Category Archives: Education

Student Solidarity

On Saturday 4 August, riots erupted in Tottenham, North London.  It started after a peaceful protest against the killing of Mark Duggan, a local young black man, by the police.  The rioting then spread, not only across London, but across England.

Tragically, many people have lost their homes and livelihoods in the riots.  Just because we realise there are socio-economic and political causes to these riots, doesn’t mean we cannot recognise the pain and suffering of those who have been directly affected and express our solidarity with them.  The riots are desperately sad because of the suffering they’ve caused and because they have exposed deep underlying problems in our society.  We need to think about why this happened and how to stop it from happening again.

Many explanations have been cited for the rioting – poverty, inequality, hopelessness, public service cuts, social networking.  But as student activists, there are two causes that we must highlight and actively campaign to change.

The first is education.  The education system has failed a generation of young people.  Not because teachers are doing a bad job and not because parents are failing to instill discipline at home.  The education system is failing young people because there is minimal funding for schools that aren’t in “good areas”.  Because schooling in 21st century Britain, may as well be called “examining”.  School students are only taught to learn something because it will help them pass an exam and get them a job, not because learning is valuable in its own right.  All of the fun, joy, creativity, imagination and passion has been stripped out.  No wonder poor kids are under-performing; school’s shit.

All the while, of course, the rich kids down the road in the neighbouring borough attend school for £30,000 per year, with sparkling new facilities, PhD educated teachers and training in how to get into Oxbridge.  They are prepped to be the lawyers, doctors, politicians and Prime Ministers of the future.  The unfairness is painful, it’s outrageous, it’s vile.

And now, students from working class backgrounds have little hope of going to university.   The opportunity they thought they might have, to pull themselves out of poverty, to achieve some elusive social mobility, has been cruelly ripped from beneath them.  No matter what Nick Clegg says (that it is now easier to go to university because you don’t pay any money back until you earn £21,000), everyone else knows that if you’re poor and facing £27,000 grand of debt for a degree, you’re not going to do it.  Why would you?  There are no jobs for graduates anyway!

As university students we are in a privileged position.  We are the last generation to benefit from a (reasonably) affordable university education.  It is up to us to continue to assert the value of learning, not because it will get us jobs, but because we love it.  Because we know an education shouldn’t be a “privilege”.  Because we believe that education should be accessible to all people in a society, not just those who can afford it.  Because we understand that educating citizens is the responsibility of the government, not bailing out banks that gambled with and lost our money.  Because we know giving all children opportunities and a future is the only way to create a peaceful, caring society.

We have to continue our fight, for university education for all, for EMA, for equal opportunities, for a future.

The second cause of the riots that we are collectively familiar with, is police brutality.  Many students experienced heavy-handed policing for the first time this year.  The student protestors were charged with horses, kettled for hours on end, beaten with batons and arrested arbitrarily.  Police brutality is something poor communities, particularly young black men, have been familiar with for decades.

The police murdered Mark Duggan.   333 people have died in police custody since 1998.  And yet, the general public is calling for more police powers, for more robust and tougher policing.

We have to stand up and recount our experiences of police brutality: to remind people that the police, given half the chance, will attack all sectors of society.  We must stand in solidarity with those facing absurdly disproportionate prison sentences, like the student imprisoned for six months for stealing a £3.50 bottle of water.  We have to show our solidarity with the young men who are stopped-and-searched everyday just because of their age and the colour of their skin.

There is a protest in London tomorrow to ‘Give our Kids a Future’.  If you’re in London, please attend.  If you live in other parts of the UK, organize similar demos in your area.

When the next academic year starts, we need to re-energize, re-mobilize and keep education on the agenda.

Solidarity.

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Filed under Education, Public Service Cuts, Student Protests

New College for the Humanities: Emperor’s New Clothes

On 5 June it was announced that philosopher AC Grayling and a team of celebrity academics are launching a new private university.  For £18,000 per year students will be taught law, economics, history, English literature and philosophy by the most eminent thinkers in their field.  A furore among lecturers, students and commentators has ensued.  Contrary to Grayling’s claims that he is saving the humanities from mass destruction, here I sketch three reasons why NCH is a new front on a tired old cliché – elite institutions serving the elite.

