'Tory scum' and higher education


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The images emanating from London last week were akin to the protests led by Students for a Democratic Society in the '60s. "Grandad stood up for peace and love — will you stand up for education?" read one placard.

Students smashed windows, and a few hundred stormed the building housing the Conservative Party's headquarters. Activists chanting "Tory scum" traded blows with the police. The Guardian reported that eight people were injured and several were arrested.

Who knew that a proposal to cut public funding for higher education would invoke such a charged reaction? Fifty thousand gathered to express their consternation and dissent. And only a small number of protesters committed violent acts.

Yet the grievances of all those who were protesting were shared. British society, like many Western countries, has become enthralled with austerity. Reducing the debt and deficit and retrenchment of government are chief principles.

In order to balance its budget, the Tory-Liberal Democrat government has proposed a set of cuts to tuition funding that many believe will be devastating and have a disproportionate effect on the poor.

The tuition cuts will have a much broader effect on British society as well. Writing in the London Review of Books, Steffani Collini notes:

"Essentially, Browne is contending that we should no longer think of higher education as the provision of a public good, articulated through educational judgment and largely financed by public funds (in recent years supplemented by a relatively small fee element). … Britain's universities, it is proposed, should henceforth operate in accordance with the tenets of perfect competition theory."

Or, higher education as a commodity — a good that can be traded and supported by the government through "investments" so that it reaps a profitable return (read: economic growth). The plan, if enacted, will likely result in massive indebtedness. Any of this sound familiar?

Funding for higher education in the U.S. has already befallen a similar fate. In response to budget pressures, state governments have annually withdrawn their support. As the cost of college increases, student loan debt is now an unfortunate fact of life.

There's a myth that Americans have collectively bought into: If you work hard and play by the rules, success will be yours. Higher education is indispensable in that formula. The reality now is that massive indebtedness is now a prerequisite for participation in the 21st-century economy.

For progressives — or liberals, if you prefer — this retrenchment of government should be terribly disconcerting. Government support for higher education to promote the public good has long been central to enhancing democracy. Without an educated populace, what type of democracy would we have?

Addressing protesters, the National Union of Students president said, "We're in the fight of our lives … we face an unprecedented attack on our future before it has even begun. They're proposing barbaric cuts that would brutalize our colleges and universities."

On this side of the Pond, American students have been saddled with draconian and barbaric cuts to higher education for decades. But except for period spouts of outrage and virulence on the West Coast, American youth have largely been docile.

The contrast is distressing, especially for a country that is facing similar public education disinvestment.

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