Tag Archives: UKuncut

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.



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.


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

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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Filed under Education, NetrootsUK, Student Protests

Lessons from NetrootsUK

Inspired by the success of the American movement Netroots Nation, UK blogs and organisations False Economy, Liberal Conspiracy, and the TUC, amongst others, decided to organise the first NetrootsUK conference.  The aim was to harness the power of the progressive left blogosphere and online anti-cuts activism.

The conference was a great opportunity for activists to share ideas and tips, and to network in person.  After discussing the day with other attendees, I would like to share some suggestions:

1. Scrap plenaries – the first session of the day was a plenary (the whole conference sits in the main hall and listens to speeches).  The speakers were Brendan Barber (TUC), Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (Daily Kos), Sunny Hundal (Liberal Conspiracy), Sunder Katwala (Fabian Society), Polly Toynbee (The Guardian), Nigel Stanley (TUC), and Clifford Singer (False Economy).  These sessions are designed to clarify the aims of the conference and inspire the participants for the day ahead.  However, it had exactly the opposite effect.

The anti-cuts and student movements have been exciting because they are the voice of the people.  For too long young people, pensioners, people with disabilities, those on benefits, have felt ignored and shut out from mainstream politics and from the public conversation.  Starting the day with a panel of big-name ‘experts’ rather than the people who are getting out there and making change happen was not inspiring, but disempowering.

2. Representativeness – There was a session in the afternoon called ‘Digital equality: how can women get engaged online.’  What was supposed to be a talk about getting women engaged in online activistism (which as Laurie Penny pointed out was pointless because women constitute the majority of bloggers and tweeters) turned into an extremely interesting discussion about tokenism.  One of the speakers pointed out that all of the sessions at the event included ‘one token woman’ on the panel and the only all-female panel was in this designated “women’s issues” forum.  Then two black women in the audience said they felt ignored because they hadn’t even had a token session or panel member.

Lisa Ansell, made the point that the cuts will disproportionately affect women, the disabled, black people and ethnic minorities, and people in the North, so rather than making these niche issues, they should be at the core of what the movement is doing.  There should be activists on gender, disability, race and from marginalized communities embedded throughout the panels in the next conference.  I realise this is hard to organise, but that doesn’t mean it should be avoided, it’s important.

3. Participation – The plenary sessions: a panel on the stage with audience members looking up to them with minimum participation, as I have said, is disempowering.  The workshop sessions varied on this.  Some were largely panel-led, others were more discussion-led.

Of course, there is a place for getting expert advice.  For example, there was a lunchtime event led by Chris Coltrane on internet security.  Having a discussion-based session on this would probably not be helpful, as the aim is to learn a skill from someone who knows it.

However, other workshops could have been more discussion-based.  Where this is possible I think it should be encouraged – it breeds inclusivity, empowerment and ownership by everyone of the event.  In discussion sessions the layout of the room could be addressed.  In UCL Occupation meetings we did this by setting the chairs out in a circle, so it wasn’t some people at the head of the room telling the rest what to do, but a group working together.  Also, other procedures could be considered, such as the consensus model, where the aim is to get as many people to participate as possible and all ideas are discussed openly.

4. Don’t become London-centric – It made sense to have the first conference in London, because that is where the organisers are based.  However, in order for this movement not to become London-centric and alienating, the next conference should be held elsewhere.

5. Accepting our differences, learning lessons, not creating divisions – In the opening plenary after hearing several audience comments that we should join the Labour Party, I got up and asked ‘why should we join the Labour Party?’  The aim was not to alienate myself from those who think getting Labour onside is the way to move forward, but to show that there are other views out there.  We all have different opinions and we should have the space and support to discuss them, especially at events like this.  As I have argued before, there will always be differences of opinion within a social movement.  It is better to discuss them and get them out in the open, than to let them fester and rot the movement from the inside.

