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Rupert Read: Start funding universities fairly

Green policies would end the commodification of higher education and base a stable economy on a functioning ecology, says Rupert Read.

Recent years have seen a systematic erosion of higher and further education in the UK and the benefits that they bring, not least through learning, culture and pleasure.

Starting with the Labour Party’s introduction of tuition fees, successive governments have increased the debt burden on students. The harms of this are twofold. First, inequality increases. Second, higher education is commodified, with universities operating like businesses and only those degrees that lead directly to highly paid jobs achieving significant funding.

The worst aspect of commodification is its effect on students’ thinking. They become consumers, rather than curious participants in a process of intellectual growth; they spectate on their education rather than co-creating it; absentee rates increase. Students end up getting less out of the process, while paying more.

We need to start funding universities fairly. Green Party policy is to abolish tuition fees and reinstate the education maintenance allowance, increasing access to universities and re-orienting the academy around research instead of profit. We would fund this by scrapping projects such as the HS2 rail line and Trident. 

Success in higher education should be measured not by the monetary return on research, but by broader social benefits. The Green Party would scrap the Research Excellence Framework and replace it with a peer-reviewed body that respects researchers’ abilities to define their aims and priorities.

Linking the impact of research to economic growth is an attack on academic freedom; Greens do not believe that growth is good, in an economy already rupturing the limits to growth. We would introduce stricter codes of ethics, to tackle commercial bias in research and prevent donations from regimes and institutions that refuse to sign a statement on academic freedom.

The government’s cuts have harmed UK industry’s ability to innovate. By cutting the feed-in tariff and solar subsidies and selling off the Green Investment Bank, the Conservatives have sabotaged Britain’s moves to become a world leader in green technology.

Moreover, Brexit gives Theresa May’s Conservatives the opportunity of a lifetime to slash employment and environmental regulations—including, crucially, the precautionary principle, which comes to us from European Union law—worsening conditions for almost everyone present and future. A stable economy depends upon a functioning ecology.

The Green Party believes that the UK needs a swift transition to 100 per cent renewable energy. This would be funded by massive public investment, giving us the opportunity to be world leaders in the technology of tomorrow while providing good jobs across the country. Our industrial strategy would be paid for by increasing borrowing for capital expenditure, while cutting down on tax avoidance and increasing taxes on the wealthy.

The last few years have been distressing to witness. There has been a rise in angry nationalistic politics, accompanied by a decline in the public discourse, undermining our ability to hold power to account. Yet behind much of the nastiness lies a legitimate anxiety.

Economic globalisation has made it harder to protect the environment, working conditions and tax revenues from multinational corporations. The Green Party is the only party that is serious about this agenda.

Rupert Read is reader in philosophy at the University of East Anglia. He is a former Green Party councillor and chairman of Green House think tank. (Thanks to Atus Mariqueo-Russell for help researching this article.)

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight’s Election Special 2017