UK Student-Led Demo Against University Fees And Austerity Cuts – OpEd

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It’s hard to believe that it’s just a year since 50,000 students, lecturers, university staff, schoolchildren and concerned citizens marched through central London to protest against the Tory-led coalition government’s plans to triple university tuition fees, to cut all funding to arts, humanities and the social sciences courses, and to cut the Education Maintenance Allowance, which supported schoolchildren on lower incomes, but now the time has come for concerned parties to take to the streets once more to show their opposition to the government’s white paper on higher education reform, which focuses on students as consumers, completely ignores the public value of higher education, and points to a privatised future of greater cost and greater inequality.

In September, nearly 400 academic campaigners, members of professional bodies, and concerned individuals published a hugely important response to the government’s plans, a document entitled, “In Defence of Public Higher Education,” in which they provided nine reasons for defending higher education as it currently stands, including a recognition that “higher education has public as well as private benefits and these public benefits require financial support,” a recognition that “public universities have a social mission and help to ameliorate social inequality,” that “public higher education is part of a generational contract in which an older generation invests in the wellbeing of future generations,” and that “education cannot be treated as a simple consumer good.”

They also concluded, appropriately, that the “commodification of higher education” is  “the secret heart of the white paper,” and that the government “seeks a differently funded sector, one which can provide new outlets for capital that struggles to find suitable opportunities for investment elsewhere” — a conclusion that applies equally to the government’s malignant plans to privatise the NHS. The authors also concluded that the government’s plans are “based on ideology rather than financial necessity, and will make no lasting savings.”

The battle to prevent the government’s first reckless gamble with the future of Britain’s universities, for purely ideological reasons, was lost on December 9 last year, when Lib Dem MPs failed to revolt against the bill in the House of Commons, allowing fees to rise to £9,000 a year, but it was a sign of more fundamental unrest to come, as revolutionary impulses swept the Middle East, and movements for profound economic and political change in the West began in Madison, Wisconsin, sprang up as a result of huge unemployment and economic collapse in Greece and Spain, and, in the last two months, have also surfaced in the global “Occupy” movement, which began on Wall Street but has spread across America and around the world, including the UK, where the most prominent camp, outside St. Paul’s, has been dominating the news for the last three weeks.

In this hugely changed political atmosphere, “Occupy London” seems very much to be partly the child of last autumn’s protests, when the campaign against the government’s attacks on universities was the vanguard of a nascent movement opposed to the imposition of an age of austerity, when those responsible for the global economic downturn — the banks — and the individuals and major corporate interests who contributed to it through systematic tax evasion have not been reined in or made to contribute and change their ways.

With unemployment on the rise across the West — and youth unemployment at historic highs — the “Occupy” movement is a focal point for dissent that, as I see it, cannot and will not go away. Without jobs, or with incomes savagely squeezed, people who have refused to sedate themselves at home have no reason not to be out on the streets, refusing to back down until those in charge of servicing a tiny and almost unbelievably wealthy elite shift their priorities to their populations as a whole — from the 1 percent to the 99 percent, to quote the movement’s powerful rallying cry.

As the next phase of this movement in the UK — and a revival of the struggle to save higher education in the UK from the depredations of the savagely inept Tory-led government — the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, supported by the NUS (the National Union of Students — although please note that there is nothing on its website relating to the demo) and UCU (the University and College Union), as well as Occupy LSX (Occupy London) and a number of trade unions, has organised a national demonstration on Wednesday November 9, under the slogan, “Defend Education, Fight Privatisation,” and organisers are hoping that tens of thousands of people will attend. A Facebook page is here, and 4,500 people have already said they will be there.

The organisers have also indicated that students and other campaigners next Wednesday will specifically be joined by thousands of striking electricians, who are marching with Unite the Union in protest at a 35 percent national pay cut. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts has stated that it is “fully supporting the electricians’ strike as part of a broader opposition to pay and pensions cuts ahead of the November 30th strikes, and the two mobilisations may link up on the day.” The organisers also note that UK Uncut are supporting the demonstration.

In London, where many students will be gathering from across the country at 11 am, a march will begin at 12 noon from ULU (the University of London Union) on Malet Street, and will proceed, via Trafalgar Square and the “Occupy London” protest camp at St. Paul’s, to Moorgate (a  map of the route is here). The organisers have stated that they made a decision “to march on the City, rather than to Parliament, in the midst of fresh financial crises and Occupy LSX,” and also noted that Moorgate was chosen because it is “next to London Metropolitan University, which will be one of the hardest hit institutions.”

