Education can engender critical thinking, innovation and creativity, providing a platform on which people can shape alternatives for society. Arguably, the need to amplify blue sky thinking has never been stronger: the globalised society faces multiple systemic crises, such as climate, inequality and debt; not to mention the systemic failures with democracy, usurped by corporate domination.

Free and critical education could be an engine to remedy and reverse these problems, but it is currently accelerating in the other direction. The Westminster- City of London axis is the driving force behind the suppression of free education in England and Wales. In universities, increasing tuition fees are central as students are becoming consumers rather than free explorers of academia; as is the violent crack-down on university protests, challenging the idea of universities as autonomous political zones; but this is not only about higher education.

In schools, the National Curriculum has moved away from critical thinking, arts and creative subjects, in its place there is an emphasis on preparing children to become workers, returning to Victorian values like learning by rote. In effect, education is geared to serve the needs of big business, maintaining the system for the 1%. We need free education to unleash society’s potential and build alternatives.

The crises of education

Studying a degree today costs an average of over £40,000, accruing debt that will last most graduates into their middle-age. This price tag seems only set to rise, with ongoing plans to sell off the student loan book, plus plans to further increase the tuition fees, beyond their current £9,000 per year cap.

We are creating a ′Debt Generation’, as Fanny Malinen explained in an article for Contributoria: graduates under the new student loan system will be locked into debt that could lead to both personal catastrophes and severe problems for the economy.

Studying at any university was free across Britain between 1962 and 1998, with grants to assist with living costs. In 1998, the New Labour government ended this by implementing tuition fees, a plan attempted by the previous Conservative regime, but deemed too unpopular. This Conservative government did though start the freezing of grants, paving way to the nearly totally loan-based system of today.

New Labour set the price for a degree at £1,000 per year, a figure they tripled in 2003. Despite pledges to reverse these measures from both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, after coming to power in 2010 the coalition U-turned, tripling fees again to £9,000 per year.

Fees put the cost of education onto the student rather than the state. This changes the way we view education: as a personal investment rather than a chance to expand the mind and learn to enrich the whole society.

The bet is, will a degree lead to a job that can provide enough to repay the debt: a very difficult choice in today’s ’precarious’ world. Of course, those from wealthy backgrounds can still choose whatever course they want.

Consequences of this commodification include that creative subjects, critical thinking, languages and particularly non-European languages have seen their admissions decrease the most sharply, with students opting instead for “degree courses which lead to lucrative professional careers.” In a country already ravaged by massive inequality, it seems almost perverse to gear the education system towards amplifying this money-focused culture.

Speaking to university lecturers, I have heard examples of the impact of the commodification in action: especially how students are becoming less critical. One lecturer from University of London recounted that a student told how they felt they had already gained their degree before it had commenced, when the loan application paperwork was processed.

The decision on whether to gamble creates a barrier to poorer students. If they cannot take on the debt the only chance is to qualify for a rare scholarship. Critical economist John Weeks sums up this class injustice: “The rich can be dumb and help themselves to a university degree, while the poor must qualify as ‘clever.’”

The latest tuition fee rise was authored by Lord Browne, a non-elected senior government executive. He is also chairman of Cuadrilla, the fracking company promised tax breaks to start a fracking revolution in Britain.

Not only could Browne be accused of taking with one hand from the public to give to himself, but his company are also engaged in another serious issue with education: its lack of independence from corporate influence.

The government is presenting studies to argue it will be safe and beneficial to frack the country. But investigations show that the fracking industry sponsors these very studies. This contradicts the post-Enlightenment cornerstone that science should be independent. Cuadrilla’s involvement includes financially backing Professor Joe Howe to research the socio-political benefits of fracking in the North East. Howe is director of the University of Central Lancashire, he also chaired the UK ”Shale Gas Environment Summit″ in 2013 and advises the UK Environmental Agency.

Shell’s sponsorship of Oxford University’s ‘Shell Geo-Science Laboratory’ is yet another example of how big oil can invest a small proportion of the tax breaks they use to direct education. This gives the oil giant direct influence, including an oversight over what PhD can and cannot be undertaken. As this company has interests in fracking and tar sands, it seems logical to think that through corporate education’s impact, future studies of these highly polluting industries are being watered-down or silenced.

Even in schools, oil companies are muddying scientific integrity. The oil giant BP makes series of flashy lesson plans which teachers can download. In a lesson about ’Science at Work, students will ‘learn’ how BP shipping executive believes “A healthy ocean is a key to a sustainable universe”. Neglecting how the company caused the biggest ever marine based oil spill. In “Climate Change Student Booklet”, teaching material from BP, the students are presented with the impression that climate change ‘might be happening’, and that it ‘may be’ caused by humans.

