Pulling Up The Ladder

December 10, 2010

The anger of students is no mystery, and is totally justified.

As the heads of 15 universities write in a letter published by the Daily Telegraph “With the exception of a very small minority of students who will be able to pay upfront, the overwhelming majority of students entering English universities from 2012 will have to borrow up to three times more than at present. As a result, graduates will leave university with fee and maintenance loans of between £35,000 and £40,000.”

Moreover, within the framework of “deficit reduction” (suggested by Vince Cable as major motivation for the reforms) the students are again, correct to object, even if they seem to be in general critical of the need for such cuts. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies makes clear, “The main loser of the Government’s proposed system is itself: the reduction in maintenance grants is more than outweighed by the cost of not imposing a levy – rather than being compensated by universities for any losses from unpaid loans, the Government will have to meet the cost itself.”

The levy in question would charge universities a small amount of money for fees charged above £6,000 if the student does not qualify for support by virtue of being a recipient of free school meals. Instead, the universities (or to be specific, elite universities) will cream off the excess, while the system provides strong incentives for them to reject poorer students, for whom universities will have to pay some of their fees. In addition, the government itself will have to pay for uncollected loans, not universities, in a kind of academic parody of the residential sub-prime saga, socialising their risks in true British fashion.

Such opinions did not, however, prevent Vince Cable appealing to the authority of the IFS during the debate on the Fees Bill. Cable seems like a man who is less and less confident that he possesses any personal authority, nor that his pronouncements and arguments correspond to any notion of reason. Hence his constant reference to the “progressivity” – a twisted dagger of a word – of the fees proposals. What he didn’t refer to was the massive increase in the debt load being piled upon student shoulders, and the enormous reduction in the teaching budget that will ensure that for many subjects the future is far from “progressive.”

As usual, these measures have been pushed through under the phony banner of crisis. As the Times Higher Education Supplement’s Simon Baker reports, “Mr Cable said alternative options to cut student numbers or to starve the sector of funding from any source were “unacceptable” and he was “proud” of the measures being put forward.” The choice was a brutal one – reform or die.

This was of course nonsense. Cable may have internalised the views of fellow Big Oil alumnus Lord Browne, and he may well share the Tory obsession with Americanising the British higher education system. Either way, he is propagating a massive distortion of the truth.

Of course, the money exists to extend and improve our university system. Much of it is stashed away in offshore tax havens, but the preponderance of it is simply not taxed. In Austria where, as a bystander at yesterday’s demonstration told me, higher education is basically free, the highest rate of income tax is set at 50 percent for those earning above 60,000 Euros, and 43 percent for those earning between 25,000 and 50,000 Euros. In the UK, the 50 percent rate applies only to those earning above £150,000 and then only temporarily until the Labour introduced rise is rescinded. While, of course, Austria has its fiscal issues and problems with its own universities (held to be of mediocre quality) their ability to apportion social resources to public spending is a lesson to the British political elite.

Behind these reforms there lies a deeply elitist conception of the academy. Richer institutions are to see massive rises in income. They are to be feted as “champions” leading Britain’s drive towards “national competitiveness” in the wider world of research. For the rest, who knows? There will certainly be little money available to build new laboratories, hire the best academics and improve student housing. They may even struggle to attract students full stop, and one feels that the Tories would be delighted with this. For them, the humanities and social sciences carry with them a contagion, a pathogenic tendency to produce difficult questions and questioning minds with which to answer them. Even budgets for the history of science and the philosophy of science will be squeezed, to the delight of those who wish to tie scientific research ever more tightly to the clutches of corporate imperatives.

On the streets of London, you could sense the fury felt by young people from all backgrounds at these developments. They don’t just want to go to university, although they surely do. They want to be able to develop themselves within a moral universe that is detached from the calculus of GDP and “economic growth.” Yes, where they can have fun, meet, drink, read, organize, and ask questions that the academy can sometimes be the only means of asking.

But these young people feel that they are seeing the ladder pulled up in front of their eyes. The baby boomer generation is lifting two fingers to them from the absurd finery of the “Houses of Parliament” and telling them that they will have to sacrifice their education to solve a “crisis” which was manufactured solely by the financial wizards and politicians of the last, disgraced generation.

Can you not sense why they are a little pissed off?

Thankfully, the movement to resist such cuts is far from over. On 18 December a day of action has been announced by the UK Uncut group against our favourite tax dodgers at Top Shop and Vodafone. Students will be mobilizing again, soon, hopefully strengthened by what was a frenetic and stressful day of resistance and undaunted by the response of the media. I overheard more than one group of young protesters lamenting the “bias” of the press, particularly the BBC and Sky, for stressing violence by the protesters, and framing police as reacting to provocation. Thus is a useful education provided, tuition fee-free for activists in the ways of the media.

The babble of outrage over the assault on Prince Charles’ mysteriously undefended car, and sundry adornments to “national” monuments that most Britons have no aquaintance with, will subside. The anger and energy felt by those of us who oppose the cuts agenda must not.

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