The Arguments for NCH

In an email exchange with the chair of Birkbeck students’ union, Sean Rillo Raczka, Grayling argues that the NCH fees represent the “true economic cost” of university education.  This is reflected in the fees charged to international students and in the US. This argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

International students might pay extortionate fees, but they have the option of paying much less in their home countries.  That option is becoming increasingly unavailable to British students.  It is the richest students (or the lucky ones who get a scholarship) that study internationally; it shouldn’t only be the richest students who study at home.  Higher education ought to be subsidised out of the public purse.

In fact, this move to privatized education in the UK could see more British students studying abroad, because the fees might actually be cheaper.  We could be facing a mass exodus to EU countries, where fees are lower.  If I were about to start university, I would definitely take this option.  Not only would you get a degree for less money, but also learn a foreign language and experience living abroad.  These experiences are valuable in themselves, but thinking in the government’s narrow economistic terms, it would also boost employability post-graduation.

Two points on the US system.  Just because another country’s education system charges astronomic fees, doesn’t make it right.  British academia has traditionally prided itself on the fact that it doesn’t charge fees like America, that it has a publically funded education system; we should continue to fight for that.  Secondly, while Harvard’s fees may be circa $40k per year, most students don’t pay that.  The majority get bursaries and scholarships because the financial resources of US universities are vast; the middle classes generally pay a percentage of the fees, and only the very rich pay full price (at least this is the analysis that a visiting American professor at LSE gave me last week).  In this country, everyone will be paying £9000 per year or what looks like £18,000+ at private higher education institutions (except the very poorest).  That’s a very different prospect to the US system in reality.

The main argument in favour of NCH seems to be that it is the only option to protect the humanities now that higher education is being privatised anyway.  But as Adam Ramsay points out, there were alternatives.  Lecturers and students have been fighting to preserve and increase funding for higher education for years.  If Grayling was serious about saving the humanities, he would have got involved in the fight, not dived in to open a private university the second that option became available.  His status, and the status of the other academics involved, lends a credence to the project of privatisation of education that it otherwise wouldn’t have had.

What’s the alternative now?  Well apparently the college has a £10million start-up fund.  Why do students then have to pay  £54,000 per degree on top of that?  If NCH has that amount of fundraising power, why not fund the college entirely by private philanthropy and award places based solely on merit?  (Of course, merit is difficult to judge in an education system determined by class, wealth and geography; but this would at least lend some weight to their argument).

The academics involved

Part of the injustice of NCH, is that the “top” academics in their fields will only be accessible to the very rich.  (I say top in quotation marks because some of those involved are more the media personalities of their field than the leading intellectuals – Steven Pinker, Grayling).  However, that aside, this could represent a worrying trend.  We already have a two-tier education system in this country.  We are heading towards an even more stratified system where the leaders in their fields teach exclusively at private institutions, while state universities are populated with lesser-known academics, who as soon as they get a few notable publications will disappear to the private unis.

In effect, these private institutions will be the elite teaching the elite, churning out the future academics and decision-makers to the exclusion of the rest of the population.  A sad thought, but if academics of seeming integrity (Singer, Dworkin) are so quick to jump on the bandwagon, it seems to me a likely and ever imminent proposition.

What’s also sad about this is that all but one member of NCH’s “professoriate” are men, and only one isn’t white.  The children of the elite will be taught almost exclusively by white men, perpetuating yet another cycle of privilege so many have fought so hard to overcome.  This represents an astonishing level of arrogance on these men’s part, to think that they needn’t look outside their narrow, self-serving demographic to promote diversity.

Apparently students will take a compulsory module in “critical thinking” at this institution.  The make-up of the institution proves what an empty term critical thinking has become, because these supposed leading critical thinkers haven’t thought remotely critically about their own privilege.  It will be a rich, white man’s version of critical thinking,.. I wonder how much feminism, critical race theory, post-structuralism etc. will be taught?

Richard Dawkins response to the furore  is interesting.  He seems keen to distance himself from the venture.  His comment suggests that Grayling called up his mates and asked them to give some lectures at his new pseudo-university. It could be that the NCH is really just a huge ego-trip for Grayling, which has nothing to do with providing educational opportunities to the most talented as he claims.  This isn’t very surprising given his ubiquitous presence in the British media (some people might think he is the only philosopher in Britain); and since the original name of the college was “Grayling Hall”, it seems a plausible interpretation.

The Language

One of the most disturbing aspects of this venture is the language being used to promote it.  Grayling claims NCH will open doors to the talented underprivileged with a range of bursaries, while simultaneously setting the college up as the institution of the elite.