And it is in this spirit that I am writing this blog post.  NetrootsUK was a great event.  I met some brilliant people, heard some inspiring talks, learnt a lot and we built in-person rather than online solidarity networks.  This is all really positive stuff.  But in every event there are lessons to be learned.  That is what I want to highlight here in making these suggestions.  We shouldn’t get too bogged down in criticising each other, but rather focus our anger and energy against our common enemy – the Coalition government’s neo-liberal agenda.  However, constructive criticism can help make the movement stronger and more effective.


Filed under Education, NetrootsUK, Student Protests

Is the students’ conflict intergenerational?

In December, I took part in a Guardian podcast where I said that the students are furious at our parents. They’ve taken our jobs, our homes, our environment and now they’re trying to take away our right to an education. However, many members of the movement in occupations and in blogs have made forceful arguments against the idea of an intergenerational conflict. Here I want to think through the arguments for and against, and consider which approach I think we should adopt.

The Theory

UCLOccupation image

At the UCL Occupation the Daily Mail and Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore, gave a talk on how to present ourselves in the media. She said the best strategy is too push the idea of an intergenerational conflict. People of her generation feel extremely guilty, she said, and exploiting this guilt is the best way to get them on our side.

I believe the reason for the guilt complex currently engulfing the middle-aged middle-classes is due to the fact we live in a liberal society. The idea of intergenerational justice is built in to liberalism.

One of the earliest liberals, John Locke, argued that if people want to acquire property, they must leave “enough and as good for others”. The twentieth century liberal, John Rawls, includes an inter-generational proviso in A Theory of Justice called the “just savings principle”; whereby the current generation must save enough to maintain the fundamental institutions of society into the future. Since the environmental crisis has emerged, the liberal literature on intergenerational justice has gone ballistic. It is a matter of growing concern and enquiry within liberal political philosophy, and so it seems, in the practice of liberal democracies.

Many occupiers and bloggers have rejected this line of argument, however, because they are situated somewhere on the Left.  In far Left, Marxist, philosophy the idea of intergenerational justice doesn’t hold much currency.  The struggle belongs to the proletariat; it is based on class. The proletariat takes no account of age or generational membership; it consists of anyone who is exploited by the capitalist class.  The detractors from the idea of intergenerational conflict are concerned with unity.  What we want, according to this line of argument, is to foster ties with the working class, the unions and public sector workers.  Talking about intergenerational conflict obstructs unity and creates divisions where there should be none.

I want to propose an intermediary position, based on the insights of Critical Theory.  Critical theorists are influenced by Marxism, but instead of accepting the Marxist thesis of historical materialism, they assess actual social movements and theorise their claims in order to advance their normative, emancipatory arguments.

One of the insights of Critical Theory and other continental philosophical traditions, such as postmodernism and poststructuralism, has been to highlight that class constitutes only one kind of social division.  Society is also stratified along the lines of sex, race, ethnicity and status.  Our movement seems to be highlighting another division – the division between generations.

The calls for Left unity are obviously extremely important.  The Left historically has had a tendency to factionalise and fracture, destroying itself from within.  This is a trend the student movement rightly wants to avoid.  However, there is some truth in the intergenerational argument.  On the early demonstrations the vast majority of protesters were young, under the age of about 26; the presence of lecturers and workers was minimal.  The student movement is a youth movement.  Moreover, the cuts we are facing now are a direct result of economic policies and ideologies that have been handed down from the previous generation.

Some of baby boomers have had an amazing time. They’ve presided over an unprecedented era of economic, intellectual and technological growth. But with this has come unprecedented environmental damage, a growing inequality gap between the world’s rich and poor, neo-colonial war and the current economic recession, caused by the voracious appetite for property.  The inequality gap has meant that many people of that generation actually lost-out on a phenomenal scale – witness the decline of England’s industrial North.

The baby boomers that did hugely benefit (or the governments’ they have elected) acted with an astonishing degree of irresponsibility.  They ignored intergenerational responsibilities and responsibilities to the poor (hence the corresponding sense of guilt).  This irresponsibility derives from the wholesale adoption of neoliberal economics.

The Practice

We as a movement can and should (I think) be stressing this point. As the youth wing of a larger struggle, we can come together with other groups, like the unions, whilst highlighting our frustration with decisions taken in the past. We can say that the generation before us acted irresponsibly and failed to take our interests into account by adopting neoliberal policies.

