Sunday, November 21, 2010

the sound of breaking glass

Demonstrators break windows of the Conservative Party headquarters building during a protest in central London November 10, 2010. REUTERS/Paul Hackett 

The mainstream media has been predictably dismissive of the recent higher education protests, taking its traditional reporting stance of mocking students for being concerned purely with their own personal levels of debt. Although the creation of a vast new customer base for what are essentially sub-prime loans (as this perceptive blog post points out) is indeed shocking, focusing primarily on it misses the bigger point of how the Browne report will devastate higher eduction.

In fact, the media preoccupation with the issue of personal student debt, as opposed to the  possibility of a 100% cut (yes, you read that correctly*) in funding for arts and humanities courses, is entirely consistent with the government's objectives. Which is to say, that they propose to eviscerate any vestige of higher education as a public and civic good, replacing it with a competitive and venal market place where students run up enormous debts in exchange for promises of future earning power. Any concept that education might be about anything other than an expensive but fast track route to making money will be destroyed as a result of the adoption of the Browne report. Simply put, colleges will close, courses will cease to exist and the countries standing as a place that values art, culture and thought will evaporate with them.

This is the extent of the coalition government's aggressive and violent approach to our threadbare public, artistic and intellectual life. Faced with this, the media's hand-wringing over some petty acts of minor violence seems utterly shameful. One can only assume that the baby-boomer era editors and senior reporters who benefited from a genuinely free higher education system simply haven't grasped the extent of the government's plans and have fallen back on cliched mockery of 'violent minorities' and whingeing students.

This last issue, and in particular the emotive and symbolic importance of the broken windows of 30 Millbank, has been admirably pulled apart by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman. She also makes the very important point that the reporting of the 'riot' mirrors the shift from valuing public life to the veneration of private property embodied in the Browne Report. Clearly, the private property of the owners of 30 Millbank is held in far higher esteem by the British media than the concept of public and civic life, which can be ransacked by the government with seeming impunity. Penny evokes the suffragette movement which not only places the much denigrated 'sickening' violence in its historic context, but records the significance they placed on such symbolic acts. Now, of course, such struggles are held to be the kind of freedoms that we should be justly proud of.

The seemingly impregnable argument put forward for all this of course is that WE SIMPLY CAN'T AFFORD current levels and models of HE funding. The government's now well established trick of bandying around large figures in order to scare people into thinking that, gosh, £4.2 billion sounds a lot, much more than I have in my bank account, totally fails to place education spending in any kind of context, or offer people an informed choice of what gets spent on what. Besides, the implicit assumption is that it is not the place of government to be spending money on important services to start with. In reality, it is capitalism's insane need for growth that is at the heart of the Browne report. It identifies higher (although not primary or secondary, yet) education as an industry yet to be fully exploited for private profit.

A few other decent and thoughtful pieces of anaylsis have emerged in the wake of the protest, including this one by Stefani Collini in the LRB, which is surely argument enough for more consistent protests, whether involving the theft of a few sofas or not. Collini gets to the heart of the Browne report and its slavish importation of 'perfect market' theory into higher eduction. This despite the disasters that such ideology has already brought us and the fact that it thrives on the basic social and economic  inequalities that higher eduction is supposed, in part, to offset. In its vaunting of the power of the consumer and consequent diminution of the power of the citizen, and in its philistine misunderstanding of any value other than a purely commercial one, the Browne Report is a terrifying piece of ruthless free-market ideology.

If you are a student reading this I would urge you to get involved - if you aren't already - in protesting against the cuts and the adoption of the  Browne report's recommendations. A good place to look for news and links to organised protests is Nina Power's Infinite Thought blog, which also has a link to a petition protesting the wholesale funding cuts for humanities subjects here.

* The Browne report assumes a 40% cut in funding, but the ring fencing of science and technology subjects is likely to translate into a 80-100% cut in funding for arts, humanities and social sciences subjects. 


Matt Tempest said...

Well said.

Anonymous said...

Its worth noting that the £4.2bn cuts to education pale insignifficance to last years £3.3bn military OVERSPEND... yes overspend, not budget, as in not managing their budget correctly, as in opps, just overspent another £3.3bn on some big bombs.

Charles Holland said...

Yes, absolutely. There is virtually no rational debate about money at present, everything being distorted through this hysterical hyperbole that the country is bankrupt, that Britain is broken, that drastic measures must be taken. Shock doctrine essentially.

So, people are largely ignorant of the relatively small amount as a percentage of GDP that the country spends on higher education (less even than the US currently, BEFORE the cuts). Gross inequities like the one you mention get ignored too.

Jeremy Till said...

Great post. But to clarify one thing. It is not an attack on humanities per se, it is an attack on the whole system - it is just that humanities people are better at writing and so have got their particular point over more articulately.

Yes, 100% funding is being withdrawn from humanities and social sciences teaching. The same amount per student is probably going to be withdrawn from science teaching, leaving just the small top up (approx £3k per student) that the government presently puts in for these students. The overall cut to the teaching budget is therefore around 80%, i.e. twice that recommended by Browne. The overall 40% cut ("i.e. we are only really cutting by 40% to show what civilized people we are") that is being bandied around is when you put research funding (which is not being cut very much at all) into the overall budget - but this headline figure disguises a truly vicious underlying cut, as you note.

In a way more scary than the fees, is the opening to the market full stop in terms of student numbers, so that posh Universities are allowed to open up the floodgates, thus taking students out the system for the less posh, and equally we will probably see some Lidl Unversities, offering everything at £6k, and getting over the 20% cut that this represents (it costs around £7.5k to educate a student presently) by piling students in and making "efficiencies'. Does anyone know of a education system anywhere that could bear this degree of turbulence and uncertainty? It is clear that, as with housing, the ConDemns are making it up as they go along.

And don't get me going on what this means for architecture.

Thanks for letting me use your blog as a my own para-blog

Anonymous said...

One thing to remember is that since the introduction of polytechnic institutes and the broadening availability of tertiary education in late C19th, the desirability of higher education has been almost exclusively understood in relation to its market benefits.

The difference was that our C19th and C20th overlords could see the importance of arts and humanities to the furtherance of a national project, especially through the exportation of something called "British culture".

When even such unmanageable imperial aspirations have been abandoned, the whole mess appears so ideologically barren that one can't help but conclude that this really IS the worst you can imagine: an attempt to strip the country of anything as unquantifiably unruly as an intellectual life.

Charles Holland said...

Jeremy, you are most welcome! And thanks for elucidating in more detail about the detail of the cuts. Has the Bartlett's strategy of making all post graduate studios research based (as I understand it) helped it avoid the worst of the cuts then?

Anon. I can only agree really...

AM said...