Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Student Uprising! Well, not exactly...

Today the National Union of Students conducted a protest march through the centre of London, with the expected number of 24,000 protesters increasing to over 50,000 through the day, if reports are accurate. For the first time in years the student body of Britain have got together to express their disgust at the government’s plans to increase the maximum tuition fees to £9000 a year. But what’s this? There was a riot? By one hundred or less “students”, causing personal and property damage? Or well then, who cares about their reasons for protest, as the whole thing has been “hijacked” by those committing “despicable” violence – says the NUS president Aaron Porter.

As usual the media has generally decided to focus on the actions of a tiny proportion of people who chose to destroy property, and in the process hurt some officers and other protesters. It makes for a more exciting story in our 24 hour news society after all. Assuming that it was 100 that acted violently and there were a total of 50,000 people marching, that’s 0.2% of the protesters. So the news reports have focused on just 0.2% of those there. And Mr. Porter is apologising and condemning 0.2% of those that took part. Seriously guys, you need to get a new president. What a wimp.

The reality is the changes that are being proposed, and sadly are all too likely to be enacted, are far more important than the Conservative HQ being vandalised by a group of “youths” as the Telegraph has decided to call them, who in fact are more than likely just the same anarchists that always turn up at protests, students or not. But let’s not talk about them any longer. They’ve had enough attention already. To really understand what’s going on the best place to start is to the source of this trouble; The Browne Report.

This first thing I noticed when reading this report is what it doesn’t say. Or rather what it chose to omit. To take the first few pages as an example, we’re told about all the benefits of the proposals, that it will improve University funding, that students will have more choice and that no one will have to pay upfront. All sounds promising but as soon as you read between the lines you start to see some problems. In the foreword alone it says “Graduates go on to higher paid jobs and add to the nation’s strength in the global knowledge based economy”. Really? When graduate unemployment is at its highest, they apparently can still expect to go into high paid jobs. I’m a graduate and I’m earning an okay income. I’m certainly not over the £30,000 amount and to be honest, would have managed to get my current role without a degree. While some graduates can certainly expect to earn well above average the assumption that most or even half will do so is pie in the sky. And what about that “add to the nation’s strength in the global knowledge based economy” – what does that mean? Reading through the report (if you can bear to) it’s becomes abundantly clear that according to Browne and co. only some subjects are going to add to “the global knowledge based economy”, and they don’t include the Humanities subjects, among others. History, Languages, English, they are not important. They don’t make money after all.

An excellent review of the report can be found here - - though without reading the original text you may feel it’s biased. In my opinion it isn’t but each to their own. One point I couldn’t see in there, that seemed obvious to me, is that if we believe the report when it claims that students will not have to pay if they earn less than £21,000 per annum, and the debt will be written off after 30 years regardless, is surely this means that the proposals will cost the state more than it currently does? Under the present system, unfair as it is, people continue to pay their loans until they’re entirely paid, regardless of how long it takes. So in essence it’s a graduate tax, which graduates pay throughout their working lives. This instantly makes me suspicious about what the actual motives of these changes are – as I suspect it’s to discourage those from poorer or even middle income families, from going to University. With such ludicrous fees as £6000 a year, up to £9000 in “exceptional circumstances”, I know I would not have gone to King’s College London. It wouldn’t have been worth it, even if I don’t have to pay up front. Knowing I would have my income hit the moment I got to a decent wage is no incentive to go to University. Which brings us to an hilarious (if any of this can be seen as funny) addition to the report on page 9. It’s a table, showing how much you will pay on your “loan” each month, and each year, depending on how much you earn. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw they hadn’t included PAYE tax or National Insurance on that. Likely because it would prompt the very valid response of “as if you’re not taking enough money from me already”. But then we shouldn’t be surprised when the report has been drawn up by a man whose earnings are more than likely in the six digit sum, and certainly in excess of anything the average graduate can ever expect to earn.

The Browne Report shows, very clearly, that the ultimate goal here is to turn higher education in Britain into a free-market, Friedman-esk type of “business”. They seem to have utterly forgotten that Universities are not businesses and are not solely about increasing your economic worth. My degree was in Classical Studies with English and I loved every minute of it (even if I had to pay fees up front, though in the long run I’ve ended up with no debt as a result).It hasn’t got me into a highly paid line of work, but that wasn’t why I did it. I took my course because I wanted to learn. Which, according to the Conservatives (and their Lib-Dem lap dogs), isn’t that important and is certainly no use at a time of scaremongering about The Deficit *ominous music sounds*. Which, ironically, has come about in no small part due to the reliance on free market style economics. Still, if it doesn’t work the first time you may as well try to force it on someone else, just to prove it really does work, honest… And, as David Cameron has said himself in his visit to China, it will mean that foreign students don’t have to pay as much. Globalisation at it’s best – the nation has its pocket’s emptied while foreign suppliers and customers get all the benefits.

In view of all this, is it any wonder that a small proportion of people at the protest turned to violence, or did nothing when they saw violence erupting in front of them? Anger is inevitable when you take liberties with institutions that have existed for centuries and that have, until recently, been accessible to all, regardless of income or background, and are there to educate for the sake of education. The irony is not lost that during Thatcher’s years it was easier and cheaper for an 18-year-old to go to University than it is today. Universities definitely need to reform their funding process but putting all the burden onto students’ shoulders is not the answer, and will inevitably mean that only the elite can get the education that should be a right for all of us.

*edit* Just as I was about to post this I heard on the ITV news that the violence today is being compared to the Poll Tax riots in the 80s. Dear lord historical revisionism is already happening to things that happened in the 80s! Those were much worse – give the country a few more unfair cuts and ridiculous double standards in the coming months and then you can start comparing it to the Poll Tax riots and protests. Because this is nothing compared to what’s coming…

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