Teaching the “gifted” – in the true time-honored self-serving tradition of the elite, gifted is equated with rich.  It is not the gifted who will attend this private institution, but those who can afford it.

Rivaling Oxbridge – Oxbridge is already the institution of the elite.  7% of the UK population attends private schools, yet they represent 45% of the Oxbridge intake. A public school student is 55 times more likely to be admitted than a student on free school meals.  In 2010, one student of Caribbean descent was admitted to Oxbridge, while there were over 200 applications from black students.

Career options – On the website it states, “Your options will include careers in industry, healthcare, accountancy and finance, public administration, civil service and defence, retail, business and management, construction, law and the media.”  And in the media the College claims it will “inspire the next generation of lawyers, journalists, financiers, politicians, civil servants, writers and teachers”.  So on the one hand they claim to promote talent, on the other they’re prepping students for traditionally middle to upper class careers that the upper echelons of society aspire to and are primed for from birth.

Emperor’s New Clothes

The New College for the Humanities is not the answer to the UK government’s dismantling of the education system, as Grayling claims.  It is an excuse for a few rich, privileged men to make a lot of money at the expense of vulnerable students desperate for a leg-up the career ladder, while leaving their disadvantaged peers to rot.  Creating elite institutions – while offering a few bursaries to the “deserving poor” – will necessarily end up serving the elite.

What is especially disappointing about this development is the people involved.  It is expected of some (Niall Ferguson), but others should know better (Peter Singer).  Their opportunism, arrogance, lack of self-criticism, and egoism is astounding and unconscionable.  This is not an attempt to save the future of humanities, but to make a lot of quick cash.  We can’t let them create a system where Oxbridge seems like a less elitist option.  We have got to fight back.

Action tonight, more to follow.  Join the facebook group for updates.

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Filed under Education, Public Service Cuts, Student Protests

Crackdown on Student Occupations

Another wave of student occupations has sprung up this week in the run-up to the national anti-cuts demonstration on March 26th. Media coverage has been scant – occupations are old news now, and the story is being eclipsed by Japan and Libya. But it’s time that the brutal crackdown on students became news.

On Tuesday, the police turned up en masse at Glasgow University to evict a small group of students occupying the Heatherington Research Club. The BBC reports there were 80 police officers, 18 police vehicles and a helicopter, to evict 15 students. There were clashes between the police and protestors. One woman allegedly had concussion and another was taken away in an ambulance. As the chaos mounted, more and more supporters of the occupation showed up, with around a hundred students protesting in the university quad in the afternoon.

Glasgow University Management has since sent an email to staff and students expressing their regret over the action. The Principal, Anton Muscatelli, has said that the events were “deeply unfortunate”. He claims that staff called the police in to peacefully end the seven-week occupation, but “Unfortunately that was not the outcome, and the police then took the actions that many colleagues and students witnessed. I regret this and the train of events that was set in motion. I fully understand the concerns that many of you have that the action was excessive and unnecessary.”

Why, however, would you call the police to peacefully end an occupation of fifteen students? What did he think would happen? Using excessive, disproportionate force is not the way to peacefully end a peaceful protest; it’s surely just asking for trouble.

At the UCL Occupation, university management is using psychological rather than physical force against students. The students are occupying the university registry (the administration wing) in solidarity with the University and Colleges Union (UCU) strike on Tuesday and Thursday this week.

Management responded by threatening students with disciplinary action and with the full imposition of legal fees arising from the occupation and any other costs they deem to have been incurred. Instead of taking legal action against “persons unknown”, as is the usual practice, they are claiming to have CCTV footage of individuals involved and they will hold each of them liable for the costs. The students tried to negotiate with management, but they have flatly refused to budge from their threats, prolonging what was supposed to be a short-lived occupation in support of the strike.

Clearly university managers across the country are getting tired of this year’s spontaneous wave of direct action. But instead of bullying students either physically or emotionally, why don’t they listen to what they have to say?

Students are standing up for educational establishments, so that they continue to receive state funding and that lecturers and other staff don’t lose their jobs and pensions. They are also standing up for future generations of students, so that they too can go to university and not be lumbered with tens of thousands of pounds of debt. They are fighting for their own futures, against austerity measures that will slash available jobs and gut the public and education sectors which many of them hope to go into.

