The National Education Service as a Radical Vision for Free Education

This blog posts explores some of the radical potentials of demanding a National Education Service within the Labour Party and beyond. It is based on a talk given by a WFFE activist to the Non-Aligned Leftist Forum society on ‘What is the left’s vision for education?’

The National Education Service (NES) was a policy proposed by Jeremy Corbyn prior to his election as Labour Party leader. It is now, nominally, Labour’s flagship education policy. However, little has been written about it beyond a couple of articles by Corbyn. The recent National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts conference, hosted at Warwick by WFFE activists, further developed those ideas, making them both clearer and more radical.

So what is the NES all about? There is an explicit analogy to the NHS and welfare state – the NES is to be ‘cradle-to-grave’ and ‘free-at-the-point-of-use.’ It is also sold as providing skills and lifelong learning in order to allow workers to adapt to economic and technological change. This is framed as both a way to give workers ‘opportunities’ and a way of providing skilled workers to businesses in order to boost productivity. Taxation to pay for the NES is justified on this basis; according to Corbyn, companies should be willing to pay ‘slightly more in corporation tax’ because they recognise the ‘business case for investing in staff.’


The framing of the NES is a classically social democratic one: the state will deal with producing and reproducing human capital and social infrastructure which will benefit capital – in turn capital is expected to contribute to the costs of these policies. There is a tension here; education is described as a ‘collective good’ which provides working class people with ‘opportunities,’ yet the NES is also framed as an ‘investment’ designed to aid productivity and capital accumulation. Social democracy has been extensively criticised for its symbiotic relationship with capital; this relationship allows improvements for (some) workers to come at the expense of continued alienation and exploitation, and the exclusion of more marginalised groups from the settlement. Indeed, the NHS (which the NES is posed as analogous to), is a prime example – it has in large part relied on an imperialist ‘brain drain’ of healthcare professionals from the global south, and like all policies of the 1945 Labour government, was premised on the profits of the Empire. Thus, there is always a tension at work in radical anti-capitalists’ defences of social democratic policies and institutions. How can anti-capitalists defend policies which are explicitly designed to maintain the conditions for exploitation and accumulation?

We must always point to possibilities beyond what we are ‘defending.’

We can see this at work in the experiences of student activists. As activists, we ‘defend education,’ protect ‘public universities,’ and fight cuts to services. However, we have also found it necessary to point out major structural problems with universities as they exist now. This is why ‘free education’ has come to encompass much more than abolishing tuition fees. I would argue it has more often come to mean a set of critiques of the university; to call for ‘free, democratic, liberated, etc.’ education is to point out how the social democratic and neoliberal universities have systematically failed to meet those criteria. Campaigns like ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ have revealed curricula to be Eurocentric and calls for a liberated curriculum have shown how they regularly exclude the work and perspectives of people from the global south, women and non-binary people, people of colour, disabled people, and LGBT people. In practice such demands mean a very significant reorganisation of universities’ teaching, admissions criteria, hiring practices, etc. Other activists critique the university as a capitalist enterprise – one at the forefront of exploitative labour practices, landlordism, and the creation of lifelong debt. Free education activists have been at the forefront of labour struggles within universities and many are now helping organise rent strikes. I will return to these critiques of the university later and suggest how they relate to the NES.

National Education Service – some key concepts

Several important aspects of a National Education Service come out of Corbyn’s writing on the subject and subsequent discussions.

