All Must Suffer as History Did: Student Debt


This is a strange argument I see from a lot of “conservative” voices online, usually in the form of a disingenuous attack on decent social and economic policy and as a defense for the “free market”. The rationale behind it is that past generations had to work hard and pay their dues to reach where they are today, so all these entitled young folk need to sit down and wait in line. They must struggle and face the same uphill battles, otherwise it is (somehow) an injustice to those who came before.

But isn’t life supposed to get better for future generations as society “improves”?

The most common variant of this argument I have seen is the derision thrown at the concept of free education, whether it’s a trade or tertiary education at a university. Even setting aside the fact that investment in further education is just that – a beneficial investment for society over time – it just seems contradictory to extol about how great society is becoming while denying the bounty of this success to the people, especially the youth who will receive and build upon it.

Sure, there are many who have taken on student debts and paid it all back. But there are also a few issues with that. First, just because they repaid their debts, why does that mean we can’t remove it for current and future students? If we have the means to do so – we do – then, with the aim of improving individuals and society as a whole, what reason is there for not making education free? It’s a very selfish argument – I had to do this thing, so you should have to as well.

Let’s take that to a stupid extreme – black people used to be slaves and suffered as such, so why should modern black people get to escape that fate? Obviously an absurd claim, and I’m not comparing the horrors of slavery to being straddled with debt (guess it depends on how much and who is owed), but the logic is similar. Conditions before were unfair and unjust, or have since become unnecessary – so we made positive changes. Why not apply that to something as simple as abolishing student debt?

Second, the growing advancements in technology and prosperity have always promised greater benefits for the people. People would have to work less, have more opportunities, and enjoy more leisure time. Future generations were promised a world in which their lives would be better than their parents – and for a time, that was true. Now, current generations are experiencing a backwards slide. Economic crashes, growing inequality, the current pandemic – young people today are extremely disadvantaged when compared to previous generations.

That isn’t some attempt at a sob story for my age group, that’s just fact.

Instead of the prosperity being shared, people who work hard for minimum reward are accused of being lazy and entitled. Realistically, many people could work a 4-day week with fewer hours, and lots of jobs out there, as explained by David Graeber, are “bullshit jobs”, redundant work that contributes nothing and has negative affects on people and business. So much potential in countless fields is lost because of how conditioned we are to simply join the “market” and follow a prescribed path.

How many intelligent or innovative people have been locked out of a good education because they have had to do wasteful work to survive instead? We are beyond that, surely.

Thirdly, we (in Australia) did have free university education for a short time. Many of our current politicians benefited from that, actually. And now Coalition members sit smugly in Parliament and accuse young people of being entitled as they cut education funding, gut the CSIRO, and turn universities into businesses that rely heavily on international arrivals to fund research programs. It is a system designed to be this way – there are other, better designs that we can and should be implementing.

Education is not a commodity. It is a human right. It helps improve individuals and, in turn, exponentially improves society. The same can be said about many basic needs, like food and water, healthcare, housing, etc. That’s why I really liked the idea Jess Scully talks about in her book Glimpses of Utopia – universal basic services (UBS). More than just a UBI (which would be a part of UBS, I imagine), UBS would ensure that people get the basic necessities for living – simply for living. If something is vital for survival, necessary for personal growth and contribution to society, then such goods and services should be available to all who need them.

Student debt is just one example I see most often, generally in the US context, but it is also applicable here in Australia to a lesser extent. As our collective wealth and advancements continues to grow, there is no reason these should not be shared to allow everyone the opportunity to benefit and contribute in their own way. The removal of debt and the availability of something like a UBS would be great and positive steps towards that vision.

Liked this? I would recommend Scully’s book HERE; I wrote a brief overview of my thoughts on it HERE.

Previous piece: Different Arenas, Same Tactics

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