University management surely has an interest in maintaining state funding. It also has a pastoral duty to its students, and responsibilities towards staff as employees. The universities should be supporting the student protestors, not blindly doing the government’s bidding. If management welcomed the protests and got behind them, it would make the whole movement more powerful and deeply challenge the government cuts to higher education.

Their heavy-handed, domineering responses violate their responsibilities to students and striking staff. It makes no sense for them to battle their students in this way. They need to be open, to listen and to stop using bully-boy tactics. And if they don’t, anyone supportive of the students must help fight their corner.

UCL Occupation are asking people to sign their petition to end management’s threats of victimisation of individuals.

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Filed under Education, Public Service Cuts, Student Protests, Uncategorized

Consensus Decision-Making at the UCL Occupation

On the 24th November 2010, a group of students protesting about education cuts entered University College London’s (UCL) Jeremy Bentham Room. Someone asked, “Do we want to occupy?” A resounding “yes” was the answer, and so it began… a two and a half week occupation of one of the country’s most prestigious universities.

But what did it mean to occupy a room? How long would we be there? What would we do next? Luckily, there were a few climate camp veterans among us, who swiftly took action and showed us how to organise.

The first thing we did was have a meeting. At this meeting we decided on our list of demands. Most importantly, however, we implemented the process that would drive the occupation until the end; in fact, we are still using it in our meetings now. That process is consensus-decision making.

What is consensus decision-making?

UCL Occupation

Typically at large meetings, decisions are made by voting. There will be a few speakers for and against a topic, then questions from the floor, a chairperson to mediate all this, and finally a binding vote. If you are in the losing group, you simply have to accept that you lost and move on.

Consensus decision-making, by contrast, is non-hierarchical and inclusive. Typically, the group will sit in a circle formation, with a facilitator or two at the front (if there is a front!). The idea is that everyone who wants to speak, gets to speak; and because the set-up is in the round, it feels less intimidating than standing up in front of a panel of speakers and a room full of inquiring faces. Everyone is “in it together”.

Decisions are made by the whole group. Anyone can make a proposal. A proposal can only pass if it is agreed to by everyone. If just one person says, “I disagree, I veto this proposal”, then it won’t pass. We hardly ever encountered this at the occupation, because whenever there was a disagreement we talked it through until the proposal was sufficiently amended so that everyone agreed.

The role of facilitator is to make sure everyone who wants to speak gets their turn. The facilitator cannot make substantive comments themselves (although sometimes we did, but made it clear it was in a personal capacity rather than in the role of facilitator). They keep the meeting moving forward, may restrict the time of discussion for topics, try to draw out those who haven’t had their say and try to limit those who never shut up!

The participants use hand signals, rather than clapping, to show how they feel about what is happening in the meeting. Waving your hands in the air (like jazz hands) shows approval. Waving your hands towards the floor is disapproval. And wavering hands, shows wavering support.

There are several tricks a facilitator can use to check the mood in the room. A “temperature check” is where they ask everyone in the room to do the appropriate hand signal for how they are feeling. This way they know that everyone in the room is engaged and whether it’s an appropriate time to “move to consensus” or whether to continue the discussion. When we move to consensus, we see if there is consensus on a proposal in the room. If there isn’t, the debate continues; if there is, the proposal passes.

Working groups

If we had tried to make every decision about everything, and discuss everything that needed to be discussed at General Meetings, the entire time would have been spent doing that. Instead, we designated working groups for particular topics. The core working groups emerged during the occupation as media, tech, events, outreach, process, escalation, demands, security and kitchen.

Anyone could join any working group, or leave a working group at any time. I think at one stage I was a member of about six working groups! Some people devoted themselves entirely to one working group for the whole occupation– such as a few dedicated members of the media team, the techie team who were the evil geniuses of the occupation, and the events team who assiduously organised a timetable of lectures, comedy and gigs to keep us entertained. Other people floated between groups, depending on the time they could give and their interests.

While working groups worked autonomously, if there was an important decision to be made they had to bring it to a General Meeting to get consensus. For example, camera crews frequently wanted to go on demos with us, so the media team would ask the general meeting if that was ok or not. The demands team worked on negotiations with management, so regularly fed back to the General Meetings projecting draft documents onto the big screen and adding amendments from the group until everyone was happy with it.

Why did it work?

This organisational model worked for several reasons.