  • The Comprehensive University – this would mean ending the division between higher and further education institutions and the selective and exclusive nature of universities. This is similar to the principle of comprehensive schooling – the same education, for everyone, with no entry requirements. In practice this means abolishing universities as they currently exist. For example, Oxford University would merge with Oxford Brookes as well as local further education colleges; in their place would be a single institution open to, and democratically accountable to, the local community and students. It is clear how this would start to break down the elitist concentration of capital and resources in institutions like Russell Group universities.
  • Modular learning – based on the idea that you don’t have to be a student and study a particular degree course in order to learn about something. This becomes possible with the breakdown of HE/FE divisions to form the comprehensive university; anyone can study a module offered by any local teaching institution. In my opinion the implications of this for mass, working class education are massive, much more so than the entry of – some – working class people into universities. If, for example, you’re doing a course in plumbing or carpentry at an FE college in Coventry, why shouldn’t you be able to take a module in history, English literature, or sociology at the University of Warwick? Is there any good reason for this absolute division of mental and manual labour which says that a carpenter or plumber can’t also take an interest in history, poetry, or feminist theory?
  • Lifelong learning – strongly related to modular learning. A move away from the ‘student’ as something you are full-time for a few years – people should be able to access education as a significant part of their life, alongside other things, at any stage in their life. Importantly this should not just be framed as a way to ‘retrain’ workers in the face of ‘economic change’ but as a right to education as a transformative, creative, political, or even ‘just’ an enjoyable activity.
  • Ending ‘elite’ education – alongside the comprehensive university there would be a parallel process at the school level to provide a truly comprehensive education. This means no more grammar, free, academy, or private schools. Further, schools should not try to model themselves on the cultural and academic norms of (former) private and grammar schools.
  • Universal access and childcare – arguably one of the most laudable parts of Corbyn’s proposals for the NES is his focus on providing childcare as well as financial support for those wishing to study. As with many other activities, many women’s ability to access education is limited by childcare responsibilities. Patriarchal society imposes the burden of social reproductive labour mainly on women. Social reproduction is the labour of maintaining the household, raising children, supporting (male) workers – it is vital to the continuation of capitalism but generally not recognised or paid for as such, forcing women to take a ‘double shift’ of waged ‘productive’ labour alongside unwaged ‘reproductive’ labour. Free childcare is thus a vital feminist demand and the NES is an important framework in which to raise it.

Critiques of the university and of students as a ‘privileged’ group

It is important to begin this section with the caveat that students are by no means a universally privileged group and that universities can be sites of impoverishment and oppression for many of us. However, at an institutional level there are ways in which students are privileged over non-students. I was struck by this when I recently visited one of the main public libraries in Sheffield. The sociology section was one small shelving unit which was pretty small and contained mostly entry level or popular works (including Russell Brand’s ‘Revolution’!). We can compare this to our university library at Warwick which has more on any given aspect of sociology than the Sheffield library had on the subject as a whole; and that library is only serving around 25,000 people.


Security barriers in the library – the installation of similar barriers in Bologna was cause for a student occupation and clashes with the police

Universities must be understood as fulfilling a particular function in class society. They exist to produce knowledge necessary to the functioning of the state, capitalist corporations, cultural institutions, the military, etc. They also reproduce class divisions by producing the next generation of managers, administrators, and technicians of capitalism. Older elite universities like Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham have always been ruling class institutions and have accumulated huge pools of capital on that basis. For example embodied in their endowments or in grand old buildings. Newer elite universities like Warwick have forged their identities as ‘business universities;’ here the link to capitalist industry is explicit and, in many departments, includes direct corporate input into curriculums.

The University of Warwick has a long history of collaboration with local business elites, including historically monitoring of students’ and academics’ links with local worker struggle.

When coming across large accumulated pools of capital we should always ask where it came from and what social relations – indeed, violences – allowed it to be accumulated. Marx wrote in Volume 1 of Capital that ‘capital comes [into the world] dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.’

Rhodes Must Fall In Oxford, for instance, highlights that libraries and even whole colleges at Oxford are literally built on the proceeds of slavery and colonialism. More broadly this is true of many ruling class institutions and of social democratic institutions which are largely funded by the accumulated profits of imperialism.

Universities largely began as elite institutions for the children of the ruling class. The picture has been complicated now by mass entry of working class young people into Higher Education – in many ways a genuine and important victory for the class. However, access to university is still stratified by race and class. More fundamentally the rollout of universities is based on an expansion of elite institutions to be more ‘inclusive’ – they are still selective and the ‘best’ universities are only looking for the most ‘bright’ and ‘talented’ working class youth to bring into a middle and upper class institutions. Working class experience of entry into university often reflects this, and graduate earnings map more closely to social class prior to university than to the fact of being a graduate. One study found that:

Graduates from richer family backgrounds earn significantly more after graduation than their poorer counterparts, even after completing the same degrees from the same universities.

