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UK students take action on higher ed

BY GUEST OPINION | FEBRUARY 11, 2011 7:10 AM

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We are living in exceptional times. We do not have to look as far as Egypt, even, for verification.

Students in the UK (who, by British stereotypes, would have to be one of the most politically apathetic groups in the world) are not just up in arms about government policy and plans for education but virtually in revolt.

Up and down the country, we have marched streets in our hundreds of thousands and occupied universities by the dozen to protest against the 80 percent cut to the central government teaching and research grant, the trebling of tuition fees, and the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, which helps some of the poorest kids to stay on at school after 16.

Given the difference between the U.S. and UK systems, perhaps it is worth a cursory explanation of why this is so bad: UK universities and colleges are dependent on state funding; up until 1997, higher education was free for everyone; the “support” that is being proposed to offset increased tuition fees is purely tokenistic.

The gross effect of these policies will be a regress of several decades: an education system bent in favour of the wealthy elite who can afford it, with the poorer majority shut out of the best institutions and saddled with a lifetime of debt when they dare to seek self-development.

But why should the government propose such a programme? The first excuse summoned is the state of public finances — there is no alternative, ostensibly, to draconian cuts. Even though upward of £7 billion of public bailout money is being thrown at bankers in form of bonuses. Even though untold billions are not collected from the mega-rich in taxes each year and as corporate tax rates sink. Even though we burn money every day in bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If it is not obvious why over the past three months we have been marching, occupying spaces in our universities, and even (shock and horror) smashing windows of the Conservative Party headquarters, then perhaps no length of explanation will help. We fight to defend the core principle of education: that it should be available for all to cherish, not sold like a pack of sausages, or (perhaps more appropriately) like a suit and tie to get you that really cool job (which, by the way, no longer exists).

The problems we are facing in the UK are not specific to us. We look across the Atlantic and we see American students fighting the marketisation of their universities too, be they in the University of California in 2009-10 or in Puerto Rico in 2010-11.

The idea is crass that graduates or students must directly pay back the cost of their education simply because they benefited from receiving it. Do we not likewise benefit from breathing clean air?

Mechanisms for minimising air pollution are dealt with publicly; it is understood that clean air is a public good and to charge individuals for every breath they take would be unjust.

Is education not likewise a public good? Does the nurse alone benefit from his education? The truth is that university systems everywhere are becoming more and more elite — consciously or otherwise, the decision is made to price out the less fortunate in order to preserve the “value” of receiving a degree.

Our rallying cries should be the same. Education must be recognised and allowed to be the great instrument of both social and personal emancipation that it is.

In the UK, students and education workers created and run the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts: a democratic, grass-roots organisation to seek this end — to unite local fight-backs, yes, but also to engage with student activists across the globe defending education where they are.

If any, just any of this resonates with you, I want you to stop and look around. What is happening on your campus? At your college? In your state? Nationally?

Today, don’t just sit there and nod in agreement to a newspaper column. Take a leaf out of our book. Do something.

Greg Brown is a cofounder of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and a student at University College London.


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