Being at the rally in Trafalgar Square today, supposedly against the proposed cuts in higher education, made me reflect on several aspects of the contemporary political process in the UK:
- First, it is great to see so many UK students for once standing up for something that they see as being a cause worth fighting. For far too long, many students here, unlike some of their peers elsewhere, seem to have been apathetic and lazy, unwilling to engage in any form of radical political protest, with the majority preferring instead to enjoy the good life associated with undertaking a minimal amount of academic work and a maximum amount of partying. There is an irony here, though, as a young person on the train sitting next to me on the way home said “They are only looking after their own interests, in’t they. They can afford to!”
- To gain groundswell political support, it is essential to have a simple message that people can sign up to – even if their own various interpretations of that message are different. It is easy to unite people around a simple theme of complaining against ‘cuts’ that will affect them, but this hides the complexities surrounding the restructuring of UK universities and higher education.
- At the heart of today’s protests were people intent on challenging the police – seeking to provoke them into violent retaliation. At least whilst I was there, it was remarkable how calm the police remained against what many of them must have seen as being unprovoked and unfair abuse. What struck me most about this was that many of those hurling the abuse chose to hide their identities through masks and hooded clothing, whilst individual police officers were fully identifiable by their ‘numbers’. I do not want to be seen as an apologist for the police, and of course there have been cases where individual police officers have over-stepped the mark, but there is a real irony here in that protestors in the UK are indeed able to protest – peacefully – because, in general, the police have tried to be even handed in maintaining order and permitting people of all political persuasions to express an opinion.
- I was amazed at how little anyone in the crowd seemed really to care about what, to me, matters most, the destruction of university based research excellence in the UK! I have written at length elsewhere about this, but the protests convinced me even more of the importance of differentiating between ‘universities’ and higher education. We need fundamentally to restructure UK higher education, and this should involve a very dramatic reduction in the number of students going to ‘universities’. Instead, we should provide high quality and appropriate training and ‘education’, to fit all young people for the sorts of employment that they will subsequently enter. Let’s create outstanding opportunities for young people to gain the skills and education that they need – but let’s not pretend that the institutions in which this takes place are universities.
- And yes, of course, universities should be free for those able to benefit from the research-led opportunities that they provide, and for students who are committed to exploring the boundaries of knowledge diligently, rigorously and with enthusiasm!
- Finally, I find it amazing that according to the Guardian, Vince Cable, “the cabinet minister in charge of tuition fees, said today he was prepared to abstain in a key vote on the government’s policy if that was what fellow Liberal Democrat MPs decided to do as a group. The business secretary said he was prepared to take the unprecedented step of not backing his own proposals for the sake of party unity”. How can the Secretary of State responsible for the introduction of increased tuition fees not vote in favour of them? He should surely resign forthwith if that really is his view.