The announcement by Labour that, if elected, it would be making tertiary education partially free from 2019 has been described by some as a bold, radical move. The scheme would be phased in, eventually giving new students three years of free tertiary education.

Wellington New Zealand, 2006

Right-leaning blogger David Farrar called it a lurch to the left. However, some on the left are underwhelmed. John Minto pointed out today’s seven year olds would be the first to get the full three years, as Labour is going to phase it in at a glacial pace. He noted, “Labour would need to win three elections in a row before the policy came in to force.”

Factoring that in, aspirational might be the best way to describe the policy.

National’s Tertiary Education Minister, Steven Joyce, argues Labour’s policy would be unfair as taxpayers are already paying two-thirds of the cost of tertiary education and “people who go to university go on to get good incomes and get that for their whole lives.”

Equity is the latest buzz word in government circles and National are all for it, as long as it doesn’t involve touching corporate profits.  Still, Joyce is right: the middle class will benefit the most from Labour’s policy. That should not come as a surprise as this is the class Labour has been orientated to for many decades.

What you won’t see in Labour’s policy is a recognition that tertiary education in capitalist society rests on the surplus created by the working class. Workers as a class create far more wealth than is returned to them in wages. Under capitalism few workers earn even a living wage. So is maintaining the part-user-pays system more equitable as Joyce argues? Not really. The article below written by Philip Ferguson in 2011 looks at a more radical option, one where students link up with workers and recognize they owe them for their education.

Can students be radical?

by Philip Ferguson

For many people, especially on the left, the answer to this question is an unqualified “yes”. They might agree there is not much happening on the campuses in New Zealand right now, but point to big protests and even occupations over the past decade over issues like fee rises.

However, if we think more deeply about the question, the unqualified “yes” tells us more about the studentist politics of much of the left than it answers the question.

To be radical means to go to the root, to deal with the core problems of the existing society and work out a strategy to solve those problems by doing away with the system that causes them.

When looked at in this light, how do student protests over purely student issues challenge the existing order? Indeed, how do they even shed light on how university education is possible in the first place and the connection between the existence of university education and the exploitation of the working class?

At the base of most student protests over issues such as fees is the students’ idea that they pay for their own education. On the surface this seems plausible. Students pay thousands of dollars in fees and have to borrow money to do this. Indeed, many students have to borrow money for living expenses as they are not covered by students allowance and/or because it is not sufficient.

But the reality of who pays for university students’ education is very different from the surface appearances. In fact, it costs about three to four times as much to educate each student at university each year as what students pay in fees. Even with the implementation of “user pays”, university students still only pay about a quarter of the cost of their tertiary education.

So, who does pay?

Well, tertiary education is possible in capitalist society because there is a working class, a class which creates more wealth than what it is paid in wages. This surplus created by the workers takes the form under capitalism of surplus-value, a value over and above the combined value of the workers’ labour-power and the value of the machinery and raw materials used by the workers in the production process.

This surplus-value is in the hands of the employing class, the capitalists, since they own the means of production and hire the workers. But part of this surplus-value is taken by the state and then used to fund services necessary to society, such as health and education, and services necessary to capitalism such as the police, army and courts. (Of course, health and education are also necessary to capitalism too, since the bosses require healthy workers sufficiently educated to carry out the process of production, whether on an assembly line or in computer technology.)

In other words, university students’ education is funded primarily out of the exploitation of the working class. Students, of course, come primarily from the middle and upper classes and their degree qualifications are to allow them to gain entrance into the middle and upper sections of society.

Like exploitation generally, this was very clear under feudalism. Back then, peasants worked a part of the year for themselves and part of the year for their local baron and, out of the surplus created when they worked for the baron or other local overlord, came the werewithal to fund the state. Part of the peasants’ subsistence produce was also taken in the form of state taxes and by the church in the form of tithes. The universities which emerged in Europe in the Middle Ages, a product of European scholars visiting universities in the Arab and Islamic world, were attached to monasteries and funded out of the tithes and other parts of the surplus product (and subsistence) of the peasants.

It was very obvious to the small section of society that went to these universities where the social product came from that enabled their further education. In capitalist society, however, this process is more hidden, as the worker sells her or his labour-power at or around its value to the capitalist and then produces a surplus in the form of surplus-value. Their working time is not divided into two separate and clearly-visible parts of the year. Instead, they are involved in a single labour process during which they simultaneously produce the value of their own existence and a surplus-value, which forms the basis of capitalist profit and government spending.

So, if we understand how university education is funded in class societies, and in particular how it is funded under capitalism then in and of themselves, student demands for more subsidies for their education are not radical. They are essentially demands that a greater chunk of the surplus-value created by the exploitation of the working class should go to fund the education of the middle and upper classes. (In this sense, university education is different from secondary education and from public health, as these are used by everyone regardless of class.)

Needless to say, the studentist left doesn’t tell students these facts because they fear it would get in the way of recruiting students on lowest common denominator politics. Or, in some cases, they themselves are blissfully unaware of how tertiary student education is funded.

