Grants to Loans: Osborne is using student debt for social control

walking to work

This article is an opinion piece written by a member of the Free University of Sheffield; it is not an official statement.

“Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society. When you trap people in a system of debt they can’t afford the time to think. Tuition Fee increases are a disciplinary technique, and by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalised the disciplinarian culture. This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy.”

This famous quote of Noam Chomsky is so pertinent because of George Osborne’s recent announcement that, among a fresh wave of cruel austerity measures, living grants for the poorest students will be replaced by loans. These grants are important as they allow students from low-income families, often without a tradition of accessing higher education, to go some way to being able to afford university life, without the added burden of years of heavy debt.

Many have recently pointed out that greater student debt isn’t even of much economic benefit to the government, as it will have to absorb all unpaid debt. This will be a significant amount as around three quarters of students will still be repaying into their 50s, when it is wiped, 30 years after graduation. However, Chomsky rightly identifies the more deep-rooted problem of increased student debt, and why student loans are actually such a valuable investment for the government.

Debt is an incredibly effective form of social control, and this policy is as much about power as it is about a certain vision of economics. Debt is used to pacify the population into conformity and to quell resistance. Chomsky points out that, if you leave university with swathes of debt (upwards of £44,000 in the UK), your priority is unlikely to be fighting to change the systems which makes that debt necessary for a successful career or prosperous life. Instead, you are likely to work within those systems to make enough money to pay off your huge debt and live relatively comfortably. Eventually.

“They can’t afford time to think.” Graduates literally can’t afford time to think. They literally can’t afford the time to be critical of the system that has burdened them with such huge debt. They can’t afford to imagine a life outside of it or to fight to forge a better society. They feel that they must get a job as soon as they graduate and begin chipping away at the weight of debt on their shoulders.

“By the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalised the disciplinarian culture.” It is easy to realise the disciplinary nature of education from cradle to college: homogeneous uniforms, hierarchical organisation, authoritarian teachers, etc. Higher education, however, is more subtle in its disciplining of students. It uses debt to repress the creativity, imagination and activism that the human mind would be capable of when free from the crippling constraints of wage labour and the employability agenda which university forces onto students.

“This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy.” Ultimately, this is what it comes down to: further entrenching this system of neoliberal economics, politics and society which thrives on consumption. With graduates forced into work by the burden of their debt, they quickly become another uncritical cog in the neoliberal machine. Too stressed, preoccupied or busy to imagine a society beyond neoliberalism, the machine keeps on functioning.

Student debt is a barrier to higher education for the poorest families, and the policy to abolish living grants is scandalous for this reason alone. However, we must be aware of the government’s more cynical use of student debt to control its population. Maybe many students will never repay their debt to the economic cost of the government. But they are making a great investment by creating generations of graduates who, as Noam Chomsky suggests, cannot even afford to challenge the system on which those with existing political and economic power continue to thrive.