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.)