This is one of a pair of posts. This one looks at the unanswered questions after the tuition fees vote. The other one declares and explains my personal biases.
18 is a magical age. Drinking, voting, leaving home, and exams that have the power to change the direction of your entire life – and the end of free education.
It’s peculiar, how education changes in the August of the year you pass your A-levels. Suddenly education is a privilege, not a right. Suddenly you must justify your choices harder than ever before, make sacrifices, shop around, evaluate the potential quality of your teaching in a way you have never had the chance or obligation to do before. Suddenly education is a marketplace, not a common good.
And it’s about to become more so, thanks to the trebling of tuition fees and slashing of university funding. As part of the cuts to humanities, funding for languages at university has been decimated – even as the coalition tries to push more teenagers to take them on at GCSE. Education is not a life-long concern – and education for its own sake is utterly devalued by a government that persists in painting certain subjects as more worthy than others.
When we talk about the cuts to education, adults tend to forget that many teenagers don’t go to university because of the career options at the end – they go because they care passionately about their areas of expertise and because they love to learn. For the same reasons that 17-year-olds do A levels and 6-year-olds love art lessons. Because of the joy of learning.
At the protest, everyone I spoke to shared a similar sentiment. The protests were about the cuts. The anger is about the lies, the broken promises, the injustices. The coalition’s last-minute attempt to persuade furious protesters that in reality they just haven’t quite understood the implications has done little, if anything, to help – in fact, its list of myths certainly doesn’t cover the main objections I have (though at least it’s provided some great parody ammunition).
Many of the big questions remain, at least to my knowledge (please correct me if I’m wrong) unanswered:
- How much is this going to cost the country?
- Why are we borrowing more when the coalition’s stated aim is to reduce, not increase, the deficit?
- Why the uneven nature of the cuts, aimed at humanities more than science?
- Where’s the evidence that humanities graduates don’t contribute to the economy to the same extent as science ones?
- Where’s the study that shows what impact the fees and cuts might have on poor students, minorities, students from poorer schools?
- What’s going to be done to make the Student Loans Company fit for purpose, if it’s going to be overseeing so much more money?
- What is the sale of this debt into the banking system going to do to the economy, in the short and long term?
- We’ve seen analysis of EMA and participation – but where’s the analysis of the impact of stopping the EMA on attainment, aspiration, attendance, self-esteem?
- Why is debt you have no hope of paying back fine for students but bad for countries?
- Whose voices are going to be missing from the wider conversations and absent from our universities in ten years’ time, because of fees, because they’re critical thinkers but not great mathematicians, because they can’t afford college, because they’ve been told their chosen field is worth less than others, because they don’t believe their education is worthwhile any more?
- Why are universities covered by the Department for Business and not the Department for Education, anyway?
And the anger is going to get bigger as the injustices are perceived to mount up – the post-Christmas VAT rise coupled with this year’s round of bank bonuses is going to add fuel to the #ukuncut fires – and some of the anger will stop being directed at Nick Clegg and his merry band of pledge-skippers and start to be aimed at others in power. Dumbledore’s Army are already marching, and for all the pearl-clutching about yobs poking Camilla with sticks and the discourse about falling support for students, the narrative has escaped the cosy confines of the right-wing press. Groups of kids are using decentralised technology to organise protests in real time – and making jokes about Godzilla at the same time. They don’t need the support of the Daily Mail. They’ve got their networks, and the Mail doesn’t matter any more.
And bear in mind, while everyone on every medium is talking about peaceful protest, that this is a group of young people who have never seen peaceful protest work. This is a generation of politicians who have never listened to peaceful protesters, no matter how reasonable. Would there have been resignations if there hadn’t been a pitched battle going on outside?