UCLOccupation image

The advantage of this approach is that by highlighting the need for intergenerational justice, we are not just fighting for ourselves, but also for future generations.  By focusing on the irresponsibility of the previous generation and how this is now undermining our life chances, we are saying that this mustn’t happen again; future generations must be taken into account.

Another advantage is that by rejecting the politics of the past twenty years, we are asserting that we want something new.  We want things to change, we want to live in a different world, and if the politicians aren’t going to do this we will do it for ourselves.  Our youth and our desire for a break with the past is a strength: it is exciting, challenging and invigorating.

This standpoint can also foster unity.  Everyone on the Left is anti-neoliberalism. We can unite around this common enemy while also maintaining our particular position. Rather than causing division, it highlights the fact that those of the older generations who campaigned and fought against the policies were right all along. We can come together in renewed struggle to stop another generation making the same mistakes.  We can unite cross-generationally in a rejection of the Right and a desire to reinvigorate the Left.

This unification, however, does not require us to give up our rightful place of finger-pointing at the generation that preceded us, critiquing their unabashed irresponsibility, telling them to pay for it rather than lumping it all on us and future generations, and insisting that we want change.  Now.  We don’t want unmitigated economic growth; we want a new left politics based on equality and responsibility, environmental protection and solidarity.  We want a different world to the one we have inherited.

One final point… Unity is vital to any social movement.  However, within any movement there are different groups, differences of opinion and different reasons for being involved.  We have to acknowledge and respect this.  A blind adoption of “unity” does the Left no favours.  Repressing dissent and subsuming all groups under one common front is what leads to rupture.  We have to accept difference while focusing on our common goals.

In sum, we can call this an intergenerational struggle by drawing out the reason behind it. By making neoliberalism the target, we can assert our unique position, as those bearing the brunt of its mistakes, while uniting with other groups who also oppose it.


Filed under Education, Student Protests

Will the Browne Report improve the quality of higher education?

Rather than create a bureaucratic and imperfect measure for quality, our proposals rely on student choice to drive up the quality of higher education.”

The Browne Report claims to improve the quality of higher education, which may be why some MPs were persuaded by it.  According to the report, universities in the UK are in serious need of reform.  They need to improve on quality to keep up with their international competitors.  Quality ought to be measured by ‘student choice.’

Here are four quick reasons why Browne’s proposals will almost certainly undermine the quality of higher education:

1. Pressure on lecturers – Academics already face immense pressure to ‘publish or perish.’  Getting a job, staying in a job and having any influence within universities depends on having a high level of publications in the right journals.  Combined with teaching commitments, academia is becoming an increasingly stressful workplace.  Now, academics will be under constant pressure to ‘improve quality.’

This might not necessarily be a bad thing (we’ve all had bad lecturers), but who is the judge of quality…

2. ‘Student Choice’ – What eighteen-year-old knows the ins-and-outs of university life: the most important subjects for a solid grounding in an academic discipline, how a degree should be structured, what they actually want to study long-term, what makes a good or bad essay?  I didn’t set out to study Political Theory, I discovered it during my undergraduate degree in politics.  In terms of deciding what I should have studied as an undergraduate theorist, I really don’t think I was the best judge.  The most important political theorist of the twentieth century is John Rawls – someone I hadn’t heard of before my degree, who is bloody boring to study and I would have avoided like the plague if possible.  But I would be a much poorer political theorist for it.  Will universities now teach ‘crowd-pleasing’ courses to appease ‘student choice’ rather than intellectually valuable or rigorous subjects?  Whatever happened to peer review?

If we’re basing university assessment on student choice, we have to know what students really want…

3. What students want – Students want high grades, especially if degrees are exclusively seen as a stepping-stone to a job rather than a good in themselves.  Will there be pressure to inflate students’ grades?  If a student is paying £9000 per year, they’re not going to settle for a 2:2 are they?  What if a student relies on getting certain grades to maintain their subsidy?  Will lecturers feel undue pressure to add a mark or two?