Firstly, people joined working groups depending on their skills. It meant that everyone was using their skills effectively and to the utmost. If there were no working groups, a lone techie may have built us a website; but they wouldn’t have been able to collaborate with a team, delegating specific tasks to those who could do it, and knowing who to talk to for info on media, events or demands.

Secondly, the general meetings provided an open forum for working groups to test their ideas but also for people who weren’t involved in those groups to have a say about what they were doing.

Thirdly, by getting consensus on decisions rather than voting, it meant we were all co-authors of the group’s actions. Nobody felt hard-done-by and no individuals could be blamed if something went wrong.

Everyone could have their say. It wasn’t about “experts” giving their opinions, or the usual suspects dominating debates; it gave the opportunity to those who wouldn’t normally speak to feel included and listened to.

Fifth, rather than stating your opinion on something and sticking to it, to open dialogue allowed people to listen, learn, change their mind, be persuaded and to persuade. The consensus decision-making model encourages open-mindedness.

Finally – no leaders! Because anyone could speak, make a proposal, facilitate a meeting, join a working group, suggest an idea, reject an idea, call a meeting, make an agenda or change the agenda, there were no leaders. Everyone was an equal part; at least, what you put in, you got out.

What are the drawbacks?

Ok, so this sounds amazing. Too good to be true even. There must have been some problems? And there were…

Meetings could go on forever! The meeting we had on the first night of the occupation lasted for four hours!!! However, this problem was ameliorated to an extent as the occupation progressed. The process was tightened up and amended to suit our group’s needs, and people learned what to expect from meetings and whether to bring something to the whole group or the relevant working group.

At times people got frustrated with the model. One night we had a one-and-a-half hour process group meeting debating whether or not to implement voting rather than consensus. A few people thought consensus meetings dragged on too long and that we weren’t making enough clear decisions. We had a trial of voting at the meeting the next night, but the group decided to stick with consensus.

Facilitating meetings could be a draining and unrewarding experience at times. If there were lots of people who repeatedly wanted to speak, it became a tricky question of whether to stop recognizing them.  There was also the problem of people being sneaky. To make a point, you simply raised your hand. But you could also make a direct factual point to correct someone’s comment (putting both hands in the air, with your index fingers parallel), or a technical point to mention something external to the meeting e.g. there’s a fire we need to leave (making a T shape). These hand signals were abused. Of course, as a facilitator you don’t know someone’s abusing them until they speak; but you still get the blame!

Power relations could be an issue. Those in the process group who had control over the agenda and how meetings working, and facilitated meetings, could be perceived as having more power than others. Also, those in the media team who coordinated external communications also could have been seen in this light. Of course, anyone could join any working group, but these perceptions still emerged and occasionally caused friction.

Because a working group could be set up anytime on anything, sometimes there seemed to be hundreds of them, with nobody knowing who belonged to what group and what the group was doing! This lack of coordination was important in terms of anonymity in the face of UCL management – they couldn’t pin anything on anyone. But it did become frustrating when you needed to talk to someone in outreach, for example, and had no idea who was in that group or where they were.

Finally, while the aim of the consensus model is to be inclusive and non-hierarchical, at times the discussions did come to be dominated by the same faces (and they were usually male). Some of the younger, female, and ethnic minority members of the group could feel a bit intimidated. On one occasion a group of three first-year women asked me to bring up a point at a meeting because they were scared of being shot-down by the vocal older men in the group. The facilitators tried their best to overcome these issues; but unfortunately you’re not going to overcome all of wider society’s nefarious power dynamics in two weeks no matter how inclusive you try to be.

Would I recommend it?

Before the UCL Occupation, I had chaired lots of meetings at school and university Model United Nations and debating societies; but I had never used the consensus decision-making model. After a little initial discomfort at the seeming lack of structure, I soon settled into it and now much prefer it over any model I’ve used before. While consensus cannot overcome the power relations of unequal societies, it is much better at doing this than traditional hierarchical models of meetings. The open discussions were fascinating and challenging. I frequently found myself changing my mind on issues based on what others had said, or discovering new ways of looking at things. The model really encourages you to see things from another’s perspective, to listen respectfully and respond honestly.

It can be a drawn-out process but ultimately I think it’s worth it. Consensus decision-making is truly democratic and avoids the dreaded tyranny of the majority. And despite the issues I raised with the model, the occupation’s success resided on the fact that we could bring all these issues up and discuss them openly; or at least set up a working group to deal with them! Best of all, consensus decision-making makes potentially boring meetings fun!

