Free education, the middle classes and a radical education policy – a class analysis for Corbyn and the student left

I wrote this for Novara FM – you can read the final version on their site here, this is an unedited and slightly longer piece which fleshes out some of the points a little more.

Corbyn’s election has transformed the political landscape for the left and given a new sense of optimism and importance to the free education demo on the 4th November. Removing tuition fees completely is a massive potential vote winner for Corbyn amongst young people and should provide a key rallying point in 2020. However, the pseudo-permanent elephant in the room in talking about higher education is class. I say this not because gender and race do not matter in accessing education (they do and, ultimately, they cannot be understood separately), but because politically the dominance of the, primarily, white and male middle-class over higher education goes unaddressed and we need to tackle it head on. This matters for the student left in how we formulate our demands and it matters for Corbyn both electorally and crucially in the driving ideology which underpins a radical left approach to education. Here’s the problem and some proposals in five steps.

  1. When it comes to free education, the (student) left doesn’t talk about HE as a middle-class dominated domain

The most prestigious forms of higher education remain dominated by, and culturally geared towards, the middle classes. Nothing new here then, but politically this matters. The student left shies away from talking about this, something which comes out in that powerful but anachronistic slogan/chant – “Education for the masses, not just for the ruling classes.” Education in its state organized form, is neither the preserve of the ruling class, nor has it ever really been defined or created by or for the working classes. It is also already a mass system (participation is now close to the 50% target, 47% of 17-30 year olds in 2013-14, and it’s actually over 50% for young women) that Blair set back in 1999.  This is a system which is riven fact by a de facto binary class division with working class students overwhelmingly concentrated in the former polytechnics: the binary system of higher education set out by Robbins in 1963 is, in truth, alive and well. Higher education, and state education more generally, has been a central domain for advancement into white collar middle-class employment and then increasingly ensuring that people’s children achieved the same status. It is that intergenerational link which is increasingly under threat and here there is political hay to be made.

  1. The weakness of the middle class right now is politically powerful and free education counts

Free education is a policy which, pre-election at least, actually had relatively little support amongst the general public (though note the support for grants and loans is different…). This needs to be acknowledged and examined but is probably misleading about the political potential of free education as a policy. If we look at how incomes have developed across different social classes over the past 30 years, what we see is a growing gap between the managerial and higher professional class and the rest: the top-end of the middle class is pulling away from lower-level professionals. A lot of the current policy coming out of Cameron-Osborne HQ is designed to prop up middle-class social reproduction – look at the announcement on housing last week. Under the last government the academies programme was quietly used to convert private schools which were suffering financially post-crisis, private school use has also fallen across the North.

The latter point might seem like an obscure point, but it isn’t: the flip-side of these policies is the Tory awareness of the vulnerability of the middle class. If that is true, then, whatever the survey data say about support for fees, there is serious scope to manipulate these anxieties from the left and not simply from the right. Moreover, these are not just anxieties: if wage inequalities between Piketty’s ‘super-managers’ and the rest of us continue to grow there are political problems ahead for the Conservatives. The battle to be had is about framing, the Tories know this and Cameron taking up the ‘good right’ rhetoric last week indicates both a response to Corbyn and an acknowledgement of the deep fissures which run right across the British socio-economic structure.   We need to undermine this by calling their bluff, but also by putting forward an alternative which deals with some of the same anxieties. Free education should be one plank in allowing us to do just that.

  1. Manipulating “middle class” aspirations/anxieties whilst retaining a deeper critique of education as a culturally elitist and classist set of structures

Let me be frank, I am not saying the middle class should (or would) be the main beneficiaries of a free education policy but these insecurities are there to be played on. In Chicago the fight against Charter School reform and associated gentrification has become a multi-racial and multi-class issue, which entails treading a very careful path. Including the white middle class had to be done in such a way that they do not take control – it must not become a campaign of privilege, but it is crucial to acknowledge that power means sitting around one table. In the UK, when educational reform has been at its most radical it has taken a path which has taken advantage of working and middle class dissatisfaction to push for major reform. Ending selection at 11 through the intensely problematic but nevertheless radical move towards comprehensive schooling was one key example of this. In doing this though, we need absolute clarity about the need to challenge the exclusionary and ultimately violent nature of middle class control over educational norms. We don’t want to embed middle-class social reproduction, ultimately we want to abolish it, and to do this we need to go beyond talking about funding. Selina Todd has talked about turning Oxford into a comprehensive: this is where we need to start from and this is where we need to push. Attempts at educational reform which leave the elite untouched will fail. Oxbridge (and to a lesser extent the Russell Group) provide so much of the norms surrounding what counts and matters about learning. These judgements are flawed and arbitrary. There is nothing more violent than imposing forms of culture and knowledge of associated with an elite and building an education system which deliberately and systematically classifies people on the basis of this.

  1. Fighting anti-reformist reforms and subverting old political assumptions

Free education needs to be a rallying call for a long-term, deep critique of education policy. What we are really learning to do here, is to fight for anti-reformist reforms and this requires a new language. Fighting the government’s re-booted discourse on social mobility is a key site for the kind of battle we face. Individual aspiration is, as I have said elsewhere, a blind alley for the left. Social mobility structurally (I’m not talking about the individual level) is not a good thing – it is predicated on accepting and, crucially, legitimizing inequality. If we want to use it as a term we need to transform its meaning. We need a to create a language of collective ‘aspiration’ and we need to underline that this means attacking entrenched privilege at the top, not just ‘compensatory’ measures which aim to ‘improve’ the educational attainment of the working classes and people of colour. The real battle in education is about institutional hierarchy and how that combines with curriculum to reproduce social structures. What we define as ‘knowledge’ and learning is embedded in an institutional hierarchy which primarily serves to reproduce class, racial and gender inequalities on the employment market.

  1. Free education and beyond: what we are asking for is life

And this brings us back to where we started – because the position of many on the student left, including myself, is as products of this educational system built on middle-class cultural norms and practices about learning. It is hard to see how alien and exclusionary higher education is from the position of someone who is in the second or third generation of going to university. For the 50% of people who still aren’t going to university before they’re 30, and it is mostly men, we need an alternative. The student left may be institutionally weak (though stronger than for a long time!), but they’re a whole lot stronger than young people in work, apprenticeships and other training schemes. We want grants and free education – but fundamentally what we are asking for is life – we want a fully-funded transition from childhood to an autonomous, (fully-)automated luxurious livelihood. Alongside our call for free education must be a vocational alternative which is fully-funded and offers secure livelihoods thereafter. Ultimately we have to smash the boundary between vocational and ‘academic’ forms of knowledge but in the meantime a demand of 5 years of fully-funded education or training will do. We need a pragmatic language to talk about education which can draw a range of people in without losing a radical critique which wishes ultimately to demolish the structures and cultures that remain deeply violent.

The old curriculum has to go. The white middle class and largely male monopoly on what counts as knowledge has to come to an end. Hierarchies of institutional prestige need to be eroded. Education has to be free in every sense.

This is the task we face. See you on the 4th November.