Steve Fuller on