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Published on November 9th, 2011 | by Lorna Gledhill
Image © [caption id="attachment_5435" align="alignleft" width="189" caption="(c) LornaGledhill"]March for the Alternative[/caption]It’s been exactly eleven months since MPs voted in favour of the hike in tuition fees. That’s eleven months since thousands of students rallied outside the House of Parliament, waiting for the government’s fateful decision to be called out over megaphones and strained voices. That’s eleven months since the government ignored 20,000 people on the streets of London, thousands of students’ unions, and multiple advisory bodies as they decided to triple the cap on Undergraduate university admission fees to £9,000 per annum. Today, the streets of London are going to be occupied by another 10,000 protesters who, continuing the campaign against the reforms to higher education, have decided their fight is not over. Organised by the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) and supported by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and Colleges Union (UCU), the march will progress from Malet Street, passing the Occupy London camp at St. Paul’s to finish outside London Metropolitan University. Reiterating their demands for no fees or cuts to Higher Education as well as the reinstatement of EMA, today’s protesters have also focused on the threat of privatisation in the education sector.

“There’s some things money can’t buy… for education, there’s Mastercard.”

The issue of privatisation in Higher Education has resurfaced since the publication of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ White Paper, “Students at the Heart of the System” in April 2011. The NCAFC have stated that this is a new catalyst for today’s protests: “Protesters will be marching to derail the government’s higher education white paper, which has been described by academics and students as a chaotic and regressive attempt to introduce markets and private providers into education, effectively ending it as a public service.” First introduced by a Labour government in 1998, tuition fees are not new. What is happening under the current administration is a transition from knowledge exchange to financial exchange. Higher education is now about profitable investment, getting value for money and increased competition for resources and students.

Investing in your future

With government funding to Universities slashed, the dominant financial support for institutions comes from students themselves. Aside from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects, other courses are almost entirely funded by the loans leant to students, paid to Universities, and then paid back to governments by earning graduates. Essentially, the government subsidies the subjects they consider to be more ‘important’ or more ‘valuable’ to the country as a whole. This provides the general structure for reforms to higher education: students, governments, and private institutions must invest in courses that provide both value for money and employment prospects. The way we fund our further education, therefore, is focused on financial return. Private wealthy institutions and individuals are encouraged to see their investments in Universities as an exchange for a pool of potential graduate employees. Our investment in education is supposed to afford us a financially prosperous future; we are to be sold University education in order to engage in the wider consumer cycle. Of course Universities should be dedicated to providing world-class education to their students, but as soon as education is predominately financially evaluated, knowledge for knowledge’s sake is devalued. In the words of the education officer at the University of London Union, “The moment we allow consumer ideology to penetrate higher education is the moment we lose the ability to think autonomously, reflect critically and question structural biases in our society.”

Competition, Exchange and Value

[caption id="attachment_5434" align="alignright" width="300" caption="(c) LornaGledhill"]No Cuts[/caption] As well as formulating a more entrenched structure of valuation within academic departments, the government is dedicated to the promotion of competition between Universities. “Enabling greater competition, while removing unnecessary regulations” is stated as a key theme of the government’s White Paper. By decentralising control over the University system, the government is not devolving power, but evading responsibility for crucial issues regarding social mobility. The White Paper details that they “will allow unconstrained recruitment of the roughly 65,000 high-achieving students, scoring the equivalent of AAB or above at A-Level.” Therefore, Universities will compete for these top-scoring candidates as they avoid student number caps. Fundamentally, the government believes that as institutions are encouraged to fight for funding from students, they will provide a more efficient, cost-effective service: “We expect new courses to offer increased value for money, as they will be delivered by a range of providers with different business models.” As students are now consumers, they are expected to find the best ‘deal’ within University study. The DBIS has also asked for a more comprehensive data to be made available for students when choosing their universities. With expanded employment and earning outcome information, students will be encouraged to weigh up their financial investment against their potential employment outcome. Thus, there is not only competition between students for university places, but between Universities themselves, and between academic departments within these institutions. Academic competition is not the same as market competition. You cannot impose the rules and regulations of an economic framework on something with qualitative outcomes. University education encourages critical analysis, autonomous thought and stimulates wider society in ways beyond financial growth. If students are encouraged only to see the financial benefits and implications of further study, academic freedom, ingenuity and radicalism is set to plummet.