This is where the idea of a comprehensive university comes in. It would be non-selective and not oriented purely to producing ‘employable’ graduates but to lifelong, flexible learning for all. It would effectively mean the abolition of the university as a distinct institution. Thus universities’ often state-of-the-art facilities and extensive academic libraries would be open to the community at large and control of universities’ capital would be democratised and shared with chronically underfunded FE courses.

No more highly securitised libraries and study spaces, no more key-card access! Access to academic libraries and online journals for everyone!

Working class education, the NES, and grassroots struggle

The NES, as I have conceptualised it here, is more than a policy proposal – it is a potential theoretical approach analogous to ‘free education’ which relates to many struggles, demands, and principles. As such I think it is important to think beyond the Labour Party and policy-makers so I’m going to highlight a few struggles which I think point towards the principles of the NES.

Students in Bologna have sought to put into practice the demands suggested above about free access to libraries and study spaces. When management sought to set up barriers to further enclose their library they physically removed them and reclaimed the space through occupying it. As our statement of solidarity with the students states:

The occupation was an absolute success: the space was crowded and busy, and people were even seen studying in the corridors. Without notice, the Chancellor called the police a few hours after the occupation started, who immediately charged the people inside, destroying tables, chairs and other studying material. To resist, the students started a demonstration around the University which was also violently dispersed by the police forces. Nevertheless, assemblies continue to take place, and the fight will continue.

In addition to expressing our solidarity with the fight against enclosure of study spaces and police presence on campuses the statement noted that:

Warwick’s own first occupation was in the library in 1969 in solidarity with students at the LSE who were fighting against the installation of metal gates around their campus. These gates were designed to increase management control over the LSE and create a more exclusive gate-kept community. Warwick stood against such moves then, and we stand against them today.

The borders between ‘university’ and ‘community’ are not fixed, and how porous they are is a matter of struggle as the examples of the Bologna and LSE occupations demonstrates.

As was already highlighted above, Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford can be seen as advancing a critique of the university. The campaign is seeking to get the statue of British colonialist and racist Cecil Rhodes removed from Oriel College. They have also points out other parts of Oxford built on the proceeds of colonialism – e.g. the Codrington Library, built using funds left in the will of a notorious slave trader. This campaign is important in advancing a critique of elite universities as they relate to capitalism, the ruling class, and colonialism; it is also telling that Oriel made the decision not to remove the statue after an incredibly wealthy individual threatened to cancel a £100m donation.

Such institutions really ought to be abolished and their control by wealthy individuals broken. Let’s expropriate racist multimillionaires and tear down their beloved statues.

In this context, I would argue, dissolving Oxford University into a city-wide comprehensive would be a profoundly radical expression of class and racial justice which no amount of greater ‘inclusion’ of working class students and students of colour into the uni could match. The occupation of an empty Wadham College building by student activists and its conversion into a homeless shelter is a good start!


Finally, if we see the NES as promising a right to free, universal, lifelong education then the labour movement has a vital part to play in realising this. The length of the working day has always been a central part of class struggle – our labour-power is a commodity which capitalists purchase and then use to produce value. What this means is that they want to get as much out of us as possible for as low wages as possible. If it was possible they would like to pay us barely enough to live on and to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Of course, there are physical limits that prevent this, but the question of how much a worker needs to work in order to earn enough to live is also a question of the relative power of workers and bosses.

Bearing this in mind the labour movement can assert a right to lifelong intellectual development and education in a concrete rather than abstract sense – the right to sufficient free time to take courses alongside work, and of work that does not take so much out of us that we have no capacity to think, reflect, or read outside of work hours. Struggles over the working day, wages, and perhaps even a basic income can provide the material basis of this right.


In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he [sic] wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

Karl Marx, The German Ideology

I want to end by highlighting the radical implications of a system based on lifelong modular learning rather than universities as 3-year degree factories.

In my mind it points to a post-capitalist society, one in which divisions of mental and manual labour are broken down, as are the class divisions which enforce this divide. A society which truly enables people to be well-rounded, free human beings. A National Education Service, in social democratic or radical form, will not give us that society – but it does point in the right direction. As student activists in California wrote in their Communique From An Absent Future:

We demand not a free university but a free society.  A free university in the midst of a capitalist society is like a reading room in a prison.

