Blogs > Cliopatria > A request for your signatures, or, after the protests, a petition

Jan 13, 2011 2:49 pm

A request for your signatures, or, after the protests, a petition

It doesn't take a lot to make me angry at the moment. Most people in higher education in England have got good reason to be angry, as the UK government has decided to cut its subsidy of university teaching there by nearly halfeighty per cent, in the humanities one hundred per cent, starting in the next financial year. This will, ineluctably, mean the raising of tuition fees on new students, a massive consequent rise in the cost of higher education and its consequent restriction to those who can pay to a much greater extent than at present. [Edit: the numbers in my first take on this were much too low, horrifyingly: see for more the round-up of links contributed by JPG in comments on the cross-post at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe.] If you believe in meritocracy, equal access, a level playing field and so on, there is no way not to be angry about this. If you believe that higher education contributes something to a person, and that academic research and teaching are worth something, this is an attack on that belief, a belief which is clearly not shared by a powerful part of the current government. So if you're not angry, you're just not paying attention. It's not just me it's been making angry, either. On the Internet we find fellow medievalist blogger Gesta reaching new heights of outrage and no less a figure than Professor Guy Halsall not just writing on the Internet, but actually going to protests himself. He seems to have been lucky, however, because the protests where students have been charged by police on horseback and where schoolchildren have been penned up outdoors in sub-zero temperatures and clubbed if they try to escape, were not the ones he was at, though it is still from him that I learn of them.

Let it not be said that the police are the only ones bringing violence to these situations, but they are also the ones being paid to keep order and maintain the law while also being notoriously invulnerable to prosecutionif they go too far, as the eventual lack of outcome against the murderer of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests of 2009 only too well shows.

The London protests obviously got the most coverage, because the UK press basically lives in London and so does the government and both operate under the illusion that London is the only place important things happen. You can see from the above, however, and othervideos too, that even Cambridge was up in some kind of arms, and a fairly sustained campaign of occupations and protests was managed there for a week or so. I am so impressed with this. I used to be mildly politically active in Cambridge, I went on a couple of protests and indeed helped to organise one (badly): getting any more than forty people together for anything political was just impossible then. Clearly, one of the things that New Labour and now the Coalition have done is radicalised the student body, or possibly removed its sense of any other option. To me, the idea of police beating down student protesters in Cambridge with clubs, rather than simply laughing at them from a careful distance as they did to us, is completely alien: I am amazed that things can have reached this pitch.

You will readily see from this that the students were in some cases fairly obnoxious, and it isn't really the police about whom they're supposed to be protesting. They are, of course, supposed to be allowed to protest, although the Criminal Justice Act makes it difficult, and the occupation of Senate House was, though trespass, not criminal, so that the police were not at first sure of their right to take action. The suspicion of damage, however, and most of all the humorous, but unwise, removal of the police officers' helmets, rapidly altered that position. I'm pleased to see that Cambridge's Member of Parliament, of whom I used tobe a colleague and whom I've known since before he was either of those things, who may even indeed have been on that protest I helped organise way back when, has condemned the violence of both parties, separately, and has pressed the government to investigate the police's conduct here and in London. Anyway. I've nothing but admiration for the students who go in order to be heard, rather than to start fights, which seems to be almost all of them. We need people who set out to try and change things, after all, because the assumption that we can change nothing is exactly that on which this government, like the last one, trades. But a protest is as nothing if it doesn't get into the papers and onto the Internet, you know?"Pics, or it didn't happen." So it bothers me that the protests in Oxford hardly got a notice.

The Oxford protest was rather eerie, in fact, for me at least, because we had been speculating at dinner in college the previous night what form a rumoured occupation might take, and drawing on my 'radical' background no doubt, I said something like:"Well, if they're stupid and want to hurt the university, they'll have to attack the administration, which is not going to get any notice. But if what they want to do is get press coverage, then they'll have to do something in the centre and they'll have to attack somewhere people have heard of, which basically means the Bodleian or the Radcliffe Camera, doesn't it?" And, er, lo and behold, there you are...

But, though there was some coveragein the Oxford Mail, I've been able to find no evidence that any national paper came up to cover this, an occupation that went on for two days with reinforcements arriving by night, and which, I learnt yesterday, was broken with exemplary police tactics using a large roll of carpet. True story. But it deserved better press: there was no serious violence, no damage, and though it is, granted, a little counterproductive perhaps occupying the undergraduate portion of the Bodleian (for this is what the Camera now holds, the University's teaching library), it certainly should have got the press. Presumably if they'd been idiots and started a fight it would have done, though you'll see from the above that the difference here was mainly the police commendably not rising to provocation. I fear that this is why people do deliberately resort to violence, because at the moment doing anything less means one is silenced.

But, there is something else we can do. It may not be much, and it may not be effective, but it is at least funny and clever, and that's no small thing. A valued colleague has directed me to this, and asked if I would put it on the blog. And so I will. It is a petition asking the current government, degree-holders almost to a man and a very few woman, to cough up the cash that they would have to have paid for their degree if they had taken them under the same rules that they are now setting. I mean: only fair, right? At least Nick Clegg, who has in the past shown signs of a sense of humour if not a conscience, ought to dig in his pockets for this one. Pass it on, do. (And as you do, note the name of the petitioner. If that's not medievalism in action, I don't know what is.)

