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Students vs Nick Clegg – Who’ll Win?

Posted on Monday, November 29, 2010 in ConDemNation, Politics

I think David Mitchell has it pretty much right about university students, their demonstrations and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and his pre-election lies:

Student “unrest” is embarrassing for the coalition because even its slavish supporters in the press can’t resist talking up a bit of pushing as if it heralds revolution. A few short clips of jerkily televised vandalism make the government look like it’s failing to govern. The fact that more damage gets done to public property every day by people turning round quickly while holding something hot is irrelevant. A photo of broken glass is a thousand times more politically threatening than a kid with an unwise haircut whining about his allowance.

Another reason to support the fisticuffs is that Nick Clegg doesn’t like it at all. Before last Wednesday’s demonstrations, he appealed for people to “examine our proposals before taking to the streets. Listen and look before you march and shout”. Sounds like a protesters’ green  cross code.

One of the many problems with the proposals is that you need to examine them so carefully before you realise that they’re not quite as awful as they initially seem. The fact that the vast amount of debt that students will accrue will only be repayable when they earn more than £21,000 a year and will be written off after 30 years of failing to do so elevates the scheme from an utter disgrace to a huge disappointment. But this scant silver lining is barely noticeable. Kids, especially from poorer backgrounds, will just see the giant cloud of future debt and infer that higher education isn’t a welcome opportunity but a big financial gamble.

Very well put indeed. As he put it earlier, of course the demo wasn’t going to hit the newspapers without something controversial happening. I don’t imagine for a moment that the NUS’ strategy ever involved attacking the Tories’ Millbank HQ, but the fact is that event changed the entire tone of the stand-off to one which suddenly matters. The fact is too that his final line is especially poignant. Yes the Browne Report isn’t the total disaster on paper which many students and commentators are attacking, but what’s been noticeable from those arguing against the student demonstrators has been their dismissal of the massive increase in future debt, and how the now inevitable variation in tuition fees across the country will skew the entire higher education system.

Under Browne everything will be skewed on class grounds. When Oxbridge, the LSE and others surely start charging extortionate amounts, which in the future will be much harder to pay back unless you’re from a wealthy background, as Mitchell puts it, kids from poorer backgrounds, with a completely different experience of money and debt, will be more predisposed to going to universities which charge less (and which have lesser reputations – a crucial factor in the age where even this government wants 50% of young people to go to university) to avoid the crushing debt. We’ll end up with a two-tier education system. Didn’t Clegg want to abandon tuition fees to prevent this? Why is it ideologically correct for graduates to be saddled with ever greater debt?

I remain confused why so few commentators seem to grasp why the students are angry. I’ve seen them accused of stupidity, jumping on bandwagons, political naivety and ignorance, but that’s not my experience of the main body of them. Michael Chessum and Jonathan Moses put their case very effectively:

mobilise we must. The coalition’s proposals represent a nigh irreversible transformation of higher education, and the commodification of knowledge and learning. Dressed in the semantics of deficit reduction, it has been easy to play one sector off against another. Yet, as a recent report by the Higher Education Policy Institute acknowledged, these measures will increase public expenditure through this parliament and into the next. It is ideology, not necessity, that ultimately informs the coalition’s agenda.

I’ve argued myself about the commodification of knowledge and learning, and how this will damage civil society. If an outcome of the Big Society is to increase the inequality of access to knowledge, how on earth can Clegg support that? It’s an argument unconnected with the education debate, which presupposes that everything has a market value – how can he possibly expect the main body of students to agree with that? Mitchell concludes:

National wealth comes and goes, we have good times and bad. A rarer commodity, one vital to effecting change, is political will. If there’s a will for a progressive reform, statesmen instinctively find a way. That’s why Clement Attlee persevered with setting up the welfare state in the late 1940s, even though the country had never been poorer. He sensed that, if he waited for better economic times, the political will would have gone. In this less statesmanlike era, when the political will existed to reform the banking system in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, the government bottled it and now the Tories are in and the will is gone.

The student protests just might be demonstrating a growing political will to reform our higher education system, to have it paid for out of income tax. I think that would be fairer. Maybe it’s unrealistic but it’s what happened until 12 years ago before the proliferation of courses. If, as a nation, we really cared about higher education, we’d find the money. If the Lib Dems cared half as much as they claimed, they’d welcome this movement.