This is a longer version of a guest post for BeyondClicktivism.

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Filed under Democracy, Education, Student Protests

Public and Private, Man and Woman: The anti-cuts movement must challenge the hierarchies

Of all the public services being hit by the cuts, those dealing with issues considered to be private are suffering the most. But what does “public” and “private” mean, in this context?

Public goods are things that benefit society as a whole – education, healthcare, wellbeing.  Public services are the things that facilitate these goods – schools, universities, the NHS, libraries, parks and green spaces etc.

However, there are other less well-known public services that facilitate public goods, such as publicly funded domestic violence and rape crisis centres, drug and alcohol addiction clinics, Sure Start centres etc.  These less visible services have all been the first to go in the government’s slashing of public services and to muted outcry.  Why?

These services deal with issues that are considered to be “private”.

Two strangers fighting in the street is “violence”, but violence in the home is “domestic” violence.  It is, therefore, not a “public” issue.

Why?  Domestic violence is “domestic” because it happens in the home – the “private sphere”.  Similarly, drug and alcohol addiction afflicts individuals who have hit hard times; so many people think there doesn’t need to be a public service to deal with this.  Pregnancy, maternity, and raising infants are considered to be private, family issues, not something that promotes a public good.

However, what this fails to see is that all of these issues are social issues.  “Domestic” violence leads to the death of two women a week in the UK and will be experienced by 1 in 4 women in their lifetime.  This violence against women (VAW) is hidden because it is “private”, when in fact it should be a cause for common concern.  Drug and alcohol addiction predominantly affects the poor and dispossessed; it is caused by wider issues in society – poverty and status inequality.  Pregnancy, maternity and raising infants form the fundamental basis of the reproduction of any society.

By reducing these issues to the “private” sphere, the voices of the marginalized are further oppressed, and because these norms are so ingrained in our thoughts and practices, we fail to see their significance.

The feminist critique of public and private

Feminists have theorised the hierarchical binary oppositions that form the basis of Western philosophy and culture.  This theoretical technique is called ‘deconstruction.’  To put deconstruction simply, every concept has an opposite; for example, high and low, public and private, men and women.  The first part of the binary is considered superior to the second – high is better than low, the public is superior to the private, men are considered superior to women.  And so on…

The hierarchical ordering of concepts creates structures of advantage and disadvantage, i.e. power.

So we have:

Men – Rationality – Intellect – Independence – Politics in the PUBLIC sphere
Women – Irrationality – Emotion – Dependence – Family in the PRIVATE sphere

Feminism has exposed the public/private binary (at least in Western cultures) as the core of women’s oppression.  Women are embodied/emotional/nurturing creatures in the private sphere, as opposed to intellectual/rational/dispassionate men in the public sphere.  Hence, “women’s issues” are not public issues.

The feminist answer is to dismantle the binary and transcend the public/private dichotomy altogether.  In the meantime, however, we must fight to maintain the provision of domestic violence services, drug and alcohol clinics, and SureStart centres as public services; they are not luxuries or helping-hands for the private sphere.  And while we’re fighting for public services, it’s time for a radical rethink as to what they actually are.

Really?  Aren’t women liberated?

Sometimes it can be hard to see this happening in our society.  Women can break through.  More women go to university now than men.  Women can become political philosophers, or engineers, or scientists, or whatever we want.  But this doesn’t stop the trend of issues associated with women – rape, domestic violence, pregnancy and maternity – being relegated to the private sphere.  Just because a few women have been successful does not mean that the status hierarchy that has defined Western cultures for millennia has been overthrown.  It’s also important to remember that without feminism, we would not be in this position at all.

In some countries, women still can’t be seen in the public sphere.  But the work of grassroots feminists is paving the way for women’s liberation.  Just look at what’s happening across the Arab World; the role of women in the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen is inspirational.  Tunisia was the regional leader on women’s rights; but in other countries in the region, through the revolutionary movements women are finally breaking the barriers of the public sphere, demanding their voices be heard and listened to.

Why bring this up?

I want to highlight that using the terms “public” and “private” is not neutral.  These words are infused with connotations and assumptions beyond their direct meanings.  It’s important when we’re talking about public services that we include those that are less obvious, or even ones that have previously been ignored (universal child-care?).