(Cross-posted at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe.)

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More Comments:

Jonathan Jarrett - 1/17/2011

Despite the real rise in state tuition since then, you just don't find people in high schools saying, Gee, I really belong at university, but I just don't think I can afford it.

Interesting. All I can say is, here we really do, already, despite having a lower proportion of the population in university education. I'm still not convinced that this makes the US system a good target to aim for, though; if that was where we were going, this was a terrible place to start...

Jonathan Jarrett - 1/14/2011

Equally good rebuttals! I suspect we can agree on the important things. Having said as much, of course...

a case of a motivated, qualified person who skipped higher ed in the US exclusively b/c of cost

Part of the problem here, as I said before, is the qualifiers "motivated" and "qualified". One of the things that underlay British policy on higher education until very recently is that it aimed to increase the number of such persons at school level and then get them through university on the assumption that this would be Good for the Nation. A lot of such persons would, of course, be coming from areas where university attendance was low and finances were poor, these being closely correlated. That is, it was a social and progressive policy decision to fund university teaching like this. What's going on now is a switch to a consumerist model where the existing demand is what justifies provision, not what one would like the demand to be. The problems with this are eloquently expressed in this piece by Stefan Collini. Now, I think it would be fair to say that in the USA, that consumerist model is already in place. So what you're describing is the end of the process we're just about to start, but yours started from a far healthier place, having been market-based from the beginning or very nearly. We are going to have an awful lot of shrinking pains and the effects will be horrible for a long time.

The UK government of all stamps has been cutting back investment in the humanities and social sciences for a long time now, in some misguided hope that highly-qualified scientists will somehow make Britain a world-leading industrial power again rather than all sodding off to work for multi-nationals. Despite this, however, enrolment in the humanities has been rising in the last decade at least. One of the reasons for this, I think, is a feeling among the young that a degree is necessary to get a good job, but they don't necessarily care what degree, so they pick ones that seem easier than the hard sciences. Many, of course, are genuinely interested in what they study, but the change in figures is probably a long-term economic trend, I think.

The same variations between arts, humanities and social sciences schools in the placing of history exists here, by the way. Some of our smaller universities have some very odd schools where history and whatever social sciences they run get lumped in with management or vocational workshop qualifications simply because they're what's left other than the sciences.

Jeff Vanke - 1/14/2011

Addendum to the first part above. There is a very strong culture in our country of telling high school kids, over and over, that they will get financial aid for university if they need it -- that money need not be a reason for not pursuing higher ed. This doesn't prove anything for my argument, but it is a mitigating factor.

Already when my parents went to university in the 1960s, there was a sense that an able and motivated person could work their way through university expenses at the nearest state school. (Deliberate use of the impersonal third person singular "their" there, btw.) Despite the real rise in state tuition since then, you just don't find people in high schools saying, Gee, I really belong at university, but I just don't think I can afford it. I have never once heard cost cited as the main reason for not attending. (I myself attended state schools in the 1980s.)

Jeff Vanke - 1/14/2011

Good rebuttals.

1. I can't prove a negative, which is what you ask, but I'll provide a related anecdote. (If someone out there CAN prove the positive -- a case of a motivated, qualified person who skipped higher ed in the US exclusively b/c of cost -- please do!) I knew someone at the U of NC, Chapel Hill, on need-based Pell Grants -- Federal payments to cover the state's tuition charges. She also worked to help cover her living costs. Then one year the Federal formula ruled that she earned too much to qualify for another year of Pell grants, which were then NOT renewed. This young woman considered dropping out; she perhaps did for awhile. But she ended up completing her diploma requirements.

2. I can favor higher ed as a good thing without favoring the current (im)balance of humanities versus other subjects as a good thing. I am ignorant of, and I have no opinion on, this balance in the UK. I have the well informed and strong opinion that the US ratio of humanities graduates to graduates of more quantitative fields is way too high. (Look at an Economist article from last year on the US having one of the world's highest percentages of college graduates in low-skill jobs, which I don't think is a sudden recession development.)

(In the US, by the way, history departments are sometimes in humanities divisions and sometimes in social sciences divisions, as of course our discipline's practitioners are themselves divided between one kind of research-teaching specialty or the other. I'm an EU historian, more social science than humanities, though I enjoy teaching humanities aspects in survey courses + reading in the humanities, and I think the humanities are important.)

Jonathan Jarrett - 1/13/2011

What qualified American high school graduate fails to attend college because it's too expensive? Scarcely any.

Well, well done if so but can you quantify that "scarcely any" with anything but anecdote? Also, of course, this is a selecting sample: those who think they can't manage university will obviously not aim for qualifications designed to let them do so, thus removing themselves from your anecdote group.

Regardless of all this, though, the fact remains that the UK university system, and especially the humanities which stands to lose all its teaching subsidy, is about to lose a hell of a lot of funding. If you think higher education is a good thing, this cannot be good news. If you don't, well, what are you doing here, no offence?

Jeff Vanke - 1/13/2011

Most US public universities have in-state tuition much higher than new levels in Britain. Financial aid is available through tuition waivers, loans, and subsidized wages.

What qualified American high school graduate fails to attend college because it's too expensive? Scarcely any.

Any moral arguments in Britain against four-figure tuition get lost in the hyperbole of mass class exclusion from university education.