Big oil spends billions to create climate change doubt and denial – it is obscene that these destructive corporations should be allowed to influence and toxify students’ minds as part of this project. (BP school lessons here: sign-in required)

It is not only in science, where there are examples of how education is being used to maintain the elites’ power. There have been broad criticisms that the government is rewriting the history of World War One on its centenary to glorify war and justify future British wars and imperialism.

Former Education Secretary Michael Gove has come under particular criticism, including repeating the myths and propaganda that justified going to war in 1914, such as Germans were ′ruthless′ and ′expansionist’.

More Broadly, Gove pushed history to focus even more on white, upper class men, which reaffirms their current privilege and power within the current structure. Delving deeper into Gove’s conflict of interests, there is a sinister potential explanation for him wanting society to champion war over peace. He is a member of the Henry Jackson Society, a think-tank that pushes military intervention in the Middle East to push the interests of capitalism, especially weapon makers and big oil.

Eminent education academic Ken Robinson is a leading voice on both the problems with Britain’s school system and solutions. He highlights how schools need to move away from expecting children to all develop at the same time and place, plus that endless rote is a waste of time. He suggests having lots of 40 minute lessons means the flow of creativity is constantly broken.

He asserts that at school there should be no hierarchy of subjects. At the moment maths is considered far more important than music, for example. Another barrier to learning, Robinson explains, is there are too many tests based on getting the ‘single right answer’, with a focus on conformity and therefore suppressing intellectual risk-taking.

To summarise these problems together, it seems that education has become a production line or conveyor belt, which pushes conformity and stifles creativity, also pushing the narrative and interests of the corporate elite.

Another education system is possible

You do not need to travel far to see that education could be done in another way. Using the powers devolved in 1998, Scotland has maintained education free from tuition fees.

Economist Joseph Stiglitz spoke recently in Glasgow about how Scotland is on the path to a new period of Scottish Enlightenment, due to the absence of fees and its rejection of much of the shifts of the English/ Welsh education system. The enlightenment period of the 18th Century was characterised by world-leading output in science and technology, based on the growth of progressive and inclusive education.

Another country close to home and similar in size to England and Wales combined shows that it is possible to scrap tuition fees even after they are introduced. Like Britain, Germany in the past had universally free education. But over the last decade it brought in tuition fees across many of the federations, only to be abandoned due to strong public objections.

Like in Germany, Britain has the means to fund university without tuition fees. The funding could come from ending corporate tax evasion, scrapping trident, stopping subsidising the big oil or stopping aggressive military conflicts. And these are only a few ways that Britain could re-address the growing inequality to fund free education and other policies to benefit the people and planet.

How can we free education?

To unleash education we need to reverse the policies, many discussed, that education should serve business or worse still be manipulated by business. Instead, we need to celebrate how it could serve society.

This means advocating for state-funded universal education, with no fees. It would mean returning to the values of independence for academia by removing corporate sponsorship.

From my own background working in schools, I am aware how it would be beneficial for far less tests to be imposed in schools, and rather than stressing the whole system on maths, English, Science and IT, share the importance of all subjects. Philosophically, I think many teachers would agree that the school system should enable students (and teachers) far more ownership of the learning experience.

One leading example of unleashing creativity, already happening schools is the new spoken word poetry subject. This new programme trains poets to become teachers. In the classroom the lessons are child-centred, giving the student the opportunity to create from the soul. The impact of these lessons is that the emotional confidence creates more academic enthusiasm.

Making free education happen

But to gain this shift, most importantly the whole of society needs to begin to value free education. Comparing Germany to England/ Wales, the reason that they have returned to free education is that there was a broad mass movement against tuition fees. In Britain we do not yet have this movement.

One up and coming focus for this potential shift will be the rally on Wednesday 19th November called: “Free Education: No fees. No cuts. No debt.” Interestingly the National Union of Students, which was to a great extent marginalised in the anti-tuition fee protests, has only since April this year taken a position backing an end to tuition fees.

Another means to create a shift is to replenish the idea of life-long learning, not least as the new fees are most deterring mature students. To achieve this, one proposal could be to open up lectures in universities to the general public. Additionally we could utilise the space of schools and universities when they are empty to enable more free public educational opportunities.

Organising free talks, workshops and skill-shares on a range of subjects, and often by academics has been achieved in spaces created by the Occupy movement such as the Free Education Space, the Bank of Ideas and Tent City University. These spaces are inspiring and show the value of critical thinking to young and old alike.

It seems that rather than not being able to afford free education, the country cannot afford not to make education free.