Sunday, 14 November 2010

Protest? I Predict a Riot!

The recent scenes of so-called 'anarchists' smashing their way in to the HQ of the Conservative Party caused much consternation across the National Press. One recurring image of a black-clad miscreant aiming a kick at the already buckling plate-glass window was featured on nine separate front pages. It summed up the aggression and anger present in the act but also raised many more questions. What the image did most successfully was to shift focus away from what should have been the real story of the day - that 50,000 + people had calmly and peacefully protested at the Govenrment's plans to lift the cap on University tuition fees. Instead, what the world saw was a small minority of protestors acting in a way to guarantee front-page coverage. There is no news in peaceful and considered action.

But let us take a closer look at this image. Taken from the Guardian website and cropped to fit their front page, the first thing that strikes the viewer is the scrum of photographers and cameramen lined up to capture the action. One then notices the police officer standing behind the press and seemingly making no attempt to intervene. Could it be that the action was, if not exactly staged, then certainly encouraged by the media desperate for the right image to fit their news agenda?

That agenda seemed to be to direct the attention away from the fact that as a result of the changes to University tuition fees, many, many fewer people will be able to afford a University education. Current estimates are that the prestigious Universities (Oxbridge, Durham, Manchester and the like) will soon be charging tuition fees of £9,000 per year. Other institutions will follow suit, fearing that to charge less will somehow signify that they offer an inferior brand of education. In comparison with other countries in the European Union and further afield, it is already more expensive to educate your child at a British University. If the situation goes on unchanged then by 2012 it will be cheaper to study for a degree in the USA than in the UK. This fact takes into account the travel and accommodation costs.

How can we have got to this point? Back in 1991 I was at Middlesex Polytechnic as was - it was due to become Middlesex University with the granting of its charter in 1992. The then Conservative Government planned to introduce tuition fees and the idea of the student loan. Up until that point a means tested grant system meant that all but the wealthiest had their fees paid by the state. Students protested against the introduction of student loans and Middlesex was one of the first institutions to be mobilised against the plans. A student sit-in took place and many of us joined a rally and march through London. It was a peaceful and quite jolly affair with students and lecturers from all over the country chanting slogans and waving banners. The event attracted some media attention and, because our University had been in from the start, other institutions that took action were said to have caught 'the Middlesex disease'.

Three weeks' of sit-ins, meetings, discussion and speeches from Politics undergrads and the whole thing fizzled out. Many of the students had taken the opportunity to go home early for Christmas. Only a hard-core remained until the last day when they ambled, tired and dishevelled from the University buildings and went to the Student Union bar for a pint. Early in 1992 the student loan scheme was introduced. Our actions had had no impact whatsoever. Education was moving slowly, almost imperceptibly, towards commodification and commercialism.

In May 1997 I was back at Middlesex University, this time directing a student production. We were still drunk from the night before when we had watched New Labour sweep to victory in the General Election. One of the sweetest moments was watching Michael Portillo lose his seat in the local Southgate constituency to a young gun called Stephen Twigg (until quite recently he had been the President of the National Union of Students). New Labour came in and Tony Blair gave his famous 'Education, Education, Education' speech, and we really felt that this was a time of change. Ambitious plans for 50% of all under 30s to be in Higher Education by 2010 were laid and the sector ballooned. But the student loans stayed and the threshold for having to repay them crept lower. New institutions sprang up to meet demand for places and more and more young people saddled themselves with the equivalent of a small mortgage just to get a degree.

And now, here we are in 2010, with Government spending on education being slashed, thousands of jobs in the education sector at risk, and the prospect of a minimum of £27,000 worth of debt facing the majority of students. Debate rages about the 'value' of a degree and what effect having one has on one's potential earning power. Business and industry talk of a skills deficit and the focus is moving away from a breadth of provision to a concentration on Science, Technology,Engineering and Maths. Arts and Humanities faculties are bracing themselves for lean times ahead.

All of these changes (and some change is undoubtedly necessary) are being forced through by a generation of politicians who never had to pay for their education - either because the state paid for it or they were from a wealthy enough background not to have to worry. The future generations are being left with the debts. As I have said before on these pages; it is crucial that we invest in the future. To starve the education sector of cash, or to price many bright and able students out of the market does not make any sense. It may do in the columns of a spreadsheet but in human terms it does not add up. It does not become a so-called civilised country to treat its young people with such disdain. Education in general and University education in particular is about creating a well-rounded, interesting and interested citizen; someone who engages with the society that they are part of and contributes something back to it. To reduce this process to a monetary transaction demeans it even further.

So, there is much to get angry about. For many young people currently applying for University entry in 2011 there is the prospect of a heavy debt burden. Funding cuts will mean fewer places available and higher fees wil be necessary to cover the costs. It is to the credit of the 50,000 protestors that they did remain calm in the circumstances. That a minority made the headlines and obscured the real story may lead to larger numbers using the same tactics to get the message heard.