“They are consumers in a competitive market and should treat the provision of their education as they would buying a mobile phone.”

Alistair Thompson, writing on ConservativeHome, gave protesters the following advice: “What students need to do is realise that now they are paying for their education, they are consumers in a competitive market and should treat the provision of their education as they would buying a mobile phone.” Ignoring the patronising tone of Thompson, this ‘competitive market’ of the education system could backfire on the coalition. The ‘system’ as such, does not seem to be financially benefiting young people. With the withdrawal of EMA, scarily high tuition fees and an unsympathetic job market, if they are asked to be considering the financial exchange of University education, their financial investment seems to hugely outweigh its supposed outcome. The government cannot ignore “debt adversity” and blame it on ill-informed, angry young people. Prospective students have every right to be fearful of locking themselves into lifelong debt the same size as a small mortgage; they have every right to distrust a government who seems to be putting the interests of big businesses ahead of those of the everyday citizen; they have every right to be questioning the intentions of the administration. As David Cameron harps on about deficit reduction, he is asking thousands of young people borrow huge amounts of money in order to prop up an institution that should be publicly funded. Even as tuition fees scrape to fund University courses, maintenance loans barely cover accommodation fees, let alone costs of living. The 65% of the maintenance loan you can apply for without being means tested leaves a student living outside London with £3575 to sustain them for the year. With the cheapest University accommodation in a popular student city such as Leeds averaging around £3000 for the year, students are expected to survive on £575 for a whole year’s worth of study. In the eloquent words of the University of London Union’s education officer Luke Durigan, “gone is the assumption that an individual should have the right to a university education independent of their fiscal means: no economic or ideological dogma can possibly justify this.” [caption id="attachment_5433" align="alignleft" width="201" caption="(c) LornaGledhill"]Banks and Robbers[/caption]

Opt-out and Occupy

Unfortunately for commentators such as Alistair Thompson, many students have realised that they are paying for their education and are unhappy about it. “We are being told”, says Michael Chessum, a spokesperson for NCAFC, “by a cabinet of millionaires that we will have to pay triple tuition fees.” As the generation that benefited from free University education – and no doubt family-funded private schooling – racks up fees, no wonder young people are cynical. Previous demonstrations on the streets of London have turned violent, but policing has equally become more stringent. An estimated 4,000 Metropolitan police officers are said to be policing today’s march, with riot vans continually on stand-by. Many coaches transporting people from around the country to participate in the demonstration were stopped by police distributing leaflets about the rights and risks of protest, and individuals involved in previous demonstrations have received letters from the MET advising them against engaging in any ‘criminal activity.’ Coupled with the fact that the police were armed with rubber bullets, it seems that the police fear violent outbursts and are willing to intimidate potential sympathisers in order to limit the numbers on the streets. A flash occupation of Trafalgar Square ended with the police clearing the breakaway group within minutes but the protest is still heading to join up with the Occupy London camp by St Paul’s Cathedral. It is not as simple as playing off a binary argument between “anarchistic marches” and “competitive markets.” To be anti-privatisation, to be anti-cuts, even to be (shock-horror) anti-capitalist does not make you an anarchist. Curbing the all-pervading powers of consumerism over our public services does not have to result in chaos, despite what our current administration would have you believe. At the heart of this demonstration is a decision to challenge the ‘austerity’ justification for drastic cuts to public services. As the rich seem to be getting richer, the coalition’s ‘big society’ rhetoric is beginning to fall flat. Occupation doesn't have to mean setting up camp by St Paul’s. We must begin to opt-out of the austerity guilt trip and really question the ideological implications of government policy. We don’t have to be the ‘heart of the system’; we don’t have to support an unfair structure in the name of debt reduction. The marketisation of Universities will formulate a system that benefits individuals at the cost of others. The consumer market of higher education, blind to the failures of its financial counterpart, will not benefit the disadvantaged or rectify entrenched privilege. We are witnessing a government attempting to pretty the face of brazen consumerism with the rhetoric of choice and “financial power.” Don’t buy into it.

