The government will at some stage publish a white paper on the future of higher education, but by that time the critical decisions will have been made. One such was yesterday’s Parliamentary vote for a staggering rise in the cap on annual tuition fees to £9k, providing a new source of revenue to universities and simultaneously providing the basis for withdrawing public funding from all but the most expensive courses to run. The logic is that in this new market, institutions will compete on quality. But I think the general ignorance about pedagogy will impede this, and things you can count (price, provision in hours or things, say, as distinct from learning itself) will become proxies for quality. I predict that higher learning will suffer, that society will be impoverished as a result, and ultimately that this marketisation will contribute to our losing ground by whatever metric you choose, including our global competitiveness, innovativeness, and GDP.
I hope the Lords spit it out, as they look like they might the day after tomorrow. It’s a topsy turvy world when you hope for a Lords vote against the commons.
On the 9th, intending to protest in Parliament Square, a colleague and I met with student union people at Charing Cross and took a route through Trafalgar Square under Admiralty Arch and into Parliament Square via Horseguards Rd. Finding some of the demonstrators as intimidating as the police, I didn’t want to be there, but I had promised myself to turn up. Society is unfair and becoming more so, and polite protest, while necessary, is inadequate for the times. Because of the inertia of the status quo it’s not possible to change things from the ground up without the kind of direct action that disrupts their normal day-to-day running. It’s also necessary to catch media attention, and the established media reflects us well in its prurience so the temptation, particularly for less creative demonstrators, is to do something tabloid. Although ultimately there needs to be a plan – and I hate the division of labour by which some people limit themselves to critique and never progress to the hard work of planning viable alternatives – sometimes at the beginning it is permitted to say simply No.
When the police let us out of Trafalgar Square demonstrators began to move at a canter to outrun their attempts to contain us further along. The young men pushing me from behind nearly felled and trampled me in pursuit of their stupid rite of passage. Twice we dodged through police lines as they were forming, arms spread and open handed, to stop us proceeding. As one officer yelled at his colleagues to strengthen the line he raised his right arm to gesture and I ducked under it while my friend went to his left. We reached Parliament Square and stood around.
It wasn’t very cold but fires were soon started. I disown the burning of our wooden benches as part of this direct action, and if I had been close enough I’d have either stopped it or taken photographic evidence to submit to the police.
College Green was fenced off but the fences were quickly dismantled and we made our way onto the grass trying not to trample our lavender and our small box plants. After half an hour or so my friend and I decided to investigate the perimeter of the police line. It was porous – we found we could leave Parliament Square and so we went for a short toilet break in the Westminster Arms which turned into a pint, which turned into the rest of the afternoon – they had rolling news on Sky and the BBC, and conveniently we couldn’t get back. We also coincidentally met with some acquaintances of mine from work, so it was too easy to remain for the rest of the evening watching the boxes and discussing what was going on. I felt guilty and relieved watching the mounted police charge into the crowd. People were bleeding. A police officer had fallen from his panicking horse which had trampled him in the stomach while trying to get away. Live by the sword, die by the sword (he didn’t die). Marko has an eyewitness account of the policing which commends the discipline of most individual police officers and condemns the policing strategy on the day. Journalist Shiv Malik was injured by police, requiring 5 stitches. The police were taking their breaks and looking after injured colleagues outside the pub, and I thought of my father in sin.
If I get into a frank conversation about fees and cuts I usually find myself frustrated or marginalised because of my tic about requiring more realism on the far left. Radicals who are only against things, and vaguely, and even more vaguely for things, are profoundly unimpressive. Plastic. A balance between realism, idealism and practice is what’s required, so if there’s nobody else interested in the ‘How’ questions, then I’ll ask those. I expect better responses than I get. Most people clearly find the questions boring. ‘How’ questions are feel-bad questions, because they uncover our intellectual apathy and consequent ignorance. Maybe this is not unrelated to our predicament.
Even the ‘What’ questions prove hard to answer. Thursday night’s Newsnight nicely encapsulated the range of misinformation being spread from some of the most prominent student demonstrators on the one hand to the Conservative architects of the new policy, on the other. Of course I side with the students – but isn’t it the case that being full of ideals and thin on facts was a good way to end up at a Nuremberg Rally?
So, when the LSE occupiers protest that their younger siblings “can’t afford to go to university”, that’s a basic misunderstanding of how the fees will be administrated. What is proposed is undeniably an easy debt to service. It is time-bound, earnings-linked, and will not effect the debtor’s credit rating. The FSE tell us there’s no basis for arguing that poor students will be less likely to attend university. It should be obvious that the meritocratic tariffs for being accepted on a university course are far, far more exclusive of poorer students than these debts will be. No, this is a matter of principle: should higher education be entirely publicly funded, or not? Should David Willetts, author of a book called The Pinch about how the baby boomers have “stolen their children’s future”, be able to require students to take on £50k of personal debt to fund the higher education their parents could get for free – and then, as he did on Newsnight, tell us unblinkingly that higher education is still tax-payer funded? (Fucking hell. I mean fucking hell.) And should a government that is hell-bent on reducing our national debt be permitted to displace it to individual citizens by requiring school-leavers and other prospective students to get into half a lifetime of personal debt?
Harder questions – questions which should have been addressed prior to the Browne Review which looked only at funding. What is higher learning today? What is it for? Again, what is higher learning, beyond simple provision followed by examination by somewhere with degree-awarding powers? How, in fact, does it relate to the idea of a university? How does it relate to the health of a public? Why should we fund it publicly? Who should be enitled to attend? And what proportion of us? Who are the beneficiaries, and to what extent? How do we reconcile a meritocratic public system with the cold hard fact of growing inequality which means that the achieving sixth formers who gain university places tend to be the privileged and self-assured ones?
I’m inclined to think little of bloggers who only ask questions without attempting to answer them, but I have to stop there. For now.
I commend my MP Lee Scott (Ilford North) for defying his whip, resigning as Parliamentary aide, and abstaining. I only wish he could have voted against the motion, as he announced he would a fortnight ago – but at any rate, he was one of the few MPs who made a sacrifice yesterday evening and he deserves credit for that. Principles and the views of his constituents above his own prospects – good for him. Lee Scott is a Conservative MP.
Looking forward, if I were a student union official I would be organising with the other institutions in the group mine was in (e.g. the Russell Group, or the 94 Group) to use completion of the National Student Survey, which is voluntarily completed by students but which feeds into league tables and is very high stakes for a university’s reputation, as a point of negotiation with senior management.
See also earlier posts:
I plan to demonstrate again, and this time I will make sure I’m actually there, with heavy duty gloves, contact lenses, pillows and a hard hat.