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, starting in the next financial year. This will, ineluctably, mean the further 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. 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 the powerful part of the current government. So if you’re not angry, you’re just not paying attention. [Edit: my numbers were wrong in the first take of this, optimistic even: see the round-up of facts and commentary by JPG in the comments.] 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, yet they are also notoriously invulnerable to prosecution if 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 other videos 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 MP, of whom I used to be 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 coverage in 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 Cliopatria.)


45 responses to “A request for your signatures, or, after the protests, a petition

  1. Those that got degrees for free in the past knew that that was the bargain at the time. I don’t think it’s “only fair” to ask them to pay retrospectively.


  2. The reduction in University funding announced in the comprehensive spending review in October (from £7.1 bn to £4.2 bn) amounts to a 40% cut. But because the government has ring-fenced funding for STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and maths), subjects in the arts, humanities and social sciences will lose 100% of their funding. The shortfall will supposedly be made up in tuition fees—but the repayment schedule is likely to be woefully inefficient, and unless the number of universities is drastically reduced the new income stream will not be sufficient to maintain the system on the present scale. Many people seem to think this would be no bad thin–but in the short term the growing pressure will presumably mean that departments and fields that are less valued by academic managers will be ever more at risk as things get tight. Personally I’d be surprised if subjects like history really do cost as much as £9000p.a. per student: wouldn’t this mean that even if the new system does manage to work, the humanities would end up further subsidising subjects that are still supported by the reduced teaching budget?

    • I knew I’d heard about a 100% cut from somewhere, but couldn’t substantiate it when I went looking—Google fail, evidently! So much has been proposed or discussed but not actually been put forward as legislation, it seems to be this government’s big tactic to scare us with possibilities for months before settling on something on the quiet. This is one of those cases: the Browne report recommends 100% cuts, but has it actually been accepted and put forward by the government? The Parliament website doesn’t even have the dratted bill on it so I can’t see what’s actually in it. All we’ve had so far is the Tuition Fees Bill, which raises the cap and does nothing further as yet. I don’t believe the exact cuts have yet been drafted to put before the house. Meanwhile, the petition and protests go wider than just the humanities, awfully hit though we are.

      • The best I can do is the minutes from the Parliamentary scrutiny: these confirm the worst, in the usual weasel words. See in particular questions 107-09. There won’t be any new legislation regarding the budget cuts for Higher Education: because it was all in the budget, which has already been passed. The point is that this was all a done deal long before everyone began to sit up and pay attention when the tuition fees business came along.

      • The bill (White Paper) which will set out the government’s response to the Browne review is currently expected to be published in March.

        I’m a university administrator who does care – and I am not the only one (see the posts below). Unfortunately, my job in a national HE body means I can’t risk signing the petition, though I wholeheartedly agree with its intention.

        Similarly, as I’m an alumnus of the same Cambridge department as you (a couple of years earlier), the potential impact on arts and humanities concerns me greatly and we are doing what we can to promote the value of such subjects.

        • Tempted to ask which Cambridge department, now, given that I was sort of part of several, but I shall respect the anonymity. It’s a great shame that you feel that you can’t sign though, I understand but that’s not the way things should be.

          • I’d failed to take on board the the upcoming white paper, so thanks for that. Since tuition fees have already been voted on, setting up the mechanism that allows the funding changes proposed in the budget, Browne Report and CSR to go ahead, it’s hard to see full parliamentary approval being denied. But it does sound like the next few months represent the only window for registering one’s opposition constructively.

  3. Signed. Tweeted. FB’d.

    Seeing those videos reminded me of being manhandled, by ordinary coppers (at a Gay Pride march in 1979) and then manhandled brutally, by the SPG in Brixton a couple of years later.

    It hurts to see the UK following the US regarding fees. Sigh. Thanks for blogging it.

  4. Have put on Facebook. will continue to pass on. This all just makes me ill. I often hope that there will be a Pterry-esque afterlife for us all, but honestly, I think that Thatcher and Reagan, whose legacies are responsible for the sort of thinking that has got us here, deserve Dante, or even Bosch

  5. Re: fees in the US – since the US system has always included fees – the system is designed to accomodate such( parents start saving when the children are born, more scholarship options etc) Public higher ed is the responsibioity of states and so costs vary widely but in my state room board and tuition at our state university is $26,000 a year – those who are in lower incomes categories get financial aid – it is the middle class that gets squeezed by those costs – average indebtedness in the US for a degree is $20,000 but since there is a $20,000 diference in starting salaries for those with a degree versus a high school graduate – those loan costs are deemed well worth it.

    In the US 30% of the population has at least a baccalaureate degree – the UK census claims only 20% in the UK. So why a lower rate of University graduates when (until now) your costs have been so much lower? And is there not a concern that this rate wil decline even further with higher fees? When these cuts were made part of the budget – was there not a systematic analysis of the consequences in terms of the need to fill occupational categories that require humanity degrees?