As the organisers explained, “London Met has the highest percentage of working class students in the country, with more black and minority ethnic students than the whole of the elite Russell Group combined. Last academic year saw a 70% cut to [its] Undergraduate course portfolio and a move to more vocational style degrees, and activists are anticipating more cuts over the next year.”

The organisers also explain, crucially, “Protesters will be marching to derail the government’s higher education white paper, which has been described by academics and students as a chaotic and regressive attempt to introduce markets and private providers into education, effectively ending it as a public service.”

Michael Chessum of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts said, “In marching on the City, we are sending a message that we will not let the Government to hand over education to the markets. Education should be a public service, accessible to all — not a corporate enterprise.”

Claire Locke, President of London Met students’ union, said, “These policies have led to a disproportionate attack on our most vulnerable students. We have already had students drop out due to financial hardship and lack of student support. London Met SU, UCU and UNISON branches voted unanimously to support the national Demonstration and we will be working with the local communities to build a mass turnout for the 9th of November.”

On the demonstration’s Facebook page, the organisers note:

Last year the Tory-Lib Dem government scrapped EMA and raised university tuition fees to £9000, betraying election pledges and effectively pricing many of us out of education. Those who want to go onto masters degrees or doctorates are facing uncapped and rapidly rising fees, at the same time as cuts to what little funding exists to support them. Now the government is attempting to push through a wave of privatisation that threatens to make universities about profit and management, not about students or social justice. Going to uni or getting a decent job will become even more the preserve of the rich.

Last year students, pupils and workers fought back with mass protests, strikes and waves of direct action. We were the biggest youth rebellion since the 1960s, and we aren’t going away. Together we can save education and the welfare state from the Tories.

For those who may have thought that the struggle against an increase in tuition fees was the beginning and the end of the government’s assault on higher education, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts points out that in many ways the battle has only just begun. The NCAFC proves a link to a response to the government’s white paper on higher education reform, written by Luke Durigan, an NCAFC activist and Education and Campaigns Officer at UCL Union, which I urge those interested in the survival of our universities to read. A synopsis is as follows:

The reforms can be broadly understood as a hurried and jumbled attempt at opening a market in the higher education sector; remodelling students as consumers and universities as service providers. The Higher Education White Paper is one of the most drastic and far reaching reforms proposed to any public service for decades.

The White Paper strikes a significant blow to access and social mobility. The potential to impact on the most under-represented groups is overwhelming and cannot be ignored; the proposals threaten to strengthen a systemic bias and will reinforce a university education as a positional good reserved for the elite in society.

Below I’m also cross-posting an important article from the Guardian, published on September 27, about the opposition to the government’s white paper mentioned above, by the academic campaigners, members of professional bodies and concerned individuals who produced their own detailed response, in a document entitled, “In Defence of Public Higher Education.”

Higher education white paper is provoking a winter of discontent
By Harriet Swain, The Guardian, September 27, 2011

Hundreds of academics have signed a document, published today, that warns of dire consequences should the government’s white paper on higher education become law.

The document, In Defence of Public Higher Education, endorsed by a wide range of prominent academics, including Stefan Collini, of Cambridge University, and Howard Hotson, of Oxford, offers an alternative to the government’s vision for the sector in the form of nine propositions about higher education’s value to society. Drawing on recent research, it also argues that the changes proposed are based on ideology rather than financial necessity, and will make no lasting savings.

Campaigners hope it will lead to an autumn of debate and protest over the white paper’s proposals, which are due to come into effect next year. “The hope would be that it provides a well-formulated agenda on the future of higher education, in contrast to the one the government has railroaded through,” says Simon Szreter, professor of history and public policy at the University of Cambridge, who helped to draw up the document. “It is a counter to the breathtaking speed of the government programme and its reliance on an atrociously flimsy document, the Browne Review.”

Today’s publication argues that the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding, chaired by former BP chief executive Lord Browne of Madingley, and the subsequent white paper, completely ignore the public value of higher education, concentrating instead on “the private benefits to individuals in the form of higher earnings deriving from investment in their human capital, and to the ‘knowledge economy’ in terms of product development and contribution of economic growth”.

It suggests that this focus on students as consumers attacks the very values the prime minister believes would reverse the “moral decline” blamed for the recent riots.

