The weakness of the tuition fees protest

Joel Cohen

106667865 221x300 The weakness of the tuition fees protestDespite the multitude of banners, chants and speeches at last Wednesday’s national student demonstration ’Fund Our Future: Stop Education Cuts’, which brought an estimated 50,000 students out onto the streets, I still find it hard to demystify exactly what my fellow students were protesting about. Was it a frustration with Lib Dem impotence, a rejection of the marketisation and the gentrification of higher education, or a stand against austerity more broadly?

The ambiguity – and therefore weakness – of the demonstration’s aims, makes it only too easy for media focus to turn from an examination of why a greater number of students saw fit to take to the streets than has happened for over a decade, to instead focusing coverage on a narrow discussion about the violent tactics of a handful of protesters.

This came as no surprise to me: the organized student movement dropped the ball when it came to making a case for the actual worth of education long ago. Instead of making a defence of what higher education should be about, students have been infected by the managerial rhetoric that limits itself to arguing against cuts because: a) they will be bad for the economy or b) they will damage students’ chances in the job market.

Taking to the streets waving placards proclaiming ‘F*** the Fees’, even lobbing bricks or smashing windows, cannot take from the inherently conservative arguments at the heart of student politics today: one that merely apes the utilitarianism spouted by this Coalition government and developed par excellence by their New Labour predecessors.

My student peers may scream angrily,  but the content of what they are screaming merely echoes the politicians’ own lingo of “evidence-based policy”, allowing the value of higher education to be measured in statistical terms of economic return, working out at (precisely) £2.60 for every £1 spent, (see the student-run Free Education Campaign).  So much for valuing education as an intrinsic good!  Students themselves have internalized the idea that its value is more about its contribution to GDP or their own employability than acquisition of and expansion of human knowledge.

The transformation of higher education from a public good to an instrument of economic policy has, in truth, met little resistance from the student movement in recent years. But it’s a disaster for students like myself who are really concerned about defending the value of higher education if the NUS is allowed to abandon making a case for the importance of the ivory towers as a place to pursue knowledge for its own sake, unencumbered by market forces.

We should be furious that students’ angry militancy was notable by its absence when the four higher education funders announced on Thursday that they are introducing the demand that research must promise to make an impact within a 15 year timescale and provide evidence of its social benefit, or it will be ruled unworthy of public funds.  If anything merits a riot, it’s this blatant assault on academic freedom and open-ended academic enquiry.

One problem lies in the fact that concern for access to knowledge – the reason, in my view, why students should be at university – has long played second fiddle to using student politics as a therapeutic stage on which to play out narcissistic discussions around identity politics.  Rather than focusing on debates around assaults on their academic subjects or scholarship per se, too often I find students seem more like self-conscious consumers, egotistically demanding that the state has a duty to protect students’ lifestyle choices and validate their identities – as though their educational experience is no more than an expression of their personal choices. There is something self-regarding to demand that the fight is to, as one popular slogan puts it: “Save Our Studies”.

The language of “inalienable human rights” may allow students to claim higher education as being an objective entitlement, but actually this is more akin to a peculiar brand of identity and victim politics (poor oppressed students whose lifestyles are under threat from nasty cuts) and a case of special pleading.  A quick browse of the NUS’s Campaigns website makes the organisation look like an RSPCA for youth sub-cultural breeds in need of state protection. The result of all of this meant that the apparent objective of the demonstration on Wednesday made little reference to a defence of the academy or a political argument for knowledge for its own sake, regardless of economic challenges.

The organised student movement has either missed or actively supported the idea that university study and research should stay relevant to a government agenda of social targets or economic advancement – the logical foundation of the Browne Review they now rage against. I urge that before taking to the streets, we re-evaluate the business of student politics and recognise the culture of seeking protection for hard done-by student consumers as a crippling one. Once we’ve achieved this, we could then have a real fight to justify the value of education beyond the concerns of business and commerce, instead of the petulant theatrics we saw on Wednesday.

Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

Joel Cohen is an undergraduate student studying politics at SOAS and a member of the Battle of Ideas Committee. He produced the Battle of Ideas debate “Political graffiti or self-important art?” on Saturday 30 October.

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  • Concerned

    Ah yes, of course – and BECAUSE Major started it, that means Labour had NO CHOICE but to follow, of course.

    I blame it all on Gladstone.

