Tag Archives: Public Sector Cuts

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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Black Bloc: A Self-Defeating Tactic?

March 26 saw this country’s biggest demonstration since the Iraq War. Over 500,000 people marched through the streets of London, shutting down the capital, to protest the government’s ruthless austerity measures. A small group of protestors, known as Black Bloc, broke away from the main march and engaged in direct action including smashing the windows of banks and the Ritz hotel, and throwing paint and smoke bombs. The police retaliated with violence, and riots ensued in Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square.

The right and the mainstream press have branded the Black Bloc “thugs”, “hooligans” and pariahs. The liberal left bemoans how they “ruined” the otherwise peaceful protest for everyone else. The radical left denounces any criticism of the group, espousing solidarity and unity, and defending their “legitimate anger.”

None of these narratives is accurate nor adequate.

Whether you agree with Black Bloc or not, we need to discuss their actions, try to understand why they did it, critically engage with it and then make a decision. Knee-jerk reactions whether from the right or the left are useless. Let’s start a conversation about this…

Property damage: the theory

The right argues property damage is violence. The left argues it isn’t violence.

For the right, property rights represent the fundamental cornerstone of a civilised society. The argument, dating back to John Locke, is that if property is privately, rather than collectively owned, it will be better cultivated and more productive. This will improve society for everyone.

For the left, property rights are the bane of any civilised society. They prevent human beings engaging with each other as human beings, rather than as owners, producers and consumers. We must abolish private property, the argument goes, so that we can all own the earth’s resources collectively; generating freedom for those who have been oppressed by the capitalists’ monopoly over property.

So for those on the right, an attack on property is an attack on society. For the left, an attack on property is legitimate and justifiable.

What’s the answer?

Well, there isn’t one. It’s up to you to decide what you think. The point is, however, in a liberal capitalist society where the majority believe in property rights, an attack on property will be interpreted as an act of violence. The question for the left is, do their opinions count or are principles more important?

The practice: a self-defeating tactic?

An important point to remember in all this, is that Black Bloc is not an organised group – it is a tactic. Anyone who dressed in black and masked-up on March 26 was a member. While clearly targets had been picked in advance – The Ritz for it’s connotations of capitalist hierarchy, the banks for causing the current economic crisis, Starbucks for its globalised corporate greed and banality, Anne Summers for its profiteering co-option of sex and its misogynistic advertising – the members of the group were not coordinated.

This lack of coordination, for me, is one of the fatal flaws of the Black Bloc tactic. Anyone could take part in it. While the left argue that everyone in Black Bloc was politically motivated, there is no way of knowing if this is true.  Unfortunately (at the risk of sounding like a right-wing reactionary) there are people who enjoy smashing stuff and engaging in violence against other people. To believe that people will only get involved in property damage for political purposes is naïve.  There is no way of knowing if such people will turn up ready for Black Bloc, and their actions (if ill-considered or simply out-of-control) could seriously damage the credibility of the anti-cuts movement. I’m not saying that this happened on March 26; but now that Black Bloc is not just a tactic known among left-wing radicals but is very prominent, it could easily be hijacked on future demonstrations. Everyone wears a mask – so there’s no way of knowing.

We saw on the November 10th demonstration, where 50,000 students marched through London, how the media focused on the actions of one person – Edward Woollard who threw a fire extinguisher off the roof at Millbank.  One person’s ill-judged violent act stole the headlines and has etched itself on the public consciousness, firmly entrenching itself as the narrative of that protest.  In other words, it only takes one person to destroy the movement.  It could even be (and would likely be) an agent provocateur

A second problem comes back to the theoretical discussion: what’s more important – the opinions of the majority or Marxist or anarchist principles? Black Bloc defences of their tactics take the following line: all successful movements of resistance have used violence. Look at the Suffragettes, smashing windows, even using bombs, or the violence of The Chartists or the Poll Tax riots. Popular opinion didn’t matter then – it came later – and they were vindicated.

While I have sympathies with this argument, I’m not sure it applies now. Many people are getting active against the cuts – 500,000 marched in London and thousands more have been involved in UKuncut actions, university occupations and local anti-cuts groups. There is an appetite for protest and direct action at the minute; it doesn’t need a vanguard to kick it off. When the cuts start to bite, more and more people will want to engage in these already abundant activities. Violence, whether it is property damage, could scare them off.

What we need now is a mass movement. And we need a mass movement that involves the centre left and the right. Why did the government do a u-turn over selling-off forests? Because conservative constituents were against it. Why are they now back-tracking on the NHS reforms? Because traditionally conservative doctors are opposing it. Everyone, whether red, blue, yellow or non-affiliated, has good reasons for being against the cuts. Getting everyone involved and out on the streets will stop them. Violence – whether you consider it violence or not – will alienate all but the most committed activists.

The right-wing press and the government play on the public’s fear.  They can so easily manipulate the actions of Black Bloc activists, portraying the protests as anarchic riots, scaring off those who want to take part.  It has already given Theresa May an excuse to introduce draconian police powers.  This is compounded by the group’s aesthetic.  While people in the group are ‘ordinary people‘ and they believe themselves to be unintimidating – just  a person engaging in legitimate protest tactics – to the untrained eye a large group of people dressed all in black and wearing masks is terrifying.  Black Bloc wear masks to protect themselves from the Big-Brother-type surveillance that pervades British cities, but that it doesn’t make it any less intimidating and off-putting to outsiders.

My final reason against the tactic of Black Bloc is, in my view, the most serious and important. It’s a truism that violence begets violence. Someone could have gotten killed at Piccadilly or Trafalgar Square. The police killed Ian Tomlinson, who wasn’t even a protester, and put Alfie Meadows in hospital.  If the rioting continues, this is almost inevitable. If young people have been involved all day in smashing windows and running rings around the police, adrenalin pumping through their veins, they will want revenge. It’s a slippery slope from property damage to violence. Like I said above, there is a strong movement for peaceful direct action at the minute. Property damage is alienating to the majority of people already; if it turns to violence against people, they will all step away – even if it was started by the police.

More fundamentally, I don’t believe violence against people is justified in this struggle. We live in a democracy (albeit a poorly functioning one, run by a tiny self-serving elite); but there are channels for resistance. This is not an oppressive dictatorship where people resort to violence as their only way out. I, personally, don’t support political violence even in these situations (I’m naturally averse to violence as an individual, but also as a product of growing up in Northern Ireland); but I really don’t see any justification for it in our situation now. While I’m sure everyone in Black Bloc on the 26th was entirely committed just to property damage and would find the idea of violence towards people (although, worryingly, maybe not the police) abhorrent; if things continue the way they are, I worry it’s only a matter of time. To reiterate, you don’t know who’s going to mask-up in future, and you don’t know what’s around the corner…

This article will not go down well. Anyone who has tried to give nuanced interpretations of March 26 so far has been derided by the right for condoning violence, and from the left for denouncing protestors.  Everyone else has sided one way or the other.  What Black Bloc has done is highlight a grey area in our thinking about protest, property and violence. We need to think deeply and critically about that, not just thoughtlessly denounce or defend. This is my first tentative attempt at doing that. I hope to simply start the debate and I intend to write more on this as it develops.

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