The response to the Browne Report on university funding and student finance, and its subsequent interpretation by the Coalition government, has taken several forms amongst UK academics. First, there are those who are quite rightly angered and are determined to speak out against it (more of them later). Second, there is a far greater number who are dismayed by it but who accept it as an immutable reality and a fait accompli. For them, a £9,000 p.a. tuition fee is just the latest in a long line of government impositions on universities, from the Quality Assurance Agency to Impact Case Studies, and just as impossible to challenge. There is of course a difference: the QAA never prevented anyone going to university and ‘Impact’ has not withdrawn all funding from the arts, humanities and social sciences. While the threat of job cuts in some institutions mean many are reluctant to speak out, surely some discrimination is required here. Third, there is a surprisingly large number of people who secretly and not so secretly welcome the fees hike because they think it will see the end of Mickey Mouse degrees and Goofy universities.
You should always be careful what you wish for. £6-9,000 fees will not see the end of Media Studies and Creative Arts programmes (surely it is the very logic of a market of student choice that these enormously popular courses will continue). Rather they are more likely to see the end of Classics, Art History, Modern Languages, Archaeology, etc. or rather, the retreat of these disciplines into a rump of institutions where they will live on as cross-subsidised, second-class citizens and the preserve of those who are able to afford them. £6-9,000 fees will not see the end of accursed ex-Polys (who are frequently called ‘Metropolitan’ for a reason) but will imperil the indistinguishable middle-range of rural, predominately humanities based institutions from Lampeter to Lancaster to Keele. When one of these institutions falls on hard times the advocates of the free market will say, like Prufrock, ‘that’s not what we meant at all’, and laissez-faire will be replaced by a meddling state constantly intervening to correct the errors of student choice. The so-called new universities are engaged in a social process that their critics cannot begin to understand. Their transformation of the life chances of entire ethnic and class groups is perhaps as significant to British society today as the founding of the NHS was in 1945. The democratization of higher education is not something to be wished away lightly.
But all of this is of course completely unknowable because the assumptions behind Browne and the funding arrangements proposed by the Coalition are, at best, risky and untested. No modelling has been done to see what the possible outcome of these changes might be; no one asked HEFCE to provide figures and data. Instead blind prejudice and vanity have convinced certain Vice-Chancellors and policy makers that so-called ‘elite’ institutions will be able to charge whatever fee they like while continuing to staff first year lecture courses with graduate teaching assistants. The scandalous appropriation of the name of the ‘research elite’ by the Russell Group, who have driven this whole sorry mess, really has to be challenged. They are in no way elite, they are simply large science-based civics with medical schools that open the door to the riches of medical research funding and who are therefore quite happy with the proposed funding arrangements for ‘priority’ subjects. Their managers have behaved like playground bullies and have forgotten their responsibility to the sector, to the mission of the university and most importantly to their students. A recent study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (http://bit.ly/cRjo0i) demonstrates the spurious nature of the Treasury’s assumptions concerning fees and clearly shows that the whole scheme will be more expensive to the state than paying for universities by direct taxation. It will also result in an inevitable cap on student numbers and restricted participation. That is to say, HEPI show that fees have nothing to do with debt reduction and everything to do with dogmatic ideology.
We talk blithely about such terms as ‘the student experience’ and ‘student satisfaction’. The 50,000 protesters who marched down Whitehall on Wednesday 10th November have clearly demonstrated their own idea of ‘student choice’. The Demo was an inspiring occasion full of wit, invention, hope and intelligence. It made me extraordinarily proud of the collective student body, organised without bitterness and engaged without preconceptions. It was a salutary reminder of why I became an academic. As reported across the globe the Demo ended badly with a group of students (and anarchist groups) occupying the Tory Party HQ in Millbank amidst clashes with the police. I have nothing against the occupation of buildings, sit-ins and sit-downs; this has been the traditional form of student protest for centuries. However, I do have a problem with acts of violence that disregard our own ethical obligations. Not because like the President of the NUS I have to say such a thing, in case the contrary were ever quoted back to me in my afterlife as a prospective parliamentary Labour candidate. Rather, because we cannot take the moral high ground in an argument about the value of education and then make our point by putting a boot through a plate glass window. To paraphrase Michael Servetus, to break a window does not defend an idea, it just breaks a window. One wins arguments by having better arguments, not by throwing fire extinguishers from roofs. This much my years in universities have taught me. Some will say that this position is bourgeois. Well, universities are bourgeois, they reproduce the middle class, they are factories for the bourgeoisie. Anarchy and the institution of the university would be strange bedfellows. It also should be said that the mediatised violence at 30 Millbank was nothing compared to the real violence of, say, the under criticised war in Afghanistan or the structural violence that would deprive generations of their democratic right to higher education. The fact that the strength of feeling of students at Millbank took everyone by surprise tells us much about the culture of compliance in universities over the last 25 years. However, rather than the enormous outpouring of the Demo resulting in a critical public discourse on higher education, we are now in danger of suffering a mediatic reduction in which the metonymic scene of adrenaline-fuelled brainlessness with a fire extinguisher stands for the heart-felt expression of thousands.
Before Wednesday the question I was most frequently asked by fellow academics was… but what is to be done? The subtext to this question was that nothing could be done. I do not think that is the case any more. The 50,000 students gathered on Wednesday have opened the door to another possible future. The purpose of the Demo was not to make Tory MPs change their minds. Tory MPs never change their minds. In fact the state is never perturbed by a bit of political violence at the end of a Demo; nothing better to reassure itself of its correctness and to justify subsequent repressive interventions. Rather, it was to bring pressure to bear upon Lib Dems sitting on slender majorities and uneasy consciences. It was designed to send a message to Vice-Chancellors that students and staff come before spreadsheets (most of the students I saw were from the ‘research-intensives’). What is to be done is to discomfort these people, to affect the parliamentary arithmetic and encourage the sector to save itself from its own managerial fantasies. It has also set a high bar for future protests against the cuts. As Pete Seeger used to say when introducing the last lines of ‘We Shall Overcome’: ‘the most important verse is the one they wrote down in Montgomery Alabama when the young people taught everybody else a lesson. All the old people who’d learned how to compromise, and take it easy, and be polite and get along and leave things as they are. The young people said “We are not afraid, we are not afraid today’’’. This is the real cultural significance of Millbank Tower, that students with nothing to lose showed that unlike the academic pessimists they are not afraid to speak out against the vandalism being wrought upon them and those who come after them. I want to see more wit and decisive critical intelligence from student protesters and no more narcissistic riots, but we should all learn a lesson from the 50,000 students and say we are not afraid, not today, not anymore.
Next LGS event: Geoffrey Bennington (Emory University), ‘Political Animals: Aristotle, Hobbes, Heidegger’, Monday 15th November, 6pm. Venue: Swedenborg Hall, 20-21 Bloomsbury Way, London, WC1A 2TH. Public lecture, all welcome.