    I am susprised that University administrations seem rather silent on these cuts in funding and that coalitions of scholars in the humanities are not speaking out in defense of education in the humanities.

    The kettling tactic used by the police described in the article you posted in horrendous – it seems the police response to protests is out of line with the actual harm those protestors might cause – makes one very concerned about what the police response will look like if the economic situation lasts longer and necessitates greater cuts.

    • I am not yet sure what I think about kettling. I am sure that it’s horrible obviously! But it is at least slightly less violent than the “send the boys in with clubs” technique evident in film of the years when Thatcher was killing the unions and which any history of the 1970s by members of the counter-culture will report in gory detail (and which, indeed, Nicola has already recalled above). Is it better that the state’s forces of suppression are now cleverer and more efficient? Er…

      As to your second paragraph, I haven’t looked at the numbers but I guess that the US is further down the line with degree inflation than we are, and that degrees are required for more professional jobs than has until lately been the case with the UK. There are a welter of skill- or industry-specific qualifications that exist in the UK, which I suppose effectively replaced apprenticeships, that offer a more vocational path towards employment. But we’re losing that now.

      Labour, to their extremely limited credit, wanted to increase university attendance (though to fifty per cent! I’m not sure what shape of economy would profit from or result from that!) but was extremely reluctant to put up the money to make it happen. The Conservatives aren’t really interested in increasing participation in higher education—indeed, I think a lot of them think the sector should be smaller so that degrees are ‘more valuable’—and so I would imagine that declining numbers of graduates is just one of the costs of the exercise of eliminating the national debt, a project whose value is uncertain and even Thatcher never managed.

  6. Jonathan,

    Thanks for the link. I’ve tidied up the original post (grammar mainly)- just as well given the spike in readers. I’ve signed the petition and I continue to explain to anyone who asks me why these plans are so bad, why we need humanities and maths, why education starts the moment a child is born, not at 18, etc. etc. In fact, outside the university I seem to do nothing but.

    University administrations merely care about finance and bums on seats. They may make pious noises about access and opportunities, but then wring their hands and declare they have to work with the system.

    Scholars have been speaking out. The best response that I have seen is Stefan Collini in the LRB. There has also been a lot of noise about the threat to the HEA subject centres and other developments. Our union is now involved in the planning of demonstrations and protests, along with others and the TUC.

    We must not lose sight of the fact that the cuts to HE, although among the most severe of those planned, are part of a much bigger picture in the public sector, education and arts and culture. Guy Halsall, among others, has commented on the systematic dismantling of the post-1945 welfare state. These cuts also diminish the nature of public service and denigrate the work of many people who have chosen to devote their lives to the benefit of society as a whole.

    Unfortunately, the government, of whatever hue, has a strong tradition of not listening.

    Jonathan, apologies for hijacking your blog for yet another rant.

  7. I think people are now beginning to speak out: see for instance the campaign blogs Humanities and Social Sciences Matter, and Defend the Arts and Humanities, linked above. We should now begin to see some more efforts to make the case for the humanities–although the horse does already seem to have bolted. As the cuts begin to bite across the country, few outside academia will be concerned about Higher Education funding. My own view is that academics in the humanities (and I mean senior academics, here, people with actual leverage) need to shoulder some of the responsibility, since there has evidently been a failure on their part to articulate clearly what it is that they do and why it matters: it can’t all be left to Stefan Collini. It has been pretty clear what way the wind was turning for a while now. To be fair though, most academics in the UK have had other things to think about: not least securing funds through the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (on which this piece by Simon Head in the NYRB should now be obligatory reading). But too much energy seems to get dissipated in the kind of academic in-fighting we saw at KCL last year, and the net effect so far seems to have been acquiescence where and when it really counted.

    • Headless Kings

      Academic infighting at KCL? There seemed a marked lack of ANY fighting by teaching staff at KCL, despite the international protest. Or have I missed something?

      • I didn’t express myself very well there. The administrators who matter are often themselves academics in the humanities and social sciences, who are usually in a position to ensure that their own areas of interest continue to prosper even as they wield the axe. There’s a kind of familial disfunction nurtured within and between different fields in humanities and social sciences departments, and too often academics (teaching staff and administrators) nurture a special contempt and animosity for colleagues in kindred fields or with different approaches. The competition for resources naturally exacerbates the conflict. This corrosive and self-interest partly underlies the sorts of choices that get made when ‘strategic disinvestment’ takes place. In a time when the humanities are evidently held in contempt in many quarters, we need to be more committed to acting in concert.

        • This may be true in some places, I’m sure it is in fact, but it won’t explain KCL, where a historian was in charge of the cuts to his own discipline. One of the only fair things about that programme was the aim to cut by the same amount across the board, including administration. Of course, what actually happened is probably rather different.

