Off topic for this blog, and a bit delayed – but better late than never. This is my attempt at a round up of the major changes to university funding in the UK, the raising of student fees, and the protests themselves…
The big protests against the raising of student fees resulted in some vandalism and violence – with plenty of coverage online. The Guardian has fairly extensive coverage, generally sympathetic to the plight of students and prospective students, and a good collection of images (with generally sympathetic comments) at Boston.com.
Ben Goldacre posted about the student protest Google Map – a clever use of free technology to allow protesters to keep tabs on current events and policing. It was from this that I discovered that around a thousand protesters were still being kettled (or ‘contained’) on Westminster Bridge while politicians were discussing the days events on Newsnight as if it was all over already. Of these, many had tried to leave earlier in the day but had been prevented from leaving. Children as young as 14 were prevented by Police from leaving Parliament Square for many hours – which left them exposed to significant risk when violence did erupt.
Gabriel Lukes, 14, left Dunraven school in south London on his own to join in the march. He was kettled in Parliament Square before being moved to Westminster Bridge just after 9pm. He stood alone for two hours before being allowed off at 11pm. His father Peter was waiting for him. “It was cold, cramped, you had like half a metre to yourself,” he said. “It was just terrible.” (From The Guardian – Police Tactics Questioned)
Several letter writers who were kettled themselves – or whose children were – shared their feelings in letters:
When did we endorse the police holding our children for hours in freezing weather and preventing our presence, despite them having committed no crime? Why are we accepting that the police can trample on the rights of thousands because of the behaviour of a few?
About 10 police officers were injured along with at least 38 protesters - including one who needed brain surgery after being hit by a police truncheon. This is clearly a very inappropriate form of policing in a liberal democracy. Not that the liberal democrats have made much comment on the policing that I have noticed…
And now it appears that anti-terrorism laws are being applied to bully even younger children from engaging in lawful protest:
[12 year old] Wishart said that after the school was contacted by anti-terrorist officers, he was taken out of his English class on Tuesday afternoon and interviewed by a Thames Valley officer at the school in the presence of his head of year.
But all of this it seems has been overshadowed by a single act of thuggery – an attack on the Prince of Wales’ car, that has been the focal point for many of the headlines. Allowing David Cameron to act with indignation, almost as if he’d never been involved in acts of vandalism or thuggery… despite his time in the Bullingdon Club, infamous at Oxford for trashing restaurants. There is a quote oft found on twitter is”Things got out of hand & we’d had a few drinks. We smashed the place up and Boris set fire to the toilets”, purportedly by David Cameron, recalling his time at Oxford university – but I haven’t found the source of this and cannot say whether it is at all authentic, though I’m a bit dubious. But it did allow Ed Miliband to respond to pointedly to a jibe from David Cameron about being a student politician:
“I was a student politician but I wasn’t hanging around with people who were throwing bread rolls and wrecking restaurants.”
Politically, the real losers may be the Liberal Democrats, who appear to have under-estimated how personally people would take their breaking of a pre-election pledge to vote against increases in fees. Signing the pledge is something that Liberal Democrat Evan Harris now realises was a mistake. Damage has been done – time will tell how the party recovers. More here, here, here, and here. There is even speculation over a possible split of the party along right/left lines.
Less well covered in the media is the removal of Education Maintenance Allowance – used by many poor students to support themselves at sixth form school or at college to get the qualifications to go to university. This was removed in the tuition fees bill, but was not in the manifesto of any political party:
When the education secretary, Michael Gove, was interviewed by Education Guardian readers before the general election, he flatly denied that the education maintenance allowance (EMA) was for the chop, saying: “Ed Balls keeps saying that we are committed to scrapping the EMA. I have never said this. We won’t.”
Well, you just did Michael, you just did.
The new fees structure has been welcomed by some university leaders – less so by others. Little of the recent coverage has pointed out that the high levels of fees being sought are largely the result of the 79% cut to university teaching budgets inflicted by the government – against more typical cuts of 30% in other sectors. Given that some consider that many universities are at risk of closure due to the cuts (though no institution wishes to admit to being at risk), it is hardly surprising that Universities UK had problems in presenting a united front. Especially when this is coming as the first step in a Conservative programme to reduce the number of research universities in the UK and the percentage of school leavers going to university. And that the Conservatives already have ideas about which universities they’d like to close or re-brand as teaching only institutions. See here for the Conservative view of new universities and here for an annotated David Willets speech to Universities UK just an few months old. The annotator notes:
…that could be called one of the great betrayals of modern times. The new universities were promised by an earlier Conservative government access to research funds in return for breaking the old universities’ cartel on undergraduate teaching. The post-1992 institutions agreed to take lots more students at low cost and that is what enabled the expansion of undergraduate numbers from 1992 onwards. Since then the new entrants have steadily built up their research activity. Now the rug is to be pulled from under them.
And in the background to all of this is the debate over whether education to degree level is a privilege or a right, whether a degree should be viewed purely in terms of training for a future career and enhanced earnings or as a benefit to society – as viewed by some of our European near-neighbours. Perhaps children should be given loans for attending school, so that today’s taxpayers can dodge their responsibilities to the next generation? If this is OK at degree level, why not apply the same thinking to all education?
At times the government is arguing that arts and social subjects should not be supported by public funds as they don’t provide economic benefits to the nation – which is clearly nonsense, as a knowledge economy can have limited value without knowledge. Only heirs to the throne, or others with suitable endowments, will be able to afford to study History of Art in the future it seems. This also ignores (as has most of the media) that the protected funding for STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – doesn’t actually protect all STEM courses, with the vast majority of Computing, IT and Maths courses losing all government support. More discussion here, but it is only in the comments that the elimination of funds for IT is raised.
Of course, I’m writing this while the net effect these changes on the Scottish University system are as yet unknown – these changes only affect English Universities. For Scottish students studying in Scotland, our devolved government is currently determined to avoid tuition fees. For our top universities, this probably raises worries over how their level of funding may drop in comparison to English universities. For the ‘widening participation’ institutions this is more likely to be reassuring, however. But the Scottish Government’s budget has been cut and next year is an election year… the reprieve may only be temporary, and this could just be an electioneering political game.
With all of this going on, its a real shame that the single incident which seems to grabbing most headlines and media coverage in the UK is one that happened on the periphery of Thursday’s protests – someone got poked with a stick, and a tin of paint was thrown at a car.