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Daniel Cooper responds to David Bowman

David Bowman’s piece in the Founder (The Cuts, the ACA and the Marginalised Majority, 1 June, 2011) raises a number of important ideas that deserve addressing.

It is notable that Bowman agrees the cuts to higher education are ‘savage’. What are these ‘savage’ cuts? Universities in Britain are receiving up to an 80% cut in their funding with the Arts and Humanities facing an end to funding. In December 2010, a ‘snap’ parliamentary vote was called to set tuition fees to a colossal £9 000 (most universities, like RHUL, have adopted this top rate). This snap vote was a tactical means to restrain debate and avoid a prolonged campaign of opposition (which had the potential to split the coalition), the early vote used an existing statutory instrument to carry the most difficult political feature of the proposals: the tripling of fees. Indeed, in 1979, 25% of university places went to people coming from the top 20% of incomes in Britain, today that is 50% of places, this is despite the expansion in universities. These changes are going to further exacerbate the tremendous difficulties working class and mature students have in going to university. This government is creating another ‘lost generation’, a generation of debt, insecurity and unemployment (ask any graduate leaving RHUL about how enormously tough it is to find a job).

As I noted in the last edition of the Founder (8th June) David Willetts, the minister for universities, is removing the legislative restrictions that allow cheaper, private capital to enter our universities, producing ‘models’ such as that of the recently created college of A. C Grayling. The interesting part about the creation is that the ‘university’ is being run by the charitable wing of a private equity company (an anonymous Swiss family owns around 35%). And in fact, it’s been a botched attempt, having failed to attain degree awarding powers and the highly sought after ‘university college’ title. This is a case of the tragedy of our universities’ transformation and the enveloping farce that has permeated the university debate.

The deficit has provided the government with an excuse to radically restructure the funding, governance and mission of higher education. As I write the government has released its long delayed white paper on higher education. The government has glorified the ‘new’ bits and pieces incoming students can get access to; knowledge of academic standards, costs of local accommodation and the like. But as the President of Oxford Students union has said, these new policy are like putting lipstick on a pig, an attempt to dress up the dismantling of our universities. But how will Willets allow the private sector into universities? Firstly, as has been done, the government will stop central funding to the arts, humanities and social sciences. Most private institutions haven’t shown an interest in STEM subjects as they command high costs and are costly to run. In turn, students at private providers have been given access to the student loans and grants. These moves are to ‘soften’ the sector in order to destabilise and provide room for the entry of new agents. The government is creating the appropriate market conditions through direct intervention. Established universities will be fettered in the short to medium term, mainly through the continued use of the student recruitment ceiling, until such a point as the newcomers are able to operate cheaply and competitively. According to the University and College Union, private-sector education in the US has seen college fees grow at four times the rate of inflation over the last 25 years. The same is going to happen in the UK. The government is moving rapidly with these changes, catapulting us into Kentucky fried undergraduate education for profit. Notably, it has been suggested that these ‘for profit’ universities will be marketed to public school students who miss out on their ‘first choice’. As The Economist comments; “supporters of the New College admit that it will draw most of its students from a pool of privately educated pupils who risk being shut out of the best publicly funded universities.” As the academic Andrew McGettigan argues, “it reinforces the notion that the arts and humanities are a luxury or privilege of the moneyed classes and that, nonsensically, these subjects are not well-taught outside of Oxbridge.” Furthermore, university bosses, including our own RHUL Principal, Paul Layzell, is paid £241, 000 – he was paid less than the prime minister in 2001 (10 years ago) and now he is paid 21% more. If one looks to the figures, there has been a 14% yearly rise in salary.

In Bowman’s second paragraph he suggests RHUL has increased its tuition fees to ‘protect their brand image’ – dear John, you are right, but this demonstrates the insertion of market logic into our institutes of education. University management has solely been concerned with the signal a specific fee level denotes in “reputational” terms, images attaining an autonomous force. The distinction is made between appearance and being. What does the fee level say about the university? Reputation is decided upon through the language and testing of productivity, efficiency, cost reduction and competition. Just as the way value is generated on the stock exchange depends less on what a company ‘really does’, and more on perceptions of, and beliefs about, its (future) performance: “all that is solid melts into PR”(Fisher, 2010). Universities will be prey to market forces and business interventionism. This market logic means students are treated as consumers rather than critical thinking participants in a university community. Academics will have less time for teaching and research yet will spend an unforgiving amount of time on paper work and unnecessary administrative tasks.

I’d like to pose a utilitarian and economistic type question of the sort regularly thrown at academics and students: what did students at RHUL get when paying the fee amount of £3,000? The answer has been larger class sizes (Staff/student ratio up 21%), a more crowded campus, no commensurate rise in student facilities, no increase in student representation (we contribute over 55% of the total revenue). In 3 year’s time students will contribute over 80% of the total revenue. How will RH management accommodate the student’s view? Importantly, these numbers and the aforementioned statistics on the numbers of libraries closing and council workers being sacked – the numbers embody ideology: this is an ideological attack to re-imagine universities and our public services.

But, remember, this campaign against the government’s austerity isn’t just about us in education. 496 libraries are under threat of closure, hospitals are being privatised and closed, teachers and cleaners are contributing more to their pensions, working later but receiving less in the long term. These changes hit at the very foundations of our society which were fought for by working people and liberation campaigns in the later part of the twentieth century. It wasn’t the cleaners, the nurses, teachers who created the banking crisis; it was they, the super-rich and big business – the minority. Yet who is being made to pay for this crisis?