  • Ponkbutler

    A very cheap shot, that betrays your lack of sincerity.There’s a difference between a political party presenting a platform of policies for the country (over many months research and analysis one would hope) and then reneging on it (and indeed, as we have discovered, planning to renege on it before the election), and a group of individuals responding to the first set of changes to that manifesto (finally announced after several months of build-up/soften up).The cynicism is yours entirely, as is the speed of response (not entirely unlike what you are attacking with “put think” and three Bs in rabble). Then of course there is the old establishment ploy/pretence that a word like “rabble” has no political agenda or manipulation of its own. The callous and cynical plotters and liars in Westminster are not rabble, I take it.

  • Ponkbutler

    No where’s the difference: some of us ourselves as “family, friends, philanthropists” as you put it and are happy to provide help on an organised basis so that all of our brothers and sisters who are living lives or periods of difficulty have a safety net in a similar way, which provides help with care and respect.

    However you label what provides that nationally or internationally is irrelevant, if it’s the goal you care about.

    If you keep rejecting the goal and sound off about whether it is welfarism/statism/socialism or whatever, there’s one thing you can ‘t hide: your indifference.

  • OldHector

    I left university 27 years ago, and soon I’ll be doing what I can to assist my kids with their further education, should they deem that to be the best path.

    I was talking to a student the other day. She was studying Psychology, and I asked her what she wanted to do after that, and she said ‘Research’. She did not have a game plan for her career or for her life. Yes, we need to have researchers, but you cannot ignore that dedicating your life to a worthwhile cause is going to impact your lifestyle at some point.

    My view is that career planning should start at the grave. You should think of yourself on your deathbed and consider from that perspective what your life’s big successes were. E.g., I’d say my children, a loving partner, an enjoyable career that rewarded sufficiently well for a comfortable life and a fullfilling retirement. The first two are down to making the most of life’s opportunities, but the third, the career, is where the planning comes in.
    > What will be in demand for the 40 years I will work, and will pay at a reasonable level so I can suppport a family?
    > How flexible can I be during my working life? Could I learn a foreign language and work overseas?
    > … and then, finally, what skills will I need?

    Unlike the author, I don’t think university ‘is access to knowledge’; it is access to a qualification.

    Yes, it is a total travesty that we can’t educate our own workforce without charging education fees, but look on the brightside – there are unlimited numbers of foreign graduates that can fill the vacancies if we are unable to train our own people ;-/

    Higher fees will mean fewer students, and easier access to jobs. Maybe that makes the extra fee worthwhile?

    The gameplan is the critical thing.

  • towneslives

    I understand the frustration; indeed, I shared in it. That’s doesn’t mean it will have any effect other than as an act of catharsis. DIY rarely works. The Tories won’t back down now, any more than Thatcher did with the unions in the 80s.

    I’m not naive about the moral or ideological purity of the Labour Party (hence why I wrote “Quite an if”), I’m just saying I don’t see an alternative channel for furthering the cause. What do you propose? That the students riot and protest until Cameron just capitulates? He’s not stupid – he’d never survive such an act of weakness. Besides, if Cameron gives in to the students, he might as well email every other public sector union to invite them to strike for a few weeks if they want to stop pay cuts.

    Direct action is pointless because people don’t listen to the argument, it just gets drowned out by the banging, fighting and window smashing. That’s not to say apathy’s the way either – Wednesday will let Cameron know he’s got a fight on his hands, so it’s a start but the real problem is numbers. 50,000 is 2.5% of the student population so, however many windows get smashed, it can be explained away as a few angry extremist. If there were, say 500,000 students peacefully but loudly marching through central London, that’s different. That’s the only way to “finish the job”.

  • Robin Morritt

    Waste of time closing down those coal fired power stations then. For clarity at the expense of crudeness, I suggest the only “good” reason for fees is that it helps keep the plebs out of university. With apologies.

  • politicalone

    I can understand the frustration Joseph2000 but please don’t fall into the trap of thinking people defined by some huge loose criterion (baby boomers, women, blacks, gays etc etc) can actually be ‘held responsible’ ‘for things that happen to coincide in some way with their existence.
    For example, what about those baby boomers who spent their life trying to prevent or ameliorate some of the things you worry about? You may eventually discover what true frustration is when you attempt to do something about it. No disrespect.

  • Joseph2000

    Politicalone, your post is very wise. Nevertheless, I was speaking more in the aggregate about how history may come to view a generation. Accepted history is very much about stereotypes. For example, rightly or wrongly the entire German population alive during the 1940s has been condemned for what some of their countrymen did. The idea is that bystanders who did not participate in the crimes still did not do enough to stop them. People are still extracting reparations (monetary, apologies etc.) from the German people, even though those responsible have long since died or disappeared. I forsee a scary future with a lot of mad people seeking someone to blame, and the elderly generation that caused so much of the pollution, and hoarded and squandered so much of the wealth, will be a compelling target.

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