I would argue that a creative rethinking of the institutions we take for granted in capitalist society, even superficially progressive ones, can help us fight for that free society.


Labour Off Campus

This blog is the opinion of an individual, not WFFE. We’re a broad campaign and include everyone from Labour party members to Anarchists, and encourage a variety of viewpoints.  We welcome responses – get in touch via FB if you want to send us something.

Luke Dukinfield

milliband and thrift

Labour proclaim themselves as a party of the people, and yet don’t allow students in to an election talk on their own campus unless they’d been pre-selected from a privileged elite clique.

Let’s dispel the myth that Labour care for people, that they’re pro-worker and not, as they stated, “aggressively pro-business” (i.e. pro the capitalist class) and especially that they care for young people, whose benefits they have threatened to cut if jobless, just as they promise a paltry concession of 6K fees for students.  A reduction in fees is immaterial; it does not alter the fact that we will be economically encumbered by tens of thousands of pounds of debt, and forced to forfeit a portion of our income through a Graduate Tax, for seeking out the betterment of ourselves and society through education.

Whilst you shake hands with the same Vice Chancellor who’s mediating the massive exploitation of our staff whilst his own obscene pay aggrandizes year on year, disregarding student welfare in the wake of police brutality, and resorting to fabricated claims of personal attacks and harassment to delegitimize a struggle for liberated and free education, denigrating his own students as yobs, we’re still suffering.  We’re still suffering in the wake of an increasingly bleak, precarious job market enforced by austerity and neo-liberal economics.  We’re still suffering within the sterilized, desolate building site that defines our campus, incessantly establishing new conference and corporate space as Warwick Conferences usurp our SU for their own ends.  We’re still denied, excluded, disparaged, extorted, exploited, operationalised by our consumptive habits, relegated to our human capital, pursued by security, bludgeoned by police, oppressed, forgotten, afflicted, lost – did you comment on this Ed?  Did you think of us as you shook Thrift’s hand and delivered your speech to the elite few?  Did you think of the people not in that room?

Amid your talk of ‘British principle’ did you think of those in Calais subject to degradation and violence in the makeshift camps, did you think of the migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who will be further restricted access to resources, provisions and benefits, such as University, by your policies – benefits reaped through their continued oppression?  As you made your tour of the grandiose halls of WMG, did you see the pools of oil staining the walls?  Did you see our suffering in the shadows and recesses of its splendour?  Did you think of us in the midst of your orchestrated speech and lustrous rhetoric?  Did you feel our stress, our pressures, our worries, our anxieties, our despair, our dejection, haunting the radiance of these buildings?  Did you feel our turmoil as we struggle through a frenzy of revision which calculates, assesses, determines our worth, our entitlement to a future that has already been taken from us, that is already indentured, monopolized, commodified, owed to another?  Did you hear the tumult of our thoughts, did you hear the tempests beyond the comfort of this room, beyond these police lines?

Do you hear us, see us, feel our hardships, our struggles?  Are we an afterthought in the revision plans for trident?  Are we a thought at all, except as we are productive?  How dare you step on this campus, shielded by those who assaulted and throttled and arrested and traumatized us, who persecute the most marginalized in our community every day – how dare you come wreathed in the spectres of our pain.  How dare you come with your hollow promises, entreating us to vote for you, when you have betrayed us, and care nothing for our suffering.  Warwick, for you, is a site of prestige which you can exploit to further your election campaign, to advance a political gambit enveloped in illusions of Tory antithesis.  For us, it is pain, raw and chronic, overwhelming yet unseen.

Do you hear us, see us, think of us?  If you will not hear our voice, do not expect our vote.  Do not expect our allegiance.  Expect nothing but resistance.  The only ‘socialism’ you have ever mustered has emerged from the organized, militant struggles of the working class and oppressed.  We do not seek conciliation with you, or compromise, but recognise you as the enemy affording us concessions to placate and subdue our rebellion, as bathed in the blood of the imperialist adventure of WW1 which Labour supported, of the striking workers in India you shot, of those you slaughtered in Iraq, of the striking dockers you mobilized the army to suppress, of those suffering in the NHS under the privatisation you inaugurated.  We expect nothing from you; we demand nothing.  We will demonstrate, disrupt, strike, occupy, blockade, sabotage, organize, and take it for ourselves.

