of a number of inter relating factors. As Harriet went on to discuss currently BME students who achieve the same grades as their white counterparts at school-level are 11% less likely to get a first or 2:1 at the University of Manchester, and as much as 26% in the Faculty of Life Sciences. While devaluation is one factor to consider as research conducted by the NUS Black Students Campaign suggests the gap can also be attributed to the existence of a colonised education system, lacking especially black, but also women academics.
During our conversation Harriet evidenced the abysmal representation of Black people in academia. According to research recently conducted by HESA there are currently 18,000 academics in the UK and only 85 are black . To put it into context that is just over 0.5%. Women’s representation is also concerning. In the University of Manchester only 20% of professors are women and this is not at all a deviation of the norm. Due to the absence of legislation Higher Education institutions have the academic freedom to hire who they want. One of the unfortunate results of this is that the education system remains dominated by white middle class males.
“There needs to be pressure to employ a representative staff and take on a quota of people to ensure that a) we are given equal opportunities and b) all groups have the chance to influence what and how we learn, so that the formal education system reflects the needs of society and not just one group within it.”
Free Education MCR are campaigning for a representative curriculum and support efforts to make history more inclusive in schools. The community event will also feature speakers from Curriculum Enrichment for the Future and The Foundation for Science, Technology & Civilisation who, among other things, teach Indian and Persian histories to supplement Eurocentric schemes of learning. The thinking behind a representative history is that a liberated education is one where everyone can see, learn and live in the ways with which they identify. Your opportunity to hear these groups speak about the issues surrounding a colonised education and any issues discussed here is on Saturday 25th April at Manchester Academy for Free Education MCR’s launch event.
“What Free Education MCR are fighting for is a reinvention of education,” says Harriet. “This involves changing the economic, social and political aspects of education in order that it benefits all of society and enables us to tackle huge social problems like inequality.” Citizens will benefit from free education because it would involve broadening out education to represent and legitimize the learning styles and skills of all people. Free education is not about glorifying academic education and forcing everyone to go to university. It’s about funding a multitude of practical, technical, vocational, creative and critical projects, so that everyone can find something for them. This would also reduce the fear amongst small organisations like community centres that they will have to close, as well as providing thousands of education providers with a steady and secure livelihood.
On top of this, Harriet pointed out that with the reduction of government funds in the education system comes the loss of democratic power for citizens: if you don’t pay, you don’t get a say. This inevitably and disproportionately affects and disempowers poorer communities. “Living in a democracy, something as central to our society as education should be as democratic as possible and with the introduction of fees and privatisation, our ability to have a say that means something gets reduced. This means that those in power are getting more powerful and those who are meant to be catered for in education systems are actually getting less say in matters that directly relate to them.” This is not the way education should be and Free Education MCR are looking to change this for the better by reinstating the power over education to local communities. I am hopeful and excited to see what campaigns and events this group have to offer in the future. They are an important force in changing Manchester’s (and perhaps even the rest of the UK’s) education system for the better.
-Alex Webb and Harriet Pugh