liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
[personal profile] liv
I've been following the protests over the tuition fees issue, but not really participating. I'm not a protesting on the streets sort of person, and my institution seems to be relatively apolitical. Certainly the medical students can't really think of jeopardizing their careers through unauthorized absences and potentially getting into trouble with the police. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the students' cause, police behaviour has unquestionably been deplorable. I'd have thought that the one thing a Liberal-Conservative coalition could agree on was that people have the right to express their opinions through demonstrations and protests. Apparently, though, we're going to get all the disadvantages of a right-leaning government but none of the benefits.

I agree with the analysis that some people in my circle have been discussing, that the proposed situation for paying university tuition fees isn't actually much worse financially than what we currently have. Indeed, it's essentially a graduate tax being called by a different name for reasons of spin that I don't totally understand. And raising the threshold at which graduates must start repaying loans is very likely a good thing.

That's not to say I think the protests are groundless, though. For me the problem here is the principle issue: this is the first step in a move from public funding of university education and research, to a consumerist model where students pay for their own education, and research is supposed to muddle through somehow. I had the same problem when I did march in 1997: true, £1000 a year is a small sum compared to the clear benefits of university education. But at that time we were promised that the fees would never rise beyond inflation, and it took no time at all for that £1000 a year to become £3000 and now, less than 15 years later, it's looking very much like £9000. Once you've established the idea that universities bill students directly for their education, you've created a situation which I am pretty convinced will lead to a university degree becoming the entrance fee to an exclusive plutocratic club. If £9000 is accepted, well, £12,000 isn't a big increase. In another decade we'll be looking at people borrowing more than their lifetime earnings. For that reason of principle, my heart is very much with the students (and many of my friends) out on the streets confronting police violence, even though not everybody involved has a clear head about the numbers right now.

The other issue where I'm strongly on the side of the protestors about is the withdrawal of EMA payments. There is absolutely no point making noble-sounding declarations about pushing universities to do outreach to students from poor backgrounds, if those students can't afford to stay in school after 16 to do A Levels. I think a large part of the problem here is that the politicians, and the chattering classes as a whole, see £30 a week as pocket money. For EMA recipients, though, it's the difference between possible and impossible. I'm horrified to see the government bribing married couples with £5 a week, even though most of them are adults who have one or more full incomes, have had a chance to become financially established and so on, when at the same time claiming that the financial situation is so dire that we can't afford to support the poorest teenagers to the tune of £30 a week so that they can complete their secondary education and gain access to tertiary education.

I'm concerned for myself, because I have pretty much planned my life on the basis that there would be public funding for higher education, including research. I didn't imagine that this funding would be generous or reliable, but I imagined it would exist! I don't know how I would feel about working for a university that was a profit-making institution, selling certificates of middle-class status to act as entry tickets to the professions. Because if we start treating education as a marketable commodity, it won't take long before we're selling qualifications, not education. But hey, somehow, somewhere I'll find someone to pay me to teach, whether it's Jewish communities, primary schools or some kind of alternative adult ed track for those who can't afford gilt-edged degrees.

So I'm much more concerned for the future of the country as a whole. At the moment I'm incredibly pessimistic, I foresee a social structure where only those with inherited wealth have a hope of a decent job, political influence, home ownership, financial stability etc. I'm not saying this is something that has suddenly happened, but I am saying that the government's approach to withdrawing from funding HE is really consolidating this stratification. And I'm really distressed to see that anyone who has a problem with this future is in danger of being treated like a criminal at best, and actually suffering serious assault by police at worst. Apart from being unjust, this kind of society is incredibly unstable, and ultimately not at all beneficial even for those at the top of the heap.

Many people are disappointed with the Lib Dems for reneging on their promise to oppose tuition fees. Me, I basically expected that of the Lib Dems; I've seen what they were like in coalition in Scotland, where they had very little influence on their Labour coalition partners, and were far more interested in staying in power than in acting in their constituents' interests. At election time, I hoped that the Lib Dems would be principled enough to refuse a coalition with Labour, which would have led to them reneging on their promises to oppose the Iraq war and support civil liberties. So, I got what I was hoping for in that sense, but I'm bitterly disappointed with the Conservatives, because they haven't lived up to their promise of restoring individual freedoms. Plus I expected their educational policy to be about reducing the numbers of people going to university to the point where we could fund HE properly. I would rather see the brightest 10% of the country attending university than the richest 50%, alongside decent educational alternatives for people who want to learn practical and career-focused skills rather than pure academic subjects. I can't criticize people who naively thought that the Lib Dems would uphold their principles in coalition, because I was equally naive in thinking that Cameron's Conservatives would come up with a fair educational policy and rein in the worst injustices of the Labour term.

On a related matter, I'm a bit peeved at people uncritically repeating and re-tweeting that stupid article about Oxford's admissions policy. Some guy cherry-picked statistics to create some eye-catching headlines suggesting that Oxford is reluctant to accept Black candidates, and made a big fuss about how much effort it was to find out the detailed breakdown of the data via Freedom of Information requests, when in fact most of the ethnicity data is publicly available on university websites, and he just wanted something more fine-grained. Besides which, separating out different ethnic groups who all happen to have black skin is a valid exercise; clearly actual Africans, African-Americans, and people who live in Britain but ancestrally hail from Africa recently, or the Caribbean a generation ago, are different groups of people with different experiences. Conflating specific data about Black British people of Afro-Caribbean origin with data about Black applicants in general is bordering on deceitful.

I'm not at all claiming that Oxford totally doesn't have a problem with racism! There may well be racism. But making a big fuss about statistical noise fluctuations in tiny numbers of applicants isn't at all the way to address this. Part of the problem, of course, is the numbers of students from particular ethnic groups who get the kind of school education that makes applying to Oxbridge feasible. There is very likely racism involved in that situation, but it's not the fault of any university or college. But even if you're trying to deal with actual racism on the part of Oxbridge colleges, this approach is IMO counterproductive. Repeating alarmist articles all over the place simply discourages ethnically disadvantaged students from applying in the first place. It's like stereotype threat, only more extreme, and I think it's highly irresponsible to spread that kind of misinformation.

I'm reminded of a case when I was at college: there was a whole big fuss about some kid who was rejected from Magdalen college even though she had four As at A Level, and her headmaster went to the press claiming that she had been discriminated against because she attended a state school. He ignored the fact that all the candidates for medicine at Magdalen had straight As at A Level, not to mention that the girl hadn't made up her mind whether she wanted to read medicine or biochemistry. All this achieved was a marked dip in applications from state school pupils the following year; so much for all those righteous crusaders up in arms about Oxford's biased admissions policy! Innuendo sticks; people remember the shock horror story of bias, not the careful debunkings that follow. Simply repeating this kind of stuff for the pleasure of outrage does far more harm than good.

I've probably offended everyone by now. Oh well, that's my political rant for the week.

This was most intersting, thank you

Date: 2010-12-15 08:13 pm (UTC)
falena: Picture of a girl hiding behind a camera, reflected in a mirror. (Default)
From: [personal profile] falena
I don't have much to contribute, being Italian and not very informed on British current affairs (I skim the Guardian from time to time and BBC News, but that's it).

Two bits struck me in particular:

you've created a situation which I am pretty convinced will lead to a university degree becoming the entrance fee to an exclusive plutocratic club.


if we start treating education as a marketable commodity, it won't take long before we're selling qualifications, not education.


Those are my worst fears whenever someone talks of reforming higher education in Italy. Our system is in dire need of reforms, because it totally doesn't work, yet I'm afraid this is the path will end up embracing.
Edited (missing word) Date: 2010-12-15 08:13 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2010-12-19 04:47 pm (UTC)
falena: Picture of a girl hiding behind a camera, reflected in a mirror. (Default)
From: [personal profile] falena
I always get something out of your posts, you're opinionated, clever and eloquent. It's just that I'm often too lazy (and sometimes embarrassed because of my ignorance) to leave a comment.

Yes, I often wonder whether those who are in favour of this American-inspired system actually know what they're talking about or not. The latter is more likely, I'm afraid.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-12-15 08:30 pm (UTC)
tig_b: cartoon from nMC set (Default)
From: [personal profile] tig_b
A good analysis of some of the recent issues. I'm certainly not offended.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-12-15 09:58 pm (UTC)
ephemera: celtic knotwork style sitting fox (Default)
From: [personal profile] ephemera
I can't really discuss this topic in a public post, but those things that scare you? Scare me, from a few steps further down this particular fucked up path...

(no subject)

Date: 2010-12-19 01:59 am (UTC)
forthwritten: (boy reader)
From: [personal profile] forthwritten
I really liked this, and wanted to let you know that I read it even if I don't have anything clever or interesting to respond with.

I'm deeply worried about where this is going - the move towards privatisation is especially concerning.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-12-19 07:28 pm (UTC)
forthwritten: (boy reader)
From: [personal profile] forthwritten
Oh, gosh, I didn't realise I was one of the people you were worried about offending! I'm certainly not offended :)

The tuition fees rise is something I'm angry about, but I'm with you in that I'm far, far more angry about the move away from public funding of HE and research and about the EMA (and schemes like Aim Higher and Lifelong Learning UK) and I wish these were getting more attention.

I think it's interesting to see students' political engagement developing. If they voted LibDem it was because of their policies, and now LibDem are part of a coalition they've completely gone back on some of the policies that were so attractive to student voters. A lot of people are pissed off about that, and I rather expect there'll be a lot more cynicism and disillusionment with the voting process.

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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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