And it accuses the mission groups representing different kinds of universities, including the Russell Group and the 1994 Group of leading research universities, of lack of leadership and of failing to defend the values of public higher education while for-profit providers have successfully lobbied for their own interests.

Nearly 400 academic campaigners, members of professional bodies such as the British Philosophical Association, and individuals have signed the “alternative white paper”, which was drawn up over the summer by a working group led by John Holmwood, professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham and founder of the Campaign for the Public University.

He says: “The people signing up are very senior academics. They are saying, ‘At last there is a voice talking about public higher education and something other than questions of economic expediency’.”

The document’s nine propositions are that higher education has public as well as private benefits and these public benefits require financial support; that public universities are necessary to build and maintain confidence in public debate; that public universities have a social mission and help to ameliorate social inequality; that public higher education is part of a generational contract in which an older generation invests in the wellbeing of future generations; that public institutions providing similar programmes of study should be funded at a similar level; that education cannot be treated as a simple consumer good; that training in skills is not the same as university education — something the title of a university should recognise; that a university is a community made up of different disciplines and of different activities of teaching, research and external collaboration; and finally that universities are not only global institutions, but also serve their local and regional communities.

A separate appendix makes the case that switching the costs of tuition from grants to loan-backed fees may reduce the deficit in the short term, but is an accounting trick. In the long term, debt could increase as students default or write off loan repayments, and tax revenues from those who reject higher education as too expensive are lost.

It also accuses the government of wanting eventually to introduce a pricing mechanism based on how much of the loans made to students studying specific degrees at specific institutions are repaid.

“The commodification of higher education is at the secret heart of the white paper,” it argues. “The government seeks a differently funded sector, one which can provide new outlets for capital that struggles to find suitable opportunities for investment elsewhere.”

Publication of the document comes a week after the end of formal consultation on the white paper and amid increasing criticism of government plans for HE.

Responding to the consultation, Universities UK warned of “unintended consequences for students and universities” from the proposals, with potentially adverse effects on social mobility, student choice, institutional subject mix and the future viability of some institutions”.

The 1994 Group warned that high-quality places for students could be lost, and science subjects could be badly affected. A higher-education thinktank, Million+, called for the withdrawal of plans to introduce a market in university places, while the British Academy, the UK’s national representative body for the humanities and social sciences, said the plans could damage the international reputation of UK higher education.

Howard Hotson, professor of early modern intellectual history and a founding member of the Oxford University Campaign for Higher Education, says: “We offer fantastic value for money. The UK university system is astonishingly good. There is no intellectual justification whatsoever for radically overhauling it, and if you radically overhaul it, you can guarantee to make it worse.”

He calls on academics and students to join forces to oppose the moves and predicts a “winter of discontent” including actions by students and academic unions. Another campaigner, Kate Tunstall, said she expected further motions of no confidence in the universities minister, David Willetts, to follow votes at Oxford, Cambridge, Leeds and Bath earlier in the summer. She is among those who want to encourage parents and the general public to join the debate.

The Local Schools Network has already backed today’s document. Melissa Benn, its co-founder, says: “Education is bigger than self-interest and a race to the top. If we sacrifice the idea of the education system being at the very centre of the social fabric we will pay a price in the long term.”

Stefan Collini, professor of English literature and intellectual history at Cambridge, who has written a series of critiques of government higher education policy, warns that the proposals in the white paper misunderstand what universities are about. “It’s very important that academics who see the ways in which this policy is fundamentally flawed and misguided try to explain this and work for the long-term development of a better-grounded policy,” he says. “For that reason the alternative white paper makes a very valuable contribution.”

Willetts has responded to critics by arguing that the success of British universities in research has been the result of a system that places intense competition in a wider legal framework and that the government’s proposals aim to achieve the same for teaching and the student experience.

In a letter published in the London Review of Books in July he “pleaded guilty to believing in choice and competition”, but said that these should be rooted in a national culture, strong institutions and a set of moral understandings.

*****

If, like me, you’d like to show David Willetts why he’s wrong, why he and his Tory colleagues are a disgrace and have no mandate for their myopic obsession with privatisation, and why all principled Liberal Democrats should pull the plug on this cruel and inept coalition government without further delay, then please turn up for the march next Wednesday.

Note: For further information about the demonstration, please email the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts or phone 07964 791663.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.

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