And the Higher Education Policy Institute concludes of the proposed changes:

The reality is that we cannot safely extrapolate from the introduction of fees in 1998, and then their increase to current levels, to predict the effect of the new arrangements. It seems quite plausible that some potential students will be deterred from entering higher education, but we do not know how many. Their actual impact will depend to a large extent on perceptions. To the extent that loans are not distinguished from ordinary debt from banks, then fees will act as a deterrent. How the new arrangements are described and “sold” will be crucial.

And that’s the battle going on, which is being played out 0n a weekly basis on the streets. Nick Clegg was elected on a platform of being the one party leader who wouldn’t lie, yet look where we are now. The fury at his and his party’s betrayal is only likely to grow, the more he publicly embraces a political ideology alien to the majority of students, many of whom voted for him. Granted there are still calls of ‘Tory scum’, which as I said the other week are entirely misplaced (Browne was a Labour idea), but this appears to sit on top of a broad identification by most students that Browne (as Mitchell agrees) isn’t the only possible solution to the problem of university funding in the middle of the economic crisis. The Higher Education Policy Institute rightly points out that it’s impossible at this stage to determine the impact of the imposition of Browne, and which side in this increasingly angry debate eventually wins out will no doubt be determined by how eager the coalition is to repress rebellion – the evidence of the last weeks suggests it’ll just get uglier. Either way, if the coalition really doesn’t budge I can’t imagine how Clegg will manage to keep his job as Lib Dem leader for much longer.

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  1. James says:

    I wrote to the Guardian last week asking if they think it’s right to publish David Mitchell’s article bearing in mind the comments below –

    “.. I also like watching them chuck stuff at the police, smash windows and jump up and down on van”

    “a bit of a ruck with some bobbies dressed as X-wing pilots seems entirely appropriate”

    But in the absence of any reply, I’d be interested to know why students didn’t take to the streets with such ferocity when the previous Labour government introduced tuition fees which could also be said to have presented students with a ‘cloud of future debt’ – especially bearing in mind the payback point was much harsher than what the Browne report recommends.

    And it’s quite telling that this current wave of demonstrations started to take shape as soon as the Conservatives took over government as part of a coalition.

    I’d suggest this is more about being anti-Tory than it is anti-fees. Indeed, the Students Union campaigned for a graduate tax, not ‘no fees’, so even they acknowledge the fact students need to pay for further education.

  2. admin says:

    It would be a weird world if we all agreed on everything all of the time, but I still consider your position on this issue more dependent on your attitudes than the evidence. That doesn’t strike me as consistent with positions you normally like to take on politics.

    Yes of course there’s anger against the Tories, and whilst it’s entirely possible that a new Labour government might have pushed Browne through unchanged or amplified themselves, remember from what the students themselves have said this isn’t just about Browne (nor is it just hatred of Nick Clegg for lying). They’re seeing rampant tax avoidance which Tories as usual allow, when public services are being financially attacked. They’re seeing markets being introduced on ideological grounds for knowledge, when there’s enough money around to bail out Ireland for goodness’ sake. They’re angry at being saddled with incredible levels of future debt when the bankers who caused the economic crisis are being allowed crazy bonuses still, even though the banks they work for are owned by the tax payer. And do we have a Tobin Tax? No. We have a ‘levy’, which presumably again the bankers will just be allowed to ignore.

    Your argument against students for not demonstrating in 2002 ‘with such ferocity’ is a straw man argument the likes of which I thought you’d abandoned. Students did demonstrate in their thousands against the introduction of tuition fees, and I don’t understand why the numbers had to be greater then. There were plenty of non-violent demonstrations, but students have historically tended to be that way. What’s different now is something your argument neatly side-steps. You may have by now read my subsequent post about EMAs, the withdrawal of which will have a disproportionate social impact on access to education, on top of a tripling of tuition fees (in many cases) – when most people did not vote for this or want it, why should anyone put up with it? Students see this as far more than simply financial reforms – it’s an attack on the public sector itself on ideological grounds.

    It’s ultimately a question of priorities, isn’t it? In Scotland they don’t have to pay at all because society thinks education is more important than fighting illegal and unnecessary wars. You’ll ultimately get people throughout society who believe that students should or shouldn’t pay – students included. But make no mistake students see ConDem policy as ideological (which let’s face is is something Tories do, so there’s a confluence of expectations and evidence here) and are resisting it on those grounds, right across the spectrum of social class.

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