Students also want more contact time with staff…

4. Mass redundancies – If there are mass redundancies, there will be less staff to go round.  This undermines students’ wishes to have more contact time with staff; they will actually have less support.  It also means higher class sizes.  Staff will have more marking to do, more students to see, more responsibilities in general and less time to research, therefore undermining what students want and ‘student choice’, increasing pressure on lecturers and reducing the quality of research.

If we want to improve the quality of higher education, marketisation is not the answer; it creates a whole new set of problems.  Browne thinks his recommendations will improve the quality of higher education because, like any other market fundamentalist, he believes in the power of market forces to sort the wheat from the chaff in every possible sector – as the Report puts it, ‘Competition generally raises quality.’ Rationalising turning higher education into a marketplace by claiming it will improve quality is a clever smokescreen and clearly it has fooled some MPs, but it hasn’t fooled anyone with an understanding of the government’s Thatcherite agenda.


Filed under Education, Student Protests

Why I am protesting

David Cameron recently wrote in the Evening Standard, ‘Before protesting, students need to get the facts straight.’  There is an establishment theory that the student protests are a knee-jerk reaction to reform.  They claim that the student actions are ‘hysterical’ and ‘ill-informed’: basically, we don’t know what we’re talking about.  Students just want an excuse for a ruckus, the theory goes; we are bored of daytime TV and binge drinking, so we’ll try rioting for an adrenalin-filled change.

Another myth is that the students are entirely self-interested.  They don’t want to pay more fees, the critics argue, but why should the taxpayer foot the bill for their superfluous education?  However, I personally am a PhD student.  I have guaranteed (well, so they say) government funding for the next three years.  The rise in tuition fees will not affect me at all.

This dismissal of our concerns is hardly surprising, but it is time to reflect on what we are doing and make explicit our reasons for protesting.  At the protests and occupations, I have encountered students from all walks of life, demonstrating a range of political views and identities.  We all have our reasons for being there.

So what are my reasons for protesting?  Why do I care?

1. The principle – Much of the public debate regarding The Browne Report has centred on tuition fees.  Under the new government plans, students will pay up to £9,000 per year in fees for an undergraduate degree when they earn £21,000 per year; currently students pay £3,000 per year and start paying back when they earn £15,000.  The government claims this is fairer than the current system, because students pay back when they earn more money.  Critics claim it is unfair; firstly, as the fees will be so much higher they believe it will be off-putting to students from poor backgrounds, and secondly, while students start paying the fees back later they will be paying back three times more than they currently do.

This pragmatic debate about the consequences of the plans is obviously important.  However, it masks a much deeper problem.  The fees are going up because the government is almost completely removing the ‘block grant’ to universities, which underwrites their teaching.  Its removal means that universities must find their funding elsewhere.  This is why the rise in tuition fees is so steep; students are plugging the gap left by the cutting of government funding.

This is not just a problem of finances, however, it is a question of how this country views and values higher education; it is a question of principle.  University education is a public good (it benefits the whole of society and is funded by public money).  Removing state funding from universities and creating a market in higher education changes its status from public good to private commodity.  It means universities are no longer considered as centres of education, learning, cultural and intellectual advancement, acting as a forum for public critique and exchange.  They become supermarkets for school-leavers, where they acquire skills that will get them a job (preferably in science, medicine or engineering as these are the subjects that will ‘drive economic transformation.’)  This logic is deeply flawed.  The Browne Report constitutes a sea change in how we think of higher education – from public to private, state to market.

2. Police brutality – –

The police tactics at the student protests have been deplorable.  I have experienced ‘kettling’ – the police block all the exits to a small area trapping protestors for as long as they want, without access to food, water or toilets.  The aim of a ‘kettle’ is to increase the pressure among the protestors, to incite violence.  Then the police can point the finger at us for our violent behaviour.

The police have also used horse charges, where they line up dozens of mounted police and charge into the crowd.  This tactic is extremely dangerous, and it is only a matter of time before someone is badly hurt, if not killed.  At the protest on 30 November, protesters retaliated by throwing sticks and stones at the mounted police: a desperate attempt at self-defence in the face of a disproportionate attack.