          It may also be worth bearing in mind that I know that several KCL academics are likely reading this, before going much further…

          • Yes, it was foolish of me to refer so crassly to a painful situation about which I have no direct knowledge. But I stand by my observation that the failure of professionals from different corners of the same institutions to back one another in extremis–sometimes because of theoretical differences that are inscrutable outside academic circles–is more common than one would hope, and all the more unfortunate in the current climate. One of the positive outcomes of the current activism may be a growing sense of mutual self-interest among scholars in the humanities. But that’s more than enough from me…

          • Jonathan, on what do you base this statement? The proposals implemented by Professor Palmowski made no claim for equal cuts across the board, nor is that what he and his backers (tacit as well as active) have accomplished.

            • I’m confused now, as you seem to be quite right. The article that I linked in my original post to back those numbers is no longer openly available, and the Consultation document for the School of Humanities (now vanished from KCL’s website but still at my mirror) doesn’t say this either. However, this THES article does at least make it clear that far more than just the Humanities was under threat. My recollection is that the first article claimed—perhaps wrongly—that KCL as a whole was aiming to literally decimate its staff, i. e. cut by ten per cent in all areas, but obviously I can no longer substantiate what may be a faulty memory. You would be better informed than me here!

  8. Congratulations on a well balanced post Jon in recognising that in many instances police conduct was exemplary and sometimes student behaviour was obnoxious. I’ve been finding the polarised stances of the right and left wings(police good/protesters bad – and vice versa)somewhat tiresome.

  9. Jonathan said: There are a welter of skill- or industry-specific qualifications that exist in the UK, which I suppose effectively replaced apprenticeships, that offer a more vocational path towards employment. But we’re losing that now.

    agree – and I have always thought this was an area where the UK approach is much better than the US – unfortunate to see that you are becoming more like the US in this respect.

    This goes I think to the fundamental problem here – as Guy Halsall noted in his excellent post and as you note re: “increasing the value of a degree” by limiting those who can get a degree – the government policy is contributing to what is already a growing problem – disparity in the distribution of income/wealth. This is not meant to minimize the importance of teaching (and valuing) the humanities but creating more opportunities for inequity in income/wealth distribution invites a whole host of new problems – among which could be destabilizing UK society. The last stat I recall is something to the order of the top 20% controlling 51% of UK income – and the US is hovering in that same area. So while we are justly concerned about the effect of deemphasizing the teaching of humanities we can alo make an effective argument that cuts in HE funding have profound implications for the critical issue of equitable income/wealth distribution.

    • Couldn’t agree more: except for the fact that the wealthiest 20% of Americans actually control 85% of income, according to this much reported and completely fascinating study…

      • And I think the UK figures are rather more like 60 or 70% of income (or was that total wealth?), so there’s not much to crow about in these parts either…

    • Indeed, I’ve been having this argument in the parallel comments thread to this post at Cliopatria. Up to this point UK Higher Education policy has, just about, been socially progressive, and now it will be solely socially responsive and lose its intent to make a difference to the power and wealth distribution in society. It’s hard not to see this as the haves wanting to keep the have-nots out.

  10. the figures I quoted were for income – obviously wealth or combined wealth and income would look different – whichever measure it is – it is going in the wrong direction

    thanks for the link to the study – had missed it.

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  12. Glad to see a post like this – was hoping you’d fly the colours at some point here!

    The movement still goes on however, and the government certainly knows the matter is not settled yet. The Oxford occupation did garner a bit of attention. While the UCL occupation was the ‘avant-garde’ of the occupation movement, the broadsheets and mainstream news sites did inevitably mention Oxford among others and flash up the odd picture of the Rad Cam. What was your feel of sentiment amongst the staff during the protests? Did the red professor occupy his chambers?

    I think in the coming period every applicable person, lecturers included, would be mad not to be active in their union. Plus the UCU has played a very good role over the past couple of months.

    (P.S. re your dinner conversation – we managed to kill both birds with one stone two years ago when we occupied the Clarendon Building (on the advice in a meeting of a ’68 veteran who did the same when she was a student!) – central, symbolic, the press can call it ‘the Bodleian’ if they so desire – and contains administrative offices!)

    • Just occasionally it disturbs me that I am ‘known’ to people I don’t have any idea about. Either way, you’ll understand that I can’t put my subjective impression of my colleagues on the public internet, but I will say that I don’t know of any staff participation in any of the protests here, though my information is certainly incomplete.

  13. Jonathan – yeah – have and have nots is of course the issue. I strongly agree that University education must be accessible to those who qualify and desire it – and that we must not create financial obstacles to that goal. But I also think we need to recognize that in both the US and the UK – that we have pushed the notion of a degree as a means of economic/social mobility – in part because the manufacturing jobs which once provided a decent living are disappearing. It is as if the govt’s of both our countries had no other response to the loss of those good jobs (often Union jobs) – so they just encouraged as policy more people to get degrees. There are of course limits to such a strategy – such as how many university grads any society needs. Seems we are getting hit with a triple whammy – the loss of decent paying jobs for those without degrees, limiting the ability to get a degree for those with less means and then – cutting the guts out of the social safety net for all those with reduced incomes (or no jobs at all). Our elites might consider reading a bit of history as they pursue this rather short sighted strategy.

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