0

March against the Markets

March for the Alternative

(c) LornaGledhill

It’s been exactly eleven months since MPs voted in favour of the hike in tuition fees. That’s eleven months since thousands of students rallied outside the House of Parliament, waiting for the government’s fateful decision to be called out over megaphones and strained voices. That’s eleven months since the government ignored 20,000 people on the streets of London, thousands of students’ unions, and multiple advisory bodies as they decided to triple the cap on Undergraduate university admission fees to £9,000 per annum.

Today, the streets of London are going to be occupied by another 10,000 protesters who, continuing the campaign against the reforms to higher education, have decided their fight is not over. Organised by the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) and supported by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and Colleges Union (UCU), the march will progress from Malet Street, passing the Occupy London camp at St. Paul’s to finish outside London Metropolitan University. Reiterating their demands for no fees or cuts to Higher Education as well as the reinstatement of EMA, today’s protesters have also focused on the threat of privatisation in the education sector.

“There’s some things money can’t buy… for education, there’s Mastercard.”

The issue of privatisation in Higher Education has resurfaced since the publication of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ White Paper, “Students at the Heart of the System” in April 2011. The NCAFC have stated that this is a new catalyst for today’s protests:

“Protesters will be marching to derail the government’s higher education white paper, which has been described by academics and students as a chaotic and regressive attempt to introduce markets and private providers into education, effectively ending it as a public service.”

First introduced by a Labour government in 1998, tuition fees are not new. What is happening under the current administration is a transition from knowledge exchange to financial exchange. Higher education is now about profitable investment, getting value for money and increased competition for resources and students.

Investing in your future

With government funding to Universities slashed, the dominant financial support for institutions comes from students themselves. Aside from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects, other courses are almost entirely funded by the loans leant to students, paid to Universities, and then paid back to governments by earning graduates. Essentially, the government subsidies the subjects they consider to be more ‘important’ or more ‘valuable’ to the country as a whole.

This provides the general structure for reforms to higher education: students, governments, and private institutions must invest in courses that provide both value for money and employment prospects. The way we fund our further education, therefore, is focused on financial return. Private wealthy institutions and individuals are encouraged to see their investments in Universities as an exchange for a pool of potential graduate employees. Our investment in education is supposed to afford us a financially prosperous future; we are to be sold University education in order to engage in the wider consumer cycle.

Of course Universities should be dedicated to providing world-class education to their students, but as soon as education is predominately financially evaluated, knowledge for knowledge’s sake is devalued. In the words of the education officer at the University of London Union, “The moment we allow consumer ideology to penetrate higher education is the moment we lose the ability to think autonomously, reflect critically and question structural biases in our society.”

Competition, Exchange and Value

No Cuts

(c) LornaGledhill

As well as formulating a more entrenched structure of valuation within academic departments, the government is dedicated to the promotion of competition between Universities. “Enabling greater competition, while removing unnecessary regulations” is stated as a key theme of the government’s White Paper. By decentralising control over the University system, the government is not devolving power, but evading responsibility for crucial issues regarding social mobility.

The White Paper details that they “will allow unconstrained recruitment of the roughly 65,000 high-achieving students, scoring the equivalent of AAB or above at A-Level.” Therefore, Universities will compete for these top-scoring candidates as they avoid student number caps. Fundamentally, the government believes that as institutions are encouraged to fight for funding from students, they will provide a more efficient, cost-effective service: “We expect new courses to offer increased value for money, as they will be delivered by a range of providers with different business models.” As students are now consumers, they are expected to find the best ‘deal’ within University study.

The DBIS has also asked for a more comprehensive data to be made available for students when choosing their universities. With expanded employment and earning outcome information, students will be encouraged to weigh up their financial investment against their potential employment outcome. Thus, there is not only competition between students for university places, but between Universities themselves, and between academic departments within these institutions.

Academic competition is not the same as market competition. You cannot impose the rules and regulations of an economic framework on something with qualitative outcomes. University education encourages critical analysis, autonomous thought and stimulates wider society in ways beyond financial growth. If students are encouraged only to see the financial benefits and implications of further study, academic freedom, ingenuity and radicalism is set to plummet.

