by Anne Archist
As student politics moves through its seasonal cycle back into a period of comparatively high activity, we see occupations in Cambridge and Birmingham, with a strong probability of protest once again sweeping across the country, particularly in the South-East. Politicians might want to carry umbrellas over the weekend as there may be showers of rotting fruit. Seriously, though, the students are at it again.
I have mixed feelings about this, though mostly positive; my enthusiasm is tempered by the impression that despite the relatively high political and organisational continuity from last year, nobody has learnt very much from past experience, or thought very hard over the summer about the way forwards. It feels like an activist ‘Groundhog Day’ rather than the next step in a struggle that’s going somewhere. Regardless of this, the recent student activity (including the recent national march) does at least raise interesting questions about current attitudes within and towards various groups.
Firstly, of course, it raises all the usual questions about the attitude held by the rest of society towards students, students towards education workers (given the upcoming strike), etc. However, it also raises another question with more immediacy and clarity than before (and it has certainly been hovering around for a while). Namely, how long can the media go on reducing this to a question of tuition fees?
I just read an article about David Willetts’ first appearance (should that be non-appearance) lecturing at Cambridge last week. I was in the audience at this event – amazed at the audacity of this man and bemused by the surreal atmosphere that the student intervention created – and something rang very untrue about the media’s representation of this intervention. An article subheading read “protesters take over lecture hall to oppose £9,000 tuition fees”, one of those grey sentences that could have been written by anyone, for any paper, at any time over the past year. What is interesting about this sentence is its distillation of a whole lot of complicated issues down to one simple and fundamentally inaccurate summary. The protest was manifestly not about tuition fees.
If there is one positive comparison that can be made between what had happened by this time last year and the first couple of months of this academic year, it is that the focus within the movement has shifted somewhat from tuition fees. This supposed anti-fee protest consisted of students reading two statements (one was directly addressed to Willetts, while the other was read after he had ostensibly left the building). Only one of these statements is mentioned in the article – the first one, judging by the context. I got hold of a copy of this 2-page statement, and it does not mention fees. Not once.
The second statement does mention fees in various contexts. There is no explicit reference to “£9,000 fees”, but one sentence does presumably relate to this – the criticism in this context goes no further than referring to fees as “a massive debt”. The remaining sections relating to fees are more for the sake of putting other issues (cuts and privatisation) into perspective than protesting fees (in fact, these sections could equally be used as an argument for higher fees), and altogether these make up only 3 paragraphs out of 13.
Whereas earlier protests and arguments centred around the effect of near-tripling fees, there seems to be both a deeper and a wider understanding of the white paper as a whole – it is perhaps possible that the supposedly incendiary issue of tuition fees is merely a flash in the pan by comparison to the kind of unrest that could grow from a thorough and widespread grasp of quite what the government is doing to education. Personally, I take this shift in focus as a good sign; I have to own up to a relatively heterodox position on this, in that I don’t really believe in or agree with a lot of the alarmist arguments used around tuition fees.
By arguing about high fees reducing applications, or whether loan repayments are affordable or not, I think we largely play into the government’s hands. The issue, for me, is not one of whether high fees are unaffordable (because I think it’s fairly rare for this to be the case) or whether they reduce the number of people going to university (there isn’t really any evidence that this is likely to happen). The question we have to put is whether they are fair, given that there are alternative methods of funding education which would put the burden more squarely on the rich and would acknowledge the contribution of education to society and the economy as a whole, etc.
I digress. When I ask “How dense are the public?” I am posing a question that I suppose politicians, journalists, editors, and news presenters have to ask themselves on a regular basis. It could be phrased otherwise – “How much can we get away with? For how long?” For how long will facile arguments such as the accusation that current student protest is motivated by pure selfishness hold currency? How long can the government and the media stick their collective heads in the sand and pretend that this is a passing dispute over rising prices, as if we were bartering at a market stall?
It is convenient for servants of capital and neoliberal ideology to pose this as an argument over a ‘fair’ price for a ‘private advantage’ that happens to have ‘positive externalities’ (in other words, coincidental positive effects for other people). What is not convenient is to acknowledge the truth; in fact this is a full-scale revolt against a fundamental redefinition of the rules within which education operates (and I do mean education as a whole, rather than just universities, as these moves are in concert with the establishment of more academies and free schools, hints in the direction of desecularisation, etc).
The student movement, as part of a wider coalition, is coming to the point where it is not quibbling over price but questioning changes to the very nature of what it is that people are paying for, quite distinctly from the question of how it is funded. This is laudable and is moreover a strategic and intellectual advance compared to where we were a year ago. But it is not getting the attention it deserves, as the same old narrative horse is continually flogged (an apt cliché here since both senses of the verb apply). Who will point out the flies circling the carcass first? Just how much do the public understand that is not let on in the media consensus – on this and other issues? And what will happen if it no longer becomes possible to frame the back-door deregulation and privatisation of public education as “driving up standards” or “ensuring value for money”?