The cuts are regressive in terms of gender equality.  Women earn 15.5% less than men in the same jobs in the UK, so will pay back university fees for longer (you could see this as a good thing – David Willetts recently told some women students that because women earn less they won’t have to pay fees back, making the policy “progressive”!).  Women make up two thirds of public sector workers so will disproportionately suffer from job losses.  Women claim almost 100% of child benefit, and 53% of housing benefit.  Lone parents and pensioners, most of whom are women, will suffer the greatest loss in public services: lone parents will lose services worth 18.5% and female singles pensioners 12% of their incomes.

It’s essential that the left-wing and anti-cuts discourses don’t perpetuate gender inequality too.  We have to recognise it in the language we use, the claims we make, and the actions we take, always critiquing and always seeking to improve.

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Filed under Education, Gender Based Violence, Human Rights, Public Service Cuts

The leaders on EMA

The Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) is a small weekly means-tested grant for college students of £10, £20 or £30.  It was brought in by the Labour government to provide an incentive for the most disadvantaged school students to stay on in education.  It costs £560million per year.  Money well spent?  This is what the leaders of the three main parties had to say about it…

The Tories – Prime Minister David Cameron

Supports EMA? Yes


Labour – Ed Miliband

Supports EMA? Yes


Lib Dems – Deputy PM Nick Clegg

This party election broadcast doesn’t specifically mention EMA.  But I found on the website The Student Room a comment on EMA written by Nick Clegg in September 2010.  In it he says he would scrap EMA bonuses (a £100 bonus giving to EMA recipients if they go to all their classes and perform academically) but that it’s important for ‘fairness’ that weekly EMA payments are maintained –

“EMA bonuses have been stopped, allowing us to pay the weekly EMA to more young people. We think that is the right way to distribute the money at a time when big reductions are needed in public spending. In terms of financial support beyond 2010/11, we’ll be considering longer term arrangements as part of the wholesale review of public spending that is being conducted this autumn. With the nation’s books in such a bad state we now have to look at every single pound Government is spending to make sure that absolutely none of it is wasted, making sure we use it in a way that reflects the things that we, as a society, believe in. That includes greater fairness in our education system.”

Supports EMA? Yes

 

So, they certainly used to think EMA is worth the money.  And the stats back them up.  In a poll commissioned by UCU in which 713 EMA recipients were questioned, 70% said they would drop out of their course if the grant was withdrawn.

Here we have seen the leaders of the three main political parties – three privileged white men – standing up for the most disadvantaged school students in the country.  We’ll see what they really think and who they really stand up for in the Commons tomorrow…

 

Please surprise us MPs!

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Debunking the Daily Mail Myths

There is a ‘common sense’ view that currently prevails in the UK about university education.  I’m calling it the ‘Daily Mail’ view.  It consists of three myths:

1. Too many students go to university.

2. Too many people have degrees making it harder to find skilled jobs for everyone.  A degree is paradoxically essential and useless.

3. Most students waste their time at uni drinking, partying, getting STDs and not really doing much work – all at the taxpayers’ expense.

In conversations about the protests, I have encountered all of these arguments.  They are all myths.  Here, I want to provide you with the counter-arguments so that next time you come across one of these myths, you will know how to destroy it.

Myth 1 – Too many students go to university

Thinking that too many students go to university represents a particular view of education.  For proponents of this view, education has purely instrumental value.  The value of education is its ability to lead to a job and generate economic growth.  This logic is repeatedly asserted in the Browne Report.

The ability of a university degree to get a person a job and improve economic growth is only one of its values.  Education has further instrumental values.  People with higher levels of education are more likely to be healthy and to be satisfied with their work and leisure time.  Education creates citizens who are publicly engaged – the higher the level of education, the more likely a person is to vote and to volunteer (i.e. take part in Cameron’s ‘Big Society’).

Education makes society safer.  More than 50% of male offenders and 71% of female offenders in the UK have no qualifications.  Nearly half of prisoners have literacy skills below level 1 and 65% have numeracy skills below level 1.  Education improves a person’s chances in life and sense of self-worth, making it less likely they will turn to crime.  Also, education can generate a new start for those in prison: skills, training and knowledge can turn lives around.  As Victor Hugo put it, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”

However, education has more than mere instrumental value – it has intrinsic value.  It is a good in itself.  The value of education cannot be quantified.  Education does more than prepare a young person for a particular job, or provide a means to a safer society or a more engaged citizenry.  Lest we forget…

Universities are for education not job preparation.