We expect nothing from you.  You have always been our enemy.

Solfed Milliband

Are Labour’s plans to cut annual tuition fees to £6000 really that great?

Originally published by Joe Jenner on his blog


Labour have hoped to regain some of its traditional support from students with its new flagship policy aimed at reducing fees. Ed Miliband confirmed that Labour would reduce tuition fees from £9000 to £6000 a year, if the May election brings them into power. The resultant reduction in university funding would be filled by what some people are calling a “tax raid” on high earner’s pension pots. But as the Tories do everything in their power to alienate young voters, Labour’s pledge to reduce fees seems quite appealing – or so it would seem.

Labour’s new plan has been criticised by many on the Right as an “attack” on pensioners. But those effected by the policy would more likely be those earning more than £150,000 a year. But closer to home, it’s been warned that this plan will make it harder for our increasingly commercialised universities to balance the books, and lead to increases in tuition fees for already grossly over-charged international students. However, views have certainly been mixed: The Institute for Fiscal Studies claims that in the short and long-term this policy would help to reduce government debt, and have little impact on university finances.

But those heralding Labour’s new plans as ground-breaking, or dare we say progressive, fail to see this policy for what it is – a concession.  Although Labour plan to reduce annual tuition fees by £3000, ultimately they are still maintaining their pledge to tuition fees. Juggling between angry debt-burdened students and the neoliberal political consensus means that the struggle for a free, and accessible, education system is less likely to mobilise into mainstream politics. By reducing the fees slightly instead of campaigning for their abolition, the whole concept of paying for education is legitimised.

Since 2010 we have seen Labour pragmatically jump between “free education” and the current neoliberal and austerity consensus, with a bit of mandatory Clegg-bashing here and there. But with the news that they want to reduce fees, and in the long-term replace them with a “Grad Tax”, isn’t the whole struggle against tuition fees over?

The answer: no. A tax on graduates includes the same fundamental principle as tuition fees: that education is not a right, but a privilege. As a result, the belief that education is only for those who can afford it, will become part of the neoliberal, “common sense” political wallpaper. Labour won’t be the party for young people until it recognises that education should be free and accessible to all. Reaching out to students with its “fair” deal will not win all of them back. But neither will it result in an abolition of fees, but instead legitimise education as an individual privilege.

The proposal for a reduction in fees  is therefore not a key turning point, but a pragmatic decision mustered together to retain student support. Therefore, instead, we should be asking: how do we continue to campaign for a free and just education system now that having to pay for education has become a greater political norm?

5 Reasons the Graduate Tax isn’t a Patch on Free Education

Originally published via Novara Wire @novaramedia


The reorientation of the student movement towards a positive demand for free education brought 10,000 onto the streets in late 2014, and has continued to revitalise campaigns on both a local and a national level.

As one might expect, this emergence of the student movement has led to a mediated response from within parliamentary politics – specifically the Labour party – expressed in a form which seeks to scrap tuition fees within the boundaries of the prevailing austerity consensus.

Labour’s position on university funding has not exactly been clear, despite evidence that its membership supports free education. Amidst the confusion, Shadow Minister for Universities Liam Byrne’s favoured option of a graduate tax seems to gaining prominence. The student movement’s building pressure looks likely to elicit two responses from Labour: firstly, a reduction in tuition fees from £9k to £6k per year (probably in their general election manifesto), and then in the long term a promise to move towards a graduate tax.

A total abolition of tuition fees and the introduction of a graduate tax seems to be more possible than ever. But would it be the end of a campaign for free education?

1. We should be taxing the wealthy, not the educated.

The logic of a graduate tax supposes that every student at university is making an investment in their human capital. This investment is then supposed to pay off when they graduate and move on to a high-paying graduate job. Therefore asking students to pay for their education – either via tuition fees or a graduate tax – makes sense because they are the individual who benefits from their investment in themselves. We could take issue with this on a number of grounds.