The police have also hit protesters with batons.  One student, Alfie Meadows, is still in hospital suffering from life threatening brain injuries.  A disabled protester, Jody McIntyre, was dragged from his wheelchair in what he believes to be a tactic to incite retaliation from protesters.

It would be wrong to claim that every student protester has behaved like a saint, but we have to ask where the violence is coming from.  The real ‘violence’ is hemming people into an enclosed space for hours on end in the freezing cold, baiting them to retaliate, charging them with horses and beating them with batons.  The state is using excessive and disproportionate violence on people who are protesting because the politicians won’t listen to our views any other way.  The police are doing a wonderful job of radicalising a generation.

3. The bigger (feminist) picture – Students have striven to locate their concerns in the wider context of public sector cuts.  I want to set aside the question of the pros and cons of the welfare state for another day, and instead I want to highlight an under-rated effect of the cuts – the disproportionate effects on women.  As a woman and a feminist theorist, I am concerned for the future of gender equality in the UK.

In terms of higher education, the hike in fees could be off-putting to young women thinking about university.  Women earn 16.5% less than men in the same jobs, so it will take women a lot longer to pay back £27,000 worth of tuition fees.   The Women’s Budget Group is working to highlight the impact of the other cuts on women.  They have found that cuts in benefits will disproportionately affect women because 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.  65% of public sector jobs are held by women.

Broadly speaking, when the state cuts back, women fill in the gap; be it in education, health, social services or care-giving.  This has been demonstrated time and again in countries where Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) were implemented by the IMF.  There is no reason to think the effects will be different in developed countries.  Theorizing gender should be central to this movement’s aims.

4. The Alternatives – Finally, there are alternatives.  The government claims that the cuts are essential in order to deal with the deficit and to get the UK economy fighting-fit.  They have not aired or discussed the fact that there are other ways of doing this.

The UKuncut movement has highlighted that tax avoidance is a multi-billion pound enterprise.  Philip Green (government advisor on the cuts) dodged £285million pounds of tax in 2005 alone, which could send 9000 students to university, or pay the salary of 20,000 NHS nurses.  Vodafone owes the government £6billion in tax, which the courts were going to enforce until George Osbourne stepped in and allowed them to get away with £1.2bn.

False Economy has gathered evidence from Nobel prize winning economists as to why the cuts are actually detrimental to the economy, rather than to its benefit.  They argue that the cuts will slow the economy down because there will be higher unemployment, less spending, and a lower tax intake, retarding economic growth.

I am not an economist, so cannot detail a concrete alternative budget proposal.  What I object to, as a political theorist, is the lockdown on discussion of alternatives, the flagrant support of big business over the poor, and the lack of government discussion with the public.  The government is dictating from above, they have shut us out.  The government is acting in an elitist, dictatorial fashion, which is not acceptable in a liberal democracy where a plurality of ideas should be allowed to be expressed.  The alternatives ought to be discussed.

What we can see from each of my motivations – protecting education as a public good, reacting to police brutality, fighting for gender equality and trying to highlight the alternatives – is that they all stem from a common cause.  The real motivation for the government cuts in education and the public sector is ideological.  The Conservatives (and lame-duck Lib Dems) are carrying-out a backlash against the sprawling state.  Austerity has become a byword for neoliberalism.  The restructuring of education as a market, the violent state reaction to dissent, the lack of concern for equality and the lack of public debate all represent the mantra of neoliberalism – maximising the market, minimising the state.

One could argue that now Browne’s proposals have passed in government that my main reason for protesting – protecting education – has gone.  However, we must remember that the poll tax also passed in Parliament, and through public dissent and disorder it was never enforced.  It is important for the student movement to learn the lessons of the past.  It is also essential to think reflectively about why we are fighting.  We mustn’t be scared of raising the issue of ideology.  The Conservatives have an ideology and they are imposing it on us.  It is up to us to critique it, deconstruct it, and provide the alternatives.


Filed under Education, Student Protests