A World to Win: Making education a commodity perpetuates inequality

Student rally in Sydney in 2014. Photo: Pip Hinman

In our “A World to Win” series, Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance seeks to give voice to the ideas and demands of radical young people involved in the struggle to make the world a better place.

This week, Leela Ford discusses why education should be free.


The right to education is inscribed in the United Nations' Universal Declaration on Human Rights. It states that primary, secondary and university education should be as accessible as possible to all human beings.

However, as many young people in Australia know, access to education is far from guaranteed.

Capitalism has converted education into an important commodity. Despite being necessary for self-advancement and entering many areas of the workforce, education is sold to us.

By putting a price on education, differences in quality and social standing are both revealed and intensified.

Primary and secondary schools are divided into public and private institutions. Generally, private education and access to the most elite schools is sold as the better option. The larger fees are meant to bring with it better education and support systems, as well as access to a series of old boys networks that span the echelons of the business and political elite.

Recently, Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten declared that "for people on $40,000 and $50,000 and $60,000 dollars a year, penalty rates are the difference as to whether or not they can afford to send their kids to a private school”.

There is a clear expectation that if the possibility exists of being able to afford a private school, you should send a child their for their own sake. Yet many Australian families are struggling to simply meet the costs of public education.

The Australian Scholarship Group found that in 2011 one in three families in New South Wales were struggling to cover the cost of their child's education. State School's Relief revealed that in 2013 more than 8000 children in Victoria attended school without adequate clothing and shoes.

Class divisions are intensified among children and teenagers throughout their schooling life. Children as young as 6 feel their families are judged according to the school they attend. At school, they are judged for not being able to afford the same shoes or pay for certain school activities.

Children are being forced to consider their status in society from an early age and making concessions based on what they know is within their economic reach. Studies show that those from disadvantaged backgrounds are choosing subjects that incur less costs for their family rather than on the basis of interest or academic skill.

Putting a price on education intensifies the strain felt by Aboriginal families and those supporting children with disabilities.

Those already at a disadvantage are excluded from extra learning, from education in areas with higher costs and from the basic right to attend school with a full stomach and a complete uniform.

Free education would allow families to choose from a larger range of schools, taking into consideration its location to minimize transport costs. Free education would ease the social elitism that is fostered between those who can attend the most prestigious institutions and those who cannot. Free education would also dissolve the exclusivity of access to elite schools that breed nepotism and inequality.

Restrictions on access to education are even starker at the university level. University fees in Australia have been steadily increasing since the abolition of free tertiary education in 1989. Now, the federal government wants to further push up costs through fee deregulation.

This would bring the Australian fee system in line with the US where research conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles found that, in 2013, 67% of students who turned down offers from their preferred university did so because they were unable to afford the staggering fees.

Deregulation would allow universities to set their own prices. It would mean university students would pay up to $100,000 for a degree. It has also been suggested that banks and financial firms should pick up student debt to better enforce its collection.

Currently, living as a student is financially difficult. Full-time students have very little time outside of university in which they can work. Being forced to work long shifts to sustain ourselves through our degree impacts on our ability to learn due to fatigue and increased stress.

An estimated two-thirds of all university students are living below the poverty line, according to research conducted by Universities Australia. Student welfare obtainable from the government is minimal and restricted, meaning it largely fails to sustain students while they study.

University fees lead to the exclusion of students from impoverished backgrounds. Although student loans mean that fees do not necessarily need to be paid upfront, the idea of accumulating a large debt is a big turn-off for many, particularly if they already have family debt to contend with.

Degrees that lead to higher paying jobs, such as medicine and law, are far more expensive than others. Poorer students are therefore forced to stay within a certain socio-economic layer, while those who can afford expensive degrees are guided into high-income jobs.

The promise of hard work leading to better economic positioning under capitalism is farcical given how the system works.

Under capitalism, free education is necessary for self-development and for greater access to employment opportunities. As long as capitalism commodifies education, it is preserving the very structures that perpetuate class division.

And as long as this continues, we will oppose it. We demand free education now.

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