Two years after Millbank Tower played hostage to a typhoon of apoplectic stupidity during the tuition fees demo, student resistance is scorned as ill-informed, pointless and rogue by the political-media complex, but the urgency of protest has only ever increased. Amidst the bloodied panorama of public sector butchery Universities are faced with market reforms and budget cuts undermining the individual and social development they facilitate, whilst Vice-Chancellors like Southampton’s Don Nutbeam remain idly indifferent to student concerns aired in prestigious national media.
Convincing students to protest is hard, but it’s one of our only resources to register a festering dissent suppressed by the narrative of recession and deficit which, ratcheted to new heights after the coalition took office, subsequently consigned debate about public goods into a dilapidated box labelled “irresponsible Marxist nonsense,” kicked about and then booted aside by Ministers quietly hoping enthusiasm for social justice will stale, but students remain as caustic as ever.
Contrary to the myth that opposition is the tantrum of self-serving middle class eighteen-year-olds trying to evade a stinging bill for a three year blood-alcohol level competition, students actively benefiting from fairer fees regimes raise genuine concerns about effect of the financial burden facing incoming undergrads on social mobility.
“I think I’m probably a good example of why fees matter,” a PhD student planning a career as a researcher told me, before adding “I’ve loved every minute of uni, but I almost didn’t go”. This situation is familiar to many prospective Southampton students who have the ambition or capacity to contribute to society as a graduate, but lack an immediate example in their family due to social background.
Yet the Tory commentariat scoff that fees won’t put students off. A degree is still a worthwhile pursuit they correctly opine, before spoiling themselves with a spiteful, ignorant and bizarre assertion: If the fees put you off University, then you simply didn’t want to go to begin with. This comes from a total misunderstanding of how students from less privileged backgrounds, conspicuously under-represented in the cabinet, assess their options when applying to University:
“Even though I did fine at school, neither of my parents and none of my immediate family has gone to uni, and I just assumed I wouldn’t either,” the PhD student continued. “I went because my fees were about 1000… mostly paid for by my local educational authority. If I’d have been looking at fees over 20000 and debts of nearly 50000 I just wouldn’t have taken the risk, given that university just wasn’t a normal thing for people around me.”
In working families and communities where elders didn’t attend University, a degree isn’t apparent as a natural extension of talent and ability in the same way that it is for the most privileged students and the difference between £3000 and £9000 reasonably seems enormous. The coalition ask us to believe that prospective students could understand the wisdom of the fees increase would they care to scrutinize spreadsheets and mull on tenuous Tory logic, that avoiding University because of financial concerns is a symptom of personal stupidity rather than a symptom of Tory ideology, but it’s simply untrue.
“This is why it makes me angry when people say fees don’t put most students off. That might be true, but the point is which kind of students it puts off. If going to university isn’t common in your area, then even if you work really hard at school, fees suddenly matter an awful lot”.
That “the axe had to land somewhere” during “the worst recession of a generation” is an often cited rationale for the fees increase but the same student commentator later struck at the crux of the issue by stating that “an educated workforce is the best way to invest in our future.” On top of standard taxes graduates will be making an extra contribution as large as £50,000, but when their learning and skills are an economic investment in and of themselves, this prescription is fatally unsound, an economic magic bullet teeming with cyanide.
Specific campaign focus on fees can, unintentionally, create a myopic debate about higher education reforms, which are also affecting postgraduate funding, teaching, EMA and university welfare services, and facilities “that make it possible for people with mental health problems to go to university in the first place”. One undergraduate confided that “the lack of provision is definitely detrimental to my studies”.
A study conducted by the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggested that the majority of students experiencing mental illness, which affects one in four people in the UK over their lifetime, haven’t sought medical or educational support. This could be due either to unawareness of their condition or to stigma, but their prospects could be jeopardized should they come to depend on University welfare services facing funding changes and outsourcing.
Whilst students emotively cited siblings’ life chances as a worry in the survey responses for this article, the legacy of the 2010 protest remains a major disincentive for attendance at demo2012. NUS president Liam Burns has commendably endorsed peaceful protest after his organization was beleaguered by rogue protesters.However, it is important to remember that the incidence of criminality was exacerbated by the press, which wrongly and insultingly conflated the student movement with unthinking, life endangering violence.
We can say without shame that it’s wrong for government to prostrate Universities to the market, for elites who benefited from heavily subsidized education to deny posterity a similar opportunity to flourish as thinkers and practitioners. The idea that student protest is pointless, ineffective and a gateway to rampant criminality becomes dangerous when we believe it, so join SUSU at the demo on November 21st, link arms with your peers and stand firm against reckless violence, the worst of which is intentionally directed at future generations by the Tory agenda.
Demo 2012: Wednesday 21st November, Central London.
Coach tickets for this event, advertised here, are being sold for £5 at the SUSU box office. Please book early so we have an indication of numbers.