(I should add that the situation today is also somewhat more complicated, as many students now work on an ongoing basis, not just in their holidays; this work oftens involves some surplus-value creation. Nevertheless, what surplus-value students create is still far less than what they consume, in the form of tertiary education, for free.)

A genuine Marxist approach, therefore, attempts to explain to students how their education is even possible, where it is primarily funded from and tries to get them to enter into reciprocal relations with the working class. In particular, given that the working class funds most of university students’ education, the least that students can do is support workers in struggle. This is the material basis for unity between students and workers.

Saying this won’t win Marxists popularity contests among all students, but it will attract the genuinely radical students. The students who just want more for themselves will go on to yuppie futures, screwing over the working class, but the students who understand who really pays for their education have understood something fundamental about the operations of capitalist society and can become genuine radicals.

Does the fact that university education in capitalist society is funded out of the exploitation of the working class mean that Marxists favour fee rises and making students pay the full cost of their education, as happens in many American universities where students may pay up to $50,000 a year in fees?

No, not at all. For instance, in a socialist society, university education would be free and entirely funded out of the social surplus – ie the surplus produced by the society as a whole.

In a socialist society, workers would not be an exploited class. The mass of the people, collectively, would own and control the means of production. They would work the 20 or so hours a week which was necessary to produce the goods they needed in order to live and they would likely decide to work some extra hours to create a surplus to fund free public health and education and whatever other public services were necessary.

With a much-reduced work-week and a huge surplus, because none of it would be going into capitalist profits, anyone would be able to avail themselves of the opportunity of going to university.

Although the studentist left often argues that existing fees prevent people from working class backgrounds going to university, this is not really the case; what prevents workers from going to university is the fact that capitalist society requires most people to work 40, 50 and more hours a week, without which there would be no private profit for the capitalists – and no surplus-value to fund the advanced education of the middle and upper classes.

The problem of access to university is structural to capitalism, not a product of current fee levels. If anything, there are more students from working class backgrounds, and more Maori, Pacific and female students, after a couple of decades of “user pays” than there ever were during the Keynesian “free education” period.)

In a socialist society, moreover, study and work may well be combined. Students might do socially useful work while at university in exchange for their free education. They might, after graduating, go and work for a while in rural areas or in poor parts of the world, assisting development there.

The key thing is that, in a capitalist or socialist society, there is some kind of quid pro quo. In other words, if workers are creating the surplus that funds university education, the students who benefit from this owe something back to the class that has made their tertiary education possible (under capitalism) or the society that has made their tertiary education possible (under socialism).

In the 1960s, the most politically-advanced students understood the connection between their education and the exploitation of the working class. They continuously tried to link up with the exploited classes, rather than only concentrating on campus issues.

In many Third World countries students who became radical went out of the campuses and put their skills at the service of the workers and peasants. They helped organise in factories, in poor neighbourhoods and among peasants, working to establish radical unions, workers’ and peasants’ militias and revolutionary movements.

In the capitalist heartlands, radical students joined with workers in challenging the system, most famously in France in May-June 1968 where a worker-student upsurge brought the country to the brink of revolution. In the United States, students used the universities as organising centres for building a mass movement against Washington’s barbaric war in Vietnam.

Across the world in the 1960s, genuinely radical students demanded a different kind of university – a university whose resources were used not to train the next generation of managers and scientists for capitalism but whose resources were used to fight for a different kind of world. This concept was sometimes called the ‘Red University’, a term actually derived from the 1968 struggles of students in Yugoslavia to challenged the privileged elite that ran the supposedly socialist system there and transform it into actual socialism.

That understanding of radical students in the 1960s and early 1970s is largely absent today.

The only way students can be radical, however, in any meaningful sense of the term, is by challenging the very system of exploitation which underwrites their own privileged position. By putting their skills at the service of the working class, whose exploitation makes universities possible in capitalist society. By doing so, they can prove themselves worthy of free tertiary education and make an alliance with the only force in the world that can actually bring about free access to higher education for everyone – the working class.

The answer to the increasingly commodified university that capitalism is imposing is not a non-commodified university island in a sea of commodification, something which is not possible anyway. The only answer is a truly free university in a truly free society.


  1. Phil F says:

    A lot of students will only get one year of free tertiary education. Even if Labour were to get elected in 2017 (not looking likely so far), all the students who are already at university would be lucky to get a single year (2019) and any student starting then and just doing a bachelor’s degree in three years would be finished before the second year of free tertiary education was introduced.

    That anyone would get excited by this is a sign of just how low horizons have fallen.

    But, more importantly, it shows the problem with a simple ‘free tertiary education’ position. Given that university is, and will continue to be, way disproportionately, the preserve of the middle and upper class, it is a demand for the privileged layers of society to get a free lunch – or half a free lunch, since they will still have to pay for postgrad study.

    Labour is, in social composition, a middle class party. And this is a middle class demand. Free stuff for us!