The earnings of graduates are at their lowest since 1980 and young people are having to live through an ever growing (if not interminable) period of precarity. We should no longer assume that a university degree leads to a comfortable life. On this basis applying a graduate tax to a graduate without a future seems nonsensical.

2. The graduate tax extends the idea of individualised self-investment.

Under the graduate tax the state acts as a facilitator for individual investment in the education market, supposedly making it easier for young people to develop their entrepreneurial selfhood. This is a progression of the ‘student as consumer’ idea towards ‘student as investor’. A graduate tax doesn’t challenge the underlying neoliberal assault on education, it extends it.

We don’t fund the NHS by taxing the sick, so why should we fund universities by taxing the educated?

3. The repayment threshold could be slashed by up to £11k.

There is currently nothing concrete available on the specifics of Labour’s graduate tax, but it seems reasonable to suppose that if a graduate tax were to be introduced, it would function along the lines suggested by the influential Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

An IPPR report from 2013 recommended a 2% tax for HE graduates on any income over £10k for a period of 40 years, setting the repayment threshold £11k lower than it is for students who enrolled in the current fee regime since 2012.

Last year, an annual salary for someone working for the minimum wage was £13,124. This means that even for those graduates who left university and entered straight into minimum wage employment would pay £62 a year for their education. In other words, a graduate who leaves university and goes into a minimum wage zero-hour contract could be forced to start paying for their degree straight away. Graduates earning substantially below the living wage would be hit hard by any such tax.

Given the general crisis in the cost of living facing young people, this tax would serve only to further impoverish them in the years after graduation, and for the poorest amongst them could serve as a lifelong burden.

4. Free education means living grants.

The cost of education is not simply tuition fees. The average undergraduate racks up £44k of debt over their degree, but only £27k of that is underwriting tuition fees (assuming a three year course at the maximum £9k a year). The remaining £17k comes from the maintenance loan – from the loan you take in order to eat, rent accommodation and so on. This loan itself is often insufficient, as59% of students have jobs while studying.

Free education doesn’t only mean not paying tuition fees but also being supported in your living costs as you study, so that you don’t have to take on debt in order to live.  As long as students are expected to survive on debt, university education cannot be considered meaningfully ‘free’.

5. Free education is about more than the cost of education.

As has been emphasised so often by student campaigners over the last few months, free education does not just mean education without costs.

Issues around immigration, structural oppression, the policing of protest, vice chancellors’ pay, workers’ rights, further education and more are all pivotal to the emerging free education campaign. Fees are a good headline issue, but amongst student campaigners a deeper and more sustained understanding of what freedom means is developing.

A graduate tax is, at best, a rephrasing of the same logic which established tuition fees in the first place. It would reshuffle the burden placed upon students, rather than removing it entirely.

What Labour’s shifting position shows is that the student movement is beginning to assert some power and extract concessions from the political mainstream. Whilst a graduate tax isn’t free education, it shows that students are beginning to create lasting political momentum. If they can form infrastructures and organisations to keep that momentum going, then actual free education seems within reach.

Liam Byrne Supports Free Education?

NCAFC activists recently talked to Liam Byrne, and got him to admit support for Free Education.

This is hardly that radical given the overwhelming student support for a Free Education system funded by taxing wealth and corporations.

But despite this abstract ‘support’, Liam is committed to pretending that Free Education is impossible. This is because such an education system would the very narrow neoliberal parameters which the post-Blair Labour party seem so keen to conform to.

Instead, Labour are pushing a reduction of fees to 6k followed (at some point in the far future) by a graduate tax system.This blog on Novara wire summarises the issues surrounding a grad tax well. To put it simply, a graduate tax is not and will never be Free Education, it is more a shuffling of fiscal responsibility and a muddying of the waters.

We need to push politicians to see outside of the narrow confines of austerity thinking, and accept that there is huge support behind radical policy change. The NCAFC National demo in Byrne’s Birmingham constituency on the 28th of March should hopefully help him realise that these options are viable.

brum national demo