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Protests Grow in Britain to Tax Corporations, the Rich, to Fund Free Education

starbucks protest england

Free education disrupts elitist values within the current state, creating a radical independent space to formulate new questions that critically assess this system,” Katherine Stanley tells me.

“But with tuition fees and the increasing privatization of the institution, the government is creating a learning environment where students see studying as a means to future earnings only, [and] in this way the government is reaffirming the current system.”

Stanley was a co-organizer of Tent City University, a free and open educational space initiated at Occupy London in the fall of 2011. Now she is a visiting lecturer at a London university.

“Corporate funding, together with the institution's growing managerial tier erodes the very idea of free thinking," she continues, and "generationally, over time, this is a disaster for an education that complements a criticality within society. Unless education is made free, innovation and creativity in society as a whole are threatened."

Calls for free education have intensified across Britain since a December 11 demonstration, called "Cops Off Campus," which demanded lowering fees that make education exclusive, reversing privatization, removing corporate influence from universities and democratizing the university structures.

The nationwide protest came in response to three consecutive days of police repression, and was called to demonstrate the link between state violence and austerity policies. The broad base of issues coalesced around the same core question raised by Stanely: whether universities are critical thinking communities or neoliberal businesses.

With media focused on the London demonstration, thousands of students, academics and protesters took to the street opposing the violent attacks on education.

“I think movements to reverse this movement towards corporate education should start in the universities,” Ed Emery, from the music department at SOAS, University of London, told me during the Central London protest. I spoke to Emery after his Ceilidh band played by the locked gates of Senate House, University of London's main building, while police remained inside at the behest of management.

He said there were straightforward ways for universities to become more inclusive. "All lectures should be open to the public, all lecture rooms should be made available when not in use," he said. "Plus overall, we need to prioritize working class kids, instead of the middle class and rich kids – the ones that can afford the current £9,000 annual fees."

An example of the ways un-free – and uncritical – education furthers corporate interests is the current debate on fracking in the UK. During the UK Shale Gas Environmental Summit in the fall, supposedly independent academic and scientific bodies pushed the industry arguments to frack in Britain.

But closer scrutiny into the scientific and research funding showed tight financial ties to the industry they were assessing. The conference’s chairman, John Howe, director of sustainable development for University of Central Lancashire, was being sponsored by Cuadrilla to look at the impact the same firms drilling would have on the North East of Britain.

The scandal has parallels with Oxford University’s decision to allow oil giant Shell to sponsor its new Geoscience laboratory. And in this case, the company involved with Canadian tar sands extraction could even have a supervisory role with PhD students.

But the British frack company Cuadrilla has gone further than just sponsoring education. The company’s Chairman Lord Browne wrote recommendations that guided the British government's sweeping changes to higher education in 2010. Browne’s report set no limits on what students could be charged for their university educations. It also advocated increasing corporate funding for universities.

Before working for the government in an unelected advisory role, recommending cuts to public services including increasing tuition fees, Lord Browne was best known for his capabilities as chairman of BP when the company caused the worst ever oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the report, Browne stressed how the recommended changes would improve higher education. Instead, teaching standards have since been judged to have decreased. Meanwhile, the core justification for Browne’s report was based on his adherence to the austerity narrative: arguing higher education funding from the state was not affordable and that money must be found from students and corporate sources.

As many people now know, and more each day are coming to understand, this is simply not the case. “Free education: Tax the Rich” was one of many banners visible at the recent London student demonstration, offering one glimpse into the ways Britain could reverse the privatization of education: by asking the rich to pay a bit more.

£69.9 billion ($115 billion) is lost annually on corporate tax avoidance in Britain, according to a 2011 analysis by the Tax Justice Network. If those taxes were collected, the government could afford to pay the tuition fees for 1 million students – double the highest national intake – and still have £42.9 billion to invest in other public services. This calculation is based on the £9,000 ($14,800) currently spent on three-year courses.

Yet this is not the only way the UK government could afford free education. Returning the focus to Lord Browne and Big Oil, the British government currently plans to subsidize the fracking industry with a 50% tax break. Why not end that tax break and plow those funds back into eduction? Any number of British corporate giveaways could be scaled back to pay for the nation's schools, from the Trident Nuclear Submarine program to Britain's rampant arms industry sales to ending bank subsidies and bailouts.

The proof that the money is there, if the political will is there to find it, was demonstrated by Germany. Across the country, tuition fees were introduced over the last decade, peaking at a cost of €500 per term. But due to protests and public opposition, the fees were scrapped completely.

“When they were introduced the idea was to provide a better standard of education, but nothing changed, or if anything, learning conditions deteriorated,” says Nana Schnitzner. Native to Germany, she studies in London and was arrested as part of the first "Cops Off Campus" demonstration, the week before the national day of action on December 11.

“There was no accountability of where the money went, so in a review they were scrapped. A great deal of this change was due to the student protests, especially around Bonn,” Schnitzner explains.

Germany is not alone in offering free education; students in Argentina, Brazil, France and many northern European countries do not pay any fees. Within Britain, too, those studying in Scotland go to university free. This is due to Scottish devolution, where the relatively new Scottish Parliament voted to continue free education north of the border.

What would have happened in Germany if authorities had continued to push up the costs of education? “I think tuition fees would put many people off going to university in Germany,” Schnitzner says. "In comparison, I think continuing to increase the fees makes British universities more elitist and creates a different approach to learning. No one has the freedom to learn what they would like.”

Originally published on occupy.com.

 

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