I think it important to remember the scale of what is facing students and young people in the years ahead and thus the necessary response that we must be prepared to plan and organise. This began last year with a magnificent revolt of young people in Britain. What has been striking is that, yes, these protests have been in-part organised by the university students but, significantly, working class kids from the colleges and schools have been walking out in anger at the colossal damage this government is doing to them.

Bowman’s article raises question of strategy and tactics. It is claimed the Anti-Cuts Alliance and actions representing a similar character have marginalised a majority of students at our treasured Egham home. Let’s look into this. The ACA, as a voluntary and very well organised group of students, academics and trade unionists, have been regularly making the case for why these governmental measures are both regressive and economically bonkers. Our actions have involved a diversity of tactics; big public meetings, sending enormous numbers of emails and letters to the university management and government, petitions, and I ran in the student union elections in order for the union to adopt these ideas. However, carefully worded letters fell on deaf ears; we didn’t get a response and haven’t been listened to by the government. Therefore, over the period of November and December of 2010, students began to occupy space in their universities, holding teach-ins, alternative lectures, making demands on their management and often being successful. Imaginative direct actions such as the ‘Funeral for Education’ and occupying banks in protest at the obscene amounts of money being evaded by the super-rich whilst ordinary people are being humiliated with no jobs and the persistent mantra of ‘there is no alternative’. The management at Royal Holloway are moving to close the Classics department and Italian BA, with languages as a whole facing a question mark over their future and academics to be sacked. This is shocking and must be resisted. A serious and organised campaign will have to take place. Now, things become a bit more complicated for those flippantly condemning this and that when these very real issues arrive at their feet. Occupations and letters can go hand in hand but we have to think about what we want to achieve, we want to be rejecting any cuts affecting students and workers on campus.

When Bowman discussed the marginalising-type actions, he probably had in mind the smashing of windows at Millbank. I believe Millbank should be celebrated – it exploded the relationship between the governed and governing, a hitherto compliant generation grasped what was being thrown at them by the government and began to fight back. They said they wouldn’t accept the fee hike, destruction of education and public services. As the Labour MP John McDonnell noted, “the real vandalism is not a few Millbank windows broken, but £9,000 fees destroying the dreams of many young people going to university”. Why did it have to take an incident like Millbank raise the temperature to get the government and the media to listen? Perhaps if one negative can be taken from Millbank, it has been the unfortunate failure of the nation’s press to place damage to property over violence to people, making little differentiation between the two. But big demonstrations like the 10th November won’t be enough to stop these measures. Strike action like that on the 30th June will get the government to pay attention; teachers downing their tools will cause schools to close and disruption to ensue. The government have shown they are not prepared for discussion on these matters; they believe that job losses, weaker pensions and worse conditions are absolutely fundamental to the future of Britain, they must be done – but, let’s be clear, their interests are opposed to those of the majority in this country.

Bowman blindly discusses a specific instance when the ACA ‘first’ (this is incorrect, various activists from what came to be known as the Anti-Cuts Alliance raised these issues at many previous SU meetings, and, in fact, co-organised events with the current Sabbs) came into contact with the student body. The occupation of the Founders building in protest at RHUL management’s docility over the spending cuts attracted significant numbers and raised the profile of the crucial issues on campus. Students involved the occupation decided they wanted to seek support for their sit-in, to engage seriously with the formal processes of student representation at the college; this involved writing a motion stating that the students union should “politically, financially and legally support” the recent occupation. We are represented by a collective union which has the capacity to give such support, and many student unions across the country have since done so. Student unions in Manchester, UCL, Brighton and many others supported their students holding occupations and, in fact, actively took part in such action. This support is important for numerous reasons, 1) politically; student unions should support measures intending to combat the government’s attacks on education, the occupation was a pure political act, trying to bring attention and change something 2) financially; this was deemed to be the most controversial – this was to help with photocopying, production of leaflets and all invaluable campaigning material. Spurious (and quite risible) claims were made that supporting an occupation would mean the closing of the union or cuts to sports/society budgets. Such conclusions are flatly wrong and it is perplexing to think that people trying to preserve and better the spending on students would then hope to try and reduce funding. Divisions have been created amongst students as a result of these goings-on – divisions, which have meant more time spent on arguing rather than working together, as we should be.

Bowman details this year’s students’ union elections and claims that I cheated. There were a large number of complaints emanating from, and about, various campaign groups. Additionally, there were many cheap slurs about my own personal character and my campaign was particularly scrutinised. The Russian society, out of its own volition, sent a Facebook message endorsing candidates for the election. After finding out that they were in fact not permitted to do such things they immediately withdrew the message. I never asked them to send this message. Everyone who campaigns in SU elections is fully aware that they aren’t able to gain support from societies and it would have been lunacy of me to have done so particularly when my campaign was under such close scrutiny. There have subsequently been claims about the conduct of the elections, the claims are just that, claims, not grounded in fact. I attained a clear victory in the students’ union elections and it has been a shame to have heard many hurtful comments directed my way since. To those unsure about my intentions I say; we share a passion about this university and the future of education and public services – we care greatly about RHUL’s student union and we should working together, united.

Bowman states that mass involvement in our students’ union is key. I agree. I was elected on a platform to stop the cuts at Royal Holloway and defend education, making sure workers and students are well paid and work in decent conditions, to better represent international and off-campus students and greater democratise the SU. This must mean greater involvement in the students’ union, and that is one of the many tasks I will be working on over the summer with the other new sabbatical officers.

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