Many people study for a degree out of interest or curiosity.  A degree in Art History or American Literature, for example, could be a way of exploring a life-long interest in the subject.  This is particularly true of mature student, who aren’t necessarily doing a degree for career advancement but out of interest.  With tuition fees rising to £9000 a year for undergraduate study, what mature students will burden themselves with that debt if they have a family to look after or a mortgage to pay?  A degree will become a luxury that only rich curious people can afford.

I want to point out that this is not an elitist argument; I am not saying that people with higher education are somehow better.  The point is, everyone should have the choice to partake in higher education.  People learn in different ways and university isn’t for everyone.  But universities are sites of learning from which nobody should be excluded, and they certainly shouldn’t be excluded because they can’t afford it.  Education benefits the individual and society: it should be encouraged and it should be accessible for everyone.

Myth 2 – Too many degrees distorts the jobs market

It does seem to be true that employers increasingly require candidates to have a degree, and yet lots of people with degrees can’t get jobs.  Any graduate scrambling around for whatever temp or bar work they can get will attest to this.  But there are two points here.

Firstly, we’re in a recession! Getting a job is hard for everybody.  Degree or no degree, it’s tough out there.  And unfortunately, this is only going to get worse.  With the government slashing public sector jobs, redundancies are going to be a big feature of 2011 – mainly redundancies for women as they make up the majority of public sector, part-time and temporary workers.  Not only that, but the drastic cuts are going to slow economic growth because there will be higher unemployment, therefore less people paying tax and spending money, making overall recovery slower.  If the government invested in job creation (Keynesian economics 101) we would get out of recession quicker.

Also, recent graduates are finding it hard to get work not because they have a degree, but because they don’t have enough work experience.  This is due to age, not educational attainment.  This is why the young get hit hard in a recession.  You could reply that young people should therefore spend less time in education and get into the job market quicker, but this leads to my second point…

My argument in the previous section was that education is about learning not job preparation.  Students get value from their degree that doesn’t necessarily translate into getting a job…

There is no such thing as too many degrees!

And anyway, if people stopped going to university and went into the job market quicker, the job market would still be saturated, just with less qualified people.

Myth 3 – University students are just out for a piss-up

Dismissing students as sponging layabouts in contrast to hard-working “tax-payers” is typical of late-capitalist society.  This devaluation of the role of ‘student’ finds parallels in the devaluation of other social groups.  For example, single mothers that live on state benefits are viewed as spongers depending on the welfare state, having increasing numbers of children just to exploit well-meaning tax-payer.  Not only that, but they’re probably committing benefit fraud, just to screw the middle-classes even further.

In late capitalist societies, where the market economy is valued above all else, any activity that is founded in a different value-system from “the bottom-line” is considered deviant, unwanted and unsuccessful.  Hence child-rearing (an obviously essential part of any society if it is to reproduce itself) is assigned a second-class status.  Similarly, studying (an activity based on intellectual or personal development) is deemed a parasite on society.  Learning?  Thinking critically?  Creativity?  Why would we want that?

This is unless, of course, education is re-conceptualised as a necessary evil that citizens endure before becoming profit-producing members of the formal economy.  If we re-conceive education in these terms it becomes useful to market capitalism.  And if going to university is extortionately expensive, only those members of society who are economically profitable can afford it; hence eliminating the unwanted elements from social advancement (economically unproductive reproducers, artists and thinkers).  This is exactly how the Browne Report perceives education.

The status war against certain groups is, therefore, unsurprising.  Undermining students supports the government’s argument for restructuring economic distribution – why would such a non-valuable group as students require state support?  If they are “successful” enough (i.e. earn enough money) they’ll be able to pay for their own education.

To fight this insidious tactic…

Students must reassert their value.

We have to find confidence in the work that we do and maintain both its intrinsic value and the value it has socially.  It is true that there are students who are just out for a good time.  But they get kicked out, or get terrible grades which bites-them-in-the-ass in the job market or if they want to study further.  I have worked extremely hard for my education.  And I defy anyone to study fulltime and work two jobs, and tell me that’s an easy life.

So, there you have it.  The Daily Mail myths are founded in an instrumental, economistic view of education (surprise, surprise!).  This short-sightedness is a product of our era.  But we must resist it.  Next time you have these myths beaten down your throat, you will know how to fight back!

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Filed under Education, Student Protests