The morning after the demonstration in London against education cuts the Today programme on BBC Radio Four carried an interview with two newspaper columnists – John Harris of The Guardian, and Janet Daley of The Daily Telegraph. A question posed to both of them: was yesterday’s protest by students in London a watershed moment for the government?
In answering this question Janet Daley misrepresented protest in general and this protest in particular, misrepresented the social benefit of education and misrepresented the function of general taxation.
There were at least two points to the protest: a proposed 40% cut in higher education funding and a proposed tripling of student fees. Daley seems not to have been aware of the cuts aspect of the protest. The most commonly heard chant on the day was “no ifs, no buts: no education cuts.” The protest was also against an increase in the size of personal fees charged to students. Daley seems to have forgotten that students in higher education already pay tuition fees. Ignoring these two major aspects of the protest allowed Daley to make out, wrongly, that the protesters were ‘self-serving.’ She said:
“In my day, student demonstrations were about not ones own interests, you know, we weren’t fighting to have other people pay for our education, we were fighting for civil rights, for black voters in the south, and against de facto segregation in the north and against the Vietnam war, and as a result I think those demonstrations really did capture the imagination of a generation. What these demonstrations seem to be about is something much more unrealistic and self-serving which is to say that the whole of the society should pay for your education.”
On protests in general Daley spoke as though fighting for the interests of your own social group is a bad thing. When one is being treated unjustly it is not a bad thing to fight for ones own interests: there were plenty of black Americans in Daley’s day fighting for their own civil rights and for the rights of other black people against injustice. It is wrong to imply that to fight for your rights is ‘self-serving’.
In saying that the demonstration in London was self-serving Daley is mistaken. It was a demonstration of solidarity. As well as students from the NUS (many of whom will have completed their degrees before any proposed cuts would take effect) there were members of the University and College Union (UCU – which co-organised the demonstration) and of the National Union of Teachers (NUT). There were demonstrators from War on Want, and from the Coalition of Resistance. Many of these people already have their education and have already had the whole of society pay for their education. Now they are resisting an attack on higher education and defending the social good that higher education brings – this is not self-serving.
Daley did acknowledge that higher education is a social good, she said: “Now I actually agree that the state should make a contribution to higher education, that it’s a social good in itself, and the state will continue to do that because there are still going to be grants to universities.” But, as the demonstration pointed out and Daley ignored, the government proposes to cut the state grant to higher education. The proposed cuts would mean that the cost of teaching anything other than a STEM subject (science, technology, engineering and medicine but also now including maths a few modern languages) are met entirely by the students taking that subject – the government is proposing to block all social contribution via state funding to the teaching of non-STEM subjects; as a state we would be making no collective contribution to non-STEM subjects and would thereby shirk our collective responsibility for the social good they can bring.
It is this collective responsibility for the social good of higher education that Daley has entirely misunderstood. She contradicted her own acknowledgement of the social good of higher education in saying that: “What it’s doing is switching the burden of that cost to the people who are actually benefiting from it” – in fact we all benefit from the contribution that all higher education subjects can make to society and we all benefit from knowing that people can go to college and university no matter what their family wealth.
Daley misrepresented the way that general taxation works. She said: “what you’re asking people to do, people who will never earn anything like the university graduates who are making this demand, is pay for their education.” There are two mistakes here. First, not all university graduates become high earners; a degree is not a transaction in which you are buying yourself a highly paid job. Graduates who do not earn large salaries can be found working in charities, voluntary organizations, public sector organizations, and in small and large businesses across the nation. Second, through general taxation we all pay for all of our state projects, including until now higher education – “people who will never earn anything like the university graduates” have not paid for higher education alone, society as a whole has met the cost. Contrary to what Daley says, to pay for higher education through general taxation would mean that low- and middle-earners, their children and grandchildren, brothers, sisters and friends would not barred or discouraged from higher education for lack of personal wealth.
This demonstration was not self-serving but a demonstration of solidarity. It was a demonstration against cutting higher education. It was a protest against proposals that further increase and individualise the cost of a higher education. It was a demonstration that stood for the right to higher education for coming generations from all backgrounds. It was about fighting to keep the opportunity of higher education open to people who do not have the wealth to buy an education. It was about fighting against condemning people who want higher education, but who are not wealthy, to a working life that begins with personal debt.
Categories: Higher Education