December 9th 2010 saw the UK parliament pass into legislation the right for universities to charge up to £9,000 per annum tuition fees for undergraduate courses. It also witnessed another day of student and staff protest in London and elsewhere, with an estimated 30,000 demonstrators. Again the vast majority of protest was entirely peaceful, intelligent, and inspiring:
Once again the protest frayed at its edges and ended in violent stand offs between baton wielding riot police and a minority of the crowd. Acts of vandalism took place (windows in the Treasury building and the Supreme Court were smashed by ‘kettled’ students and graffiti appeared on the statues of the British ‘pantheon’ that lines Westminster Square).
Inside parliament a far greater act of vandalism was taking place as the very idea of affordable publicly funded higher education was being trashed. But what are we to make of this student uprising? Because after a month of similar protests it is disingenuous to say that the violent clashes are merely the result of anarchist infiltration of the student movement. Just as it was at Millbank Tower, it is clearly students themselves who are doing this (not all students, not even a majority of students, but students none the less). In fact it is not only ‘students’ in the sense of registered undergraduates but sixth-form, A-Level students from schools and colleges, the very ones who will have to pay these fees upon graduating. Today the British media is holding its petticoats in mock-horror after the car conveying the Prince of Wales and his morganatic wife to the ludicrous pantomime of The Royal Variety Performance was dobbed with paint and had a window smashed by student protesters. Meanwhile a 20-year old philosophy undergraduate, Alfie Meadows, underwent a three-hour operation on a brain haemorrhage after having been beaten by a police truncheon outside Westminster Abbey. This was supposed to be the apathetic, x-box generation of sociological cliché, what has happened to produce this English intifada in which mounted police charge school children outside the National Gallery?
The remarkable injustice of £9,000 fees is one explanation. However, fees are only the symptom of an underlying inequity. No university will be better off under a full fees regime, they will cost the taxpayer more in the long run, and they will blight the life chances of future generations. However, fees are merely the nasty medicine suggested to fill the gap left by an 80% cut in the universities’ teaching budget with a 100% cut for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. It is for this reason that certain Vice-Chancellors embrace them (although not as many as you would think, David Willets says 53 VCs supported the government, which leaves 80 other VCs in England either opposing it or like LibDem MPs abstaining from venturing an opinion). The ‘there-is-no-alternative’ position refuses to look beyond next year’s budget spread sheet. Some of our most ‘elite’ institutions are our most indebted and most at risk from the cuts. They are, however, ‘too big to fail’ and this should be a reason to challenge the government not to appease them.
The sixth-formers are also protesting at the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance (an extended form of child benefit designed to keep people in post-16 education). The students are equally and justly angry about the betrayal of the LibDem ‘solemn pledge’ to abolish fees when so many of them had voted for the seeming ‘new politics’ of what was called in May ‘Cleggmania’. It has proved easier for LibDem ministers to enjoy the privileges of office than to honour their promises to their constituents, at the same time passing the bill for deficit reduction to those who do not yet vote. ‘Intifada’ in Arabic literally means ‘shaking off’ and this generation have much to divest themselves of: from their own previous apathy to the platitudes of unprincipled politicians who have passed on the cheque for the global banking crisis to those who do not yet even have current accounts:
The students are operating without a textbook. I do not believe that they are thinking of revolution (that is someone else’s dream). They merely want justice.
Who then shall give justice to the students of tomorrow? It will not be this government. If anyone is in any doubt that the proposed funding for higher education is anything other than the ideologically driven privatisation of universities, I refer you to an article in The Times written in 2003 by Michael Gove, presently the Secretary of State for Education:
This text requires no comment from me it speaks volumes for itself. When reading it recall that these are not the words of a Janet Daley or a Glen Beck but the UK’s Minister for Education (I am grateful to Chris Roberts for bringing it to my attention). Nor will it be the Labour Party whose leadership seem to be on a permanent sabbatical at the moment, and who at present are promising nothing although ultimately they will have to rise to the challenge. Nor will it be the NUS whose dithering demonstrates their eternal irrelevance and who could not even manage to call an official march on the day of the vote. Rather, restorative justice will only come from the students themselves. This is an uprising without coordinates or coordination, without party, without union or institution. It is a link of affiliation and solidarity beyond any common belonging to a nation, or class. It is the reimagining of alliance against power for an epoch of new networks of oppression and resistance that as yet have no road map or predetermined responses, without precedent in this country for two generations. For this reason the students must continue to protest, to hustle and hassle, to tweet and blog, and scream and shout as much as they can until this disgraceful injustice is repealed. There is much to continue fighting for at this point. The House of Lords votes on the raising of fees on Tuesday, universities must agree fee levels at future Senate meetings or their equivalents (in which ordinary academics always have the majority), and the Coalition have yet to present their Higher Education White Paper, which as primary legislation will need to be passed between the Commons, the Lords and parliamentary committee. Here it has the possibility of being picked apart and amended into something far less toxic. Having astonishingly agreed to the fees rise before the White Paper was published, what are the chances it will initially contain a number of unpleasant surprises for those 53 Vice Chancellors?
The Humanities, however, must do more than study the phenomena of their own students, because the cause of fees is also our cause. It seems like some incredible neo-liberal nightmare that an advanced industrial nation such as the UK is setting off into the second decade of the twenty-first century without a state investment in the teaching of the arts, humanities and social sciences. Fees proponents will say that state funding will flow to the Humanities through the market of student choice. However, the point is that as an a priori principle the state no longer cares whether students study the humanities or not. The unregulated market being flawless, if all students choose ‘priority’ subjects then as a matter of dogma it is fine for Art History and Classics to go out of business. How this faith in student choice squares with the government’s refusal to listen to the extraordinary protests on its own step, I cannot say. On the one hand, the government patronizes students by telling them they have not read the details of their proposals. On the other hand, they claim to be handing over the future of universities to the decision-making powers of students. Freud would call this, ironically, kettle logic. Years in universities have taught me that education is as much about what you learn from your students as what you teach them. When sixth formers throw paint at their future sovereign, Ministers of Education should be aware that they are being taught a lesson. For understanding violence is not at all the same thing as condoning it. Rather one can describe, comprehend and explain violent acts drawing practical and effective consequences while demanding accountability from those involved, those who have allowed a justly won argument to be displaced by crocodile tears over royalty, those in charge of public discourse and for those responsible for the language and institutions of law. To this end the government and the Mayor’s Office should insure that any investigation into the assault on Alfie Meadows is as swift and thorough as the pursuit of the infamous fire extinguisher incident at Millbank. We are extremely fortunate that Alfie Meadows will eventually be able to return to his studies; otherwise the students would have something entirely different to be angry about. The British state owes an ethics of care to its young people. It has failed to demonstrate it in the form of funding their higher education; it must do it in the manner in which protests by minors are policed because intifadas are not supposed to happen in England. Then again no one ever imagined England would ever threaten its Humanities in this way either. I am sure there are social scientists in our universities who could advise the government on its policing policies.