The weakness of the tuition fees protest
Despite 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.Tagged in: Battle of Ideas
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