“They are consumers in a competitive market and should treat the provision of their education as they would buying a mobile phone.”

Alistair Thompson, writing on ConservativeHome, gave protesters the following advice:

“What students need to do is realise that now they are paying for their education, they are consumers in a competitive market and should treat the provision of their education as they would buying a mobile phone.”

Ignoring the patronising tone of Thompson, this ‘competitive market’ of the education system could backfire on the coalition. The ‘system’ as such, does not seem to be financially benefiting young people. With the withdrawal of EMA, scarily high tuition fees and an unsympathetic job market, if they are asked to be considering the financial exchange of University education, their financial investment seems to hugely outweigh its supposed outcome.

The government cannot ignore “debt adversity” and blame it on ill-informed, angry young people. Prospective students have every right to be fearful of locking themselves into lifelong debt the same size as a small mortgage; they have every right to distrust a government who seems to be putting the interests of big businesses ahead of those of the everyday citizen; they have every right to be questioning the intentions of the administration.

As David Cameron harps on about deficit reduction, he is asking thousands of young people borrow huge amounts of money in order to prop up an institution that should be publicly funded. Even as tuition fees scrape to fund University courses, maintenance loans barely cover accommodation fees, let alone costs of living. The 65% of the maintenance loan you can apply for without being means tested leaves a student living outside London with £3575 to sustain them for the year. With the cheapest University accommodation in a popular student city such as Leeds averaging around £3000 for the year, students are expected to survive on £575 for a whole year’s worth of study.

In the eloquent words of the University of London Union’s education officer Luke Durigan, “gone is the assumption that an individual should have the right to a university education independent of their fiscal means: no economic or ideological dogma can possibly justify this.”

Banks and Robbers

(c) LornaGledhill

Opt-out and Occupy

Unfortunately for commentators such as Alistair Thompson, many students have realised that they are paying for their education and are unhappy about it. “We are being told”, says Michael Chessum, a spokesperson for NCAFC, “by a cabinet of millionaires that we will have to pay triple tuition fees.” As the generation that benefited from free University education – and no doubt family-funded private schooling – racks up fees, no wonder young people are cynical.

Previous demonstrations on the streets of London have turned violent, but policing has equally become more stringent. An estimated 4,000 Metropolitan police officers are said to be policing today’s march, with riot vans continually on stand-by. Many coaches transporting people from around the country to participate in the demonstration were stopped by police distributing leaflets about the rights and risks of protest, and individuals involved in previous demonstrations have received letters from the MET advising them against engaging in any ‘criminal activity.’ Coupled with the fact that the police were armed with rubber bullets, it seems that the police fear violent outbursts and are willing to intimidate potential sympathisers in order to limit the numbers on the streets. A flash occupation of Trafalgar Square ended with the police clearing the breakaway group within minutes but the protest is still heading to join up with the Occupy London camp by St Paul’s Cathedral.

It is not as simple as playing off a binary argument between “anarchistic marches” and “competitive markets.” To be anti-privatisation, to be anti-cuts, even to be (shock-horror) anti-capitalist does not make you an anarchist. Curbing the all-pervading powers of consumerism over our public services does not have to result in chaos, despite what our current administration would have you believe. At the heart of this demonstration is a decision to challenge the ‘austerity’ justification for drastic cuts to public services. As the rich seem to be getting richer, the coalition’s ‘big society’ rhetoric is beginning to fall flat.

Occupation doesn’t have to mean setting up camp by St Paul’s. We must begin to opt-out of the austerity guilt trip and really question the ideological implications of government policy. We don’t have to be the ‘heart of the system’; we don’t have to support an unfair structure in the name of debt reduction.

The marketisation of Universities will formulate a system that benefits individuals at the cost of others. The consumer market of higher education, blind to the failures of its financial counterpart, will not benefit the disadvantaged or rectify entrenched privilege. We are witnessing a government attempting to pretty the face of brazen consumerism with the rhetoric of choice and “financial power.” Don’t buy into it.

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