Education Has to Be Free at the Point of Use. Here’s Why.

I wrote this piece a couple of months back, and as it’s a bit spicy and reads more like an article than my usual stuff I’ve been sat on it ever since. But, a general election has been called, and we’re on for the fight of our lives. It’s no secret that I firmly believe that Labour is the only option for a fairer society, that works in favour of all of us, rather than a wealthy few. Register to vote here, and vote Labour on the 12th December. I hope this article will make you think about why that is the right choice.

It’s September 2017, and I couldn’t be more excited to be packing for my first term at Durham University. Against all the odds I’ve finally made it, after working harder than I ever have during Sixth Form. I’ve done the IKEA shop, had a room in halls confirmed and chosen my modules, everything is prepared.

It’s October 2017, and I’m right in the middle of freshers week. I’ve probably spent a bit too much money so far, between buying a freshers wristband, paying the JCR levy*, and spending on food and drinks at welcome events, but I basically had to do this in order to take part and make friends. I receive confirmation from my department of the texts I’ll be studying this term, and there’s a lot more of them than I expected. Nonetheless, I wander down to the university bookshop in town, only to find that these books range from £10-£40 a piece. I start worrying more about the money I’d spent on pints so far, thinking I really should have saved that for all these books I need now.

It’s January 2018 and by now I am used to being completely lost in lectures because I bought second-hand copies of all of my texts and I don’t have any of the right editions. I spend more time flicking through pages to find the right quote than actually studying. I’ve also had to learn to adapt to a world of formal dinners and balls, having spent the first one I went to watching around the room in earnest because I didn’t even know what order I was supposed to use the cutlery in. I like dressing up in fancy clothes though, and it always feels that bit better to have found them for a few quid in a charity shop.

It’s May 2018 and exams are fast approaching. I am terrified. I spent Spring Break having a hard time with my mental health and continuing to work 32 hours a week in order to save for the post-exams season and the holiday I had planned in the summer. This meant I didn’t have much time to study, and the study time I did have was limited, because there aren’t many dedicated study spaces like public or university libraries in rural Cumbria. I returned to university and burned myself out almost immediately, to the point where I was falling asleep in the Students Union in the middle of the day.

It’s September 2018 and I’ve moved into my first student house with my best friends, and I couldn’t be happier to get out of the halls environment. I’ve had to move in a month early though, and this means I’ve lost a months income in my full-time summer job. I end up going to Milan on a short budget trip on my own because I get extremely lonely and depressed, and travelling is my main hobby at the time. I wear 3 jumpers to bed when I return in favour of paying to use the central heating.

It’s March 2019 and in a fit of panic about failing my degree after writing some mediocre essays I make the decision to stay in Durham for Spring Break so that I can dedicate more time to studying, and have access to university study spaces. I then have a second fit of panic and realise that even if living in Durham is at times cheaper than living at home due to reduced cost of living and not having to drive as much, I can’t justify going from 5 weeks of full-time income to nothing. So I get the first job I can find, and go back to working in a café.

It’s May 2019, and while I think I’ve made the right decision to stay in Durham, I am exhausted. My new job is a trashfire when it comes to workers rights, and even as a union member I decide that it’s too temporary to create any disputes, because all I need is quick cash to keep myself going. I work 8 hour days, usually without breaks, running around a busy environment for minimum wage. I experience a lot of sexism in the workplace, skip meals because I’m not allowed a lunch break, and I’m physically and mentally exhausted at the end of the day. I quit when term starts again because it’s the worst job I’ve ever had. I’m still going to bed with extra layers on rather than paying to use the central heating.

I only realise now, as I get more comfortable with the label “working-class”, that going to Durham was the biggest culture shock of my life. I was surrounded by people who were well-spoken, well-educated, and well-dressed, and I was none of those things. I grew up in “the arse end of nowhere”, I’ve got a pretty strong Northern accent, and before Durham I’d only ever worn formal dress to prom and weddings. My family aren’t on the breadline, but we’re far from “well-off”. I went to a comp that couldn’t afford to buy us textbooks, where the news of the day was who was having a scrap and where, not who was going to Oxford and Cambridge. My upbringing was lightyears away from so many people at Durham, and that was so jarring for me.

I think a lot of the time we take the attitude that we should have enough money to eat, pay rent, pay the bills, and not much else. We accept that it’s more difficult for low-income students, because that’s always been how it is and that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. We chastise working-class people for going on holiday, or going on nights out, or going out for dinner with friends, but we forget so easily how important these things are to social life or mental wellbeing. It is almost impossible to make and retain friends at university whilst not spending money, to the point where it’s almost essential that working-class students can access that extra amount of disposable income, because those who come from wealthier backgrounds get this served to them on a plate.

So, for me, abolishing tuition fees is not radical. Establishing a national education service, just as we have a national health service, is not radical. Returning to a system of EMAs and maintenance grants in favour of loans, hey, it’s not radical. Because it is systematically unjust that I will graduate with over £80,000 of debt whilst still needing to work to supplement my income from loans whilst some people will graduate with £40,000, £27,000, or even £0 of debt and never have to work a day until they finish their degree. This is not just “how it is” or “how it always has been”. It’s a political choice made to exclude the working-classes from accessing higher education; it keeps social inequality and the class system thriving. Another way is possible, and it’s all here.

*Durham has a collegiate system, and your college becomes the place you live, socialise and do sports/societies. In order to take part in all of the activities you must pay a fee called a “JCR levy”, which goes to the student committees who organise all of this. There is little to no transparency about where this money actually goes however, and it varies wildly from college to college, which is problematic when the college you are assigned to is almost completely random. Moreover, it means those (like me) who end up not engaging much with college and get more involved with university wide societies and sport lose out on a lump sum of money at the start of their degree.

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