    Moreover, will do they do it anyway? If the Nats go on the rampage against them and business opposed the idea, it’s highly likely that Labour would back off. It’s also quite possible that a further slump in NZ any time over the next six or seven years would be used by Labour to cut back the plan.

    Labour is also absolutely committed to capitalism, so it also operates within the constraints of profits. Since the capitalist class are not currently inclined to splash out on the middle class a chunk of the precious surplus-value which they have exploited out of workers, Labour’s policy is limited to three years phased in over time.

    The other thing is that the state can’t just stand by and let student debt grow. They have to do something.

    Meanwhile, although students see themselves as currently hard done by, this is not really the case at all. The big majority of their tertiary education *is already free* to them. It’s the workers who produce surplus-value who essentially pay for it. But when was the last time the thousands of students who benefit from this thanked the working class? Or put their skills to the service of the working class?

    It’s more important to campaign for free primary and secondary education and free health care, because we all use these services, than free tertiary education. But if people choose to campaign for free tertiary education, they need to be asked a rather important question: “What about the workers?” And they need to be told, “You want the workers who produce surplus-value to pay for your education. OK, that’s fine, but what do you propose to give back to the working class in return?” My guess is that, at present, such questions and statements would be met with blank faces.

    The really radical students, the ones who might become revolutionaries, are the ones who recognise the need for such reciprocity/solidarity, not those who stamp their feet for free stuff.

    Phil F

  2. Thomas R says:

    I made a Facebook post sort of suggesting that if education was looking to serve the working class more, this billions for this scheme should be directed into primary and secondary education – with a significant overhaul of secondary education so that even students who don’t stay right through to 18 may have a basic grasp of sociological concepts, philosophy, that kind of critical thinking and engaged literacy – rather than the rote learnt semi literacy of disinterested teens forced to read Shakespeare.

    A freely accessible higher education system is a great goal, but it’s context can only make sense in an economic and social system where generalised free access is the norm – ie a socialist/communist one.

    While I’m a postgrad humanities major I think the question of what universities offer a workers movement (as though NZ has one of those in any real sense) I think the best that academics have to offer is to not be actively useful to Capital. The area for actual relevant academic work which could serve communists is basically non existent in the academy – and plenty of sociological study is used to deploy whatever policies Capital requires. There are some areas of the Arts which have very little use to capital – but, most of the time, little use to anyone else either. Though that is probably a preferable position to the delusion that academics are ‘radicals’ in any sense merely due to their profession in the academy… academics can be radicals much like any other person can adopt a radical position – but it’s fairly unrelated to their paid employment.

    At any rate, students role in revolutionary politics is a bit of a dead end question. That’s 3 years of someones life followed by, often, 40 years of waged labour. The only reason students get such a focus by much of the left – hostile or otherwise – is that Marxist Orgs seem to be incompetent at organising at their workplaces (hell, many socialists seem to avoid day jobs altogether) and can only convince wide-eyed undergraduates to sign up to their sect. No wonder workers often dislike radicals – the majority of them today helicopter themselves in to other peoples struggles, put other peoples livelihoods on the line in the interest of “reigniting” class struggle, then fuck off again – finish their degrees – and move on with their lives.

    This is getting rather off topic so I’ll stop here, but it strikes me that one of the largest problems facing the whole of the NZ Left – especially the ‘activists’ – is the total acceptance voluntarism as though that’s what Marxism reveals.

    • Phil F says:

      I agree with all this Thomas!

      I think it’s kinda weird how the far left has become so disconnected from the working class and working class communities.

      For all its political faults, the old CPNZ was deeply embedded in the working class and that helped it attract some serious intellectuals and also allowed it to develop some organic intellectuals too.

      This is not the case in *a lot* of other countries by the way. It’s not true in most of the Third World, and it’s not true in a lot of Europe (especially southern Europe) either. One of the most interesting things about my experiences in Ireland was seeing how a radical political movement becomes hegemonic in significant working class areas – eg the absolute dominance of the Provos in West Belfast.

      Of course, the Provo leadership sold out and was able to do so without a big internal struggle. But that *initial* process of becoming the hegemonic force in a big chunk of a major city – even today SF is the biggest party in the whole of Belfast – was fascinating. Imagine a movement that said it stood for a socialist republic and was engaged in armed struggle against the NZ state becoming the dominant political force in South Auckland or West Auckland. It was quite an achievement.

      And it wasn’t done by parachuting in, but by arising out of the actual working class population, developing a whole layer of organic intellectuals – none of the Provo leaders went near a university. most of them would have been lucky to complete three years at high school and their education in socialist ideas took place in prison.

      It seems to me that that is the challenge in NZ, albeit the long-term challenge. But with better politics than the Provos.

      That would also enable us to attract the best students.

      At its best, the old SAL started to do that (but its politics were too weak, crippled by its absurd position on the Labour Party, its errors around Maori oppression, its obsession with ultra-legalisms and its blind following of a US-based cult). But it went into industry and began to recruit a layer of blue-collar workers and attracted a new layer of students in the process.