Im­pend­ing im­plo­sion

Are £9K fees protesters vic­to­ri­ous at last?

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - John.mor­[email protected]­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Per­haps the death of Eng­land’s £9,250 tu­ition fees sys­tem – seem­ingly im­mi­nent in the gov­ern­ment’s re­view of post- 18 ed­u­ca­tion – started with that sys­tem’s own birth.

The Con­ser­va­tive-led coali­tion gov­ern­ment’s 2010 move to dras­ti­cally cut pub­lic fund­ing for uni­ver­si­ties, tre­ble fees to £9,000 and abol­ish ed­u­ca­tional main­te­nance al­lowance trig­gered a new kind of protest move­ment.

The stu­dent protests of 2010 (pic­tured above) dom­i­nated the news for weeks in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber that year: fleet­ing oc­cu­pa­tion and van­dal­ism of Tory head­quar­ters at Mill­bank af­ter the first, 50,000-strong protest; a “lead­er­less” move­ment sur­pass­ing tra­di­tional stu­dent ac­tivism and us­ing so­cial me­dia to pro­mote its po­lit­i­cal ends, then a novel tac­tic; oc­cu­pa­tions at around 50 uni­ver­si­ties across the coun­try; school­child­ren, fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion and univer­sity stu­dents “ket­tled” by riot po­lice for hours in freez­ing tem­per­a­tures at Lon­don protests.

Af­ter the fee rise was passed by the House of Com­mons on 9 De­cem­ber, with 3,000 po­lice sur­round­ing Par­lia­ment as protesters massed out­side, the protest move­ment seemed to quickly fiz­zle out in de­feat. But there is now a view among some on the left that the 2010 stu­dent protests pro­vided es­sen­tial fuel for Jeremy Cor­byn’s sub­se­quent rise to the Labour lead­er­ship (a change in the lead­er­ship elec­tion rules had some­thing to do with that as well).

It is pos­si­ble to ap­ply that the­ory more specif­i­cally to higher ed­u­ca­tion: the stu­dent protest move­ment of 2010 helped bring to power a Labour leader with a com­mit­ment to abol­ish­ing tu­ition fees and re­in­tro­duc­ing main­te­nance grants. That pol­icy was then per­ceived – by the prime min­is­ter – to have achieved im­pact with younger vot­ers as Labour achieved a far bet­ter than ex­pected re­sult at the 2017 gen­eral elec­tion, de­priv­ing the Con­ser­va­tives of their ma­jor­ity. Theresa May then per­son­ally or­dered the post- 18 ed­u­ca­tion re­view in re­sponse to Mr Cor­byn’s pol­icy, de­spite sus­tained op­po­si­tion from key Tory min­is­ters.

By trig­ger­ing the stu­dent protests, did the sys­tem of £9,000 fees – raised to £9,250 in 2017-18 – carry within it the seeds of its own de­struc­tion?

There is a dic­tum that says protest move­ments “tend to lose, then win”, noted Michael Ches­sum, a key fig­ure in the 2010 protests as an or­gan­iser for the Na­tional Cam­paign Against Fees and Cuts, a stu­dent and “ed­u­ca­tion worker” ac­tivist group.

Mr Ches­sum sub­se­quently went on to be a steer­ing com­mit­tee mem- ber in Mo­men­tum, the group formed af­ter Mr Cor­byn’s lead­er­ship win to sus­tain the spirit of his cam­paign and ap­ply left­ward pres­sure to Labour. This per­haps echoes the NCAFC’s re­la­tion­ship to the Na­tional Union of Stu­dents, which, af­ter or­gan­is­ing the ini­tial demo that ended at Mill­bank, was largely side­lined in 2010 (Mr Ches­sum de­scribes the NUS as be­ing run by “New Labour ap­pa­ratchiks” in that pe­riod).

The 2010 protests “trig­gered a big­ger, wider anti-aus­ter­ity move­ment”, in the wake of which “the trade union move­ment be­gan to rad­i­calise” and Cor­bynism emerged, said Mr Ches­sum, a UCL un­der­grad­u­ate in 2010 and now a na­tional or­gan­iser for left-wing proRe­main group An­other Eu­rope is Pos­si­ble.

He ob­served that many oth­ers in­volved with the UCL oc­cu­pa­tion that year (vis­ited by Mr Cor­byn) have gone on to be­come key fig­ures within Cor­bynism, in­clud­ing Ash

Sarkar and Aaron Bas­tani of No­vara Me­dia, along with Guardian colum­nist Owen Jones (a UCL PhD stu­dent at the time).

Mr Ches­sum de­scribed the 2010 protests as a “sup­pos­edly lead­er­less move­ment – very hor­i­zon­tal­ist, sort of proto-an­ar­chist and in some ways quite anti-po­lit­i­cal”; yet now “here we are sup­port­ing the leader of the Labour Party”.

An­other out­come he noted was that for “a lot of peo­ple who were cre­ated [po­lit­i­cally] in that pe­riod [ 2010]… there’s no tra­di­tion of re­ally rad­i­cal pol­i­tics try­ing to in­ter­act with re­formist or so­cial demo­cratic pol­i­tics”.

More widely, Mr Ches­sum said: “You look at the is­sues that are prom­i­nent in Cor­byn’s pro­gramme…anti-fees, anti-war, an­ti­aus­ter­ity. Where do those is­sues come from? They come from the mas­sive so­cial move­ments that built the base of it [Cor­bynism]. And un­doubt­edly the stu­dent move­ment of 2010 was a big part of that.”

While Mr Cor­byn was an ad­vo­cate of free ed­u­ca­tion long be­fore 2010, the cru­cial “promi­nence” of abol­ish­ing fees and re­in­stat­ing ed­u­ca­tion main­te­nance al­lowance in his cam­paigns was “def­i­nitely a prod­uct of the mass move­ment that was built out of [the stu­dent protests]”, said Mr Ches­sum.

Alexan­der Hensby ( pic­tured be­low), a re­search as­so­ciate in the Univer­sity of Kent’s School of So­ci­ol­ogy, So­cial Pol­icy and So­cial Re­search, is au­thor of Par­tic­i­pa­tion and Non-Par­tic­i­pa­tion in Stu­dent Ac­tivism (2017), which in­cluded a sur­vey of stu­dent views on the 2010-11 stu­dent protests.

He is now be­gin­ning work on a book chap­ter on the link­ages be­tween those protests and Mr Cor­byn’s Labour.

Dr Hensby, who was start­ing a PhD in 2010 and “fol­lowed the protests”, sur­veyed protest par­tic­i­pants and non-par­tic­i­pants from a sam­ple of 22 uni­ver­si­ties “de­signed to give a broadly rep­re­sen­ta­tive spread of re­gions and cam­pus types”, gain­ing 2,485 re­sponses.

The sur­vey found that 22 per cent of re­spon­dents had par­tic­i­pated in the protests (although the def­i­ni­tion of par­tic­i­pa­tion in­cluded sign­ing pe­ti­tions, for ex­am­ple).

Among stu­dent non-par­tic­i­pants, 66 per cent said that they sup­ported the protests. This shows that protesters were able to spread sup­port for their cause, and their sense of in­jus­tice, to a stu­dent au­di­ence be­yond par­tic­i­pants, Dr Hensby said. The protests thus had a “longterm ef­fect on that gen­er­a­tion”, he ar­gued.

In terms of links to Mr Cor­byn’s Labour, Dr Hensby said that in 2010 “us­ing so­cial me­dia for pol­i­tics” as the protest move­ment did “was a rel­a­tively new thing in Bri­tain”. He be­lieves that at the 2017 elec­tion, “Cor­byn’s Labour Party had a very sim­i­lar ap­proach – part of it was us­ing so­cial me­dia to cre­ate an event out of po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion; to cre­ate a sense of mo­men­tum, to cre­ate a sense of en­ergy, to cre­ate a sense of be­ing part of some­thing”.

Through their shap­ing in­flu­ence on Cor­bynism, might the stu­dent protests con­se­quently have led to elec­toral im­pact in 2017?

Two weeks prior to the vote, YouGov asked mem­bers of the pub­lic to re­mem­ber Labour and Tory man­i­festo com­mit­ments, in their own words, without prompt­ing. For Labour, scrap­ping tu­ition fees was the most mem­o­rable pol­icy, cited by 32 per cent of re­spon­dents – and was also fairly pop­u­lar. There was par­tic­u­larly strong sup­port for the pol­icy among 18- to 24-yearolds, of whom 58 per cent thought it was a good idea.

Re­searchers have re­jected talk of a Labour “youthquake” and in­creased turnout among younger vot­ers at the elec­tion. Nev­er­the­less, per­cep­tions about Labour’s suc­cess with younger vot­ers mat­ter – par­tic­u­larly when the prime min­is­ter ap­pears to share that per­cep­tion.

Totemic sta­tus

Four months af­ter the elec­tion, Ms May ad­dressed fees in her Tory con­fer­ence speech, dra­mat­i­cally abandoning de­fence of the £9,000 regime which the Con­ser­va­tives cre­ated to say that “young peo­ple take on a huge amount of debt” to study. “We have lis­tened and we have learned,” she added. “So we will un­der­take a ma­jor re­view of univer­sity fund­ing and stu­dent fi­nanc­ing.”

While Ms May has said that abol­ish­ing fees is not on the ta­ble (cut­ting fees to be­tween £6,500 and £ 7,500 is un­der con­sid­er­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to leaks), her de­ci­sion to hold the re­view ap­pears to be a di­rect re­sponse to Labour pol­icy.

Lord Wil­letts, who cre­ated the £9,000 fees sys­tem as uni­ver­si­ties min­is­ter in 2010, said: “There are some peo­ple at Num­ber 10 who be­lieve that the pledge to abol­ish fees and loans was cru­cial to Cor­byn’s suc­cess…I don’t think the ev­i­dence bears it out.”

He ar­gued that there was not “a di­rect grievance amongst young peo­ple” about tu­ition fees “be­cause they don’t pay up front, it’s a grad­u­ate re­pay­ment scheme” – although he said that there were “mis­un­der­stand­ings” about the sys­tem’s im­pact for in­di­vid­u­als’ fi­nances.

Rather, Lord Wil­letts said, the real “prob­lem for young peo­ple” lay in is­sues high­lighted by re­search by the Res­o­lu­tion Foun­da­tion think­tank where he is now ex­ec­u­tive chair – is­sues about the ab­sence of pay in­creases for young peo­ple “even in their twen­ties” and “the dif­fi­culty of get­ting started on the hous­ing lad­der”.

He con­tin­ued: “What then hap­pened with Cor­byn [at the elec­tion] plays much more into Eu­rope, Brexit, hous­ing mar­ket, jobs mar- ket. And it is in­deed the case that modern Bri­tain is not of­fer­ing good enough prospects for younger peo­ple.” Tu­ition fees were now “an em­blem of a prob­lem that lies else­where – that lies above all in the jobs mar­ket and the hous­ing mar­ket”, Lord Wil­letts ar­gued.

Dr Hensby also high­lighted the totemic po­lit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of fees. “For young peo­ple [Mr Cor­byn’s] stand on tu­ition fees – much like for other peo­ple his stance on apartheid – [means] he has al­ways ap­peared prin­ci­pled and con­sis­tent,” he said. The is­sue “is a point of prin­ci­ple” for Cor­byn, “but it has also be­come quite sym­bolic in terms of crys­tallis­ing whether politi­cians or par­ties care about young peo­ple or not”, Dr Hensby added.

If the gov­ern­ment’s re­view kills off £9,250 fees, other fac­tors will have con­trib­uted: the long-stand­ing hos­til­ity of Nick Tim­o­thy, Ms May’s for­mer ad­viser, to­wards the ex­pan­sion of higher ed­u­ca­tion; grow­ing con­cerns in the Trea­sury about the earn­ings re­turns from some de­grees; and the Of­fice for Na­tional Sta­tis­tics’ de­ci­sion to re­clas­sify a huge chunk of stu­dent loan lend­ing as gov­ern­ment spend­ing.

But per­haps it is the con­flu­ence of these fault lines – in­clud­ing the one that started with the 2010 stu­dent protests and led on through Cor­bynism – that will see the ground col­lapse be­neath £9,250 fees.

Re­gard­less of the re­view’s con­clu­sions, if tu­ition fees were even­tu­ally top­pled en­tirely by a Labour gov­ern­ment, the stu­dent protesters of 2010 could claim to have started the push­ing.

And per­haps Con­ser­va­tive an­guish over their col­laps­ing sup­port among younger vot­ers can be traced back to the same point – even if other causes of dis­sat­is­fac­tion among younger vot­ers such as jobs or hous­ing may be more fun­da­men­tal, they may not have quite the same totemic, sym­bolic sta­tus that the protesters gave to fees. Maybe 2010, and the ap­par­ent emer­gence of a gen­er­a­tion of more rad­i­cal stu­dents in uni­ver­si­ties, even led on to the anx­i­eties that prompt Con­ser­va­tive min­is­ters to at­tack uni­ver­si­ties and stu­dents’ unions over free speech and their sup­posed hos­til­ity to right-wing ideas.

The noise of the 2010 stu­dent protests – mega­phone-led chants, bass thump­ing from mo­bile sound sys­tems, po­lice he­li­copters cir­cling over­head – might echo through higher ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy and Bri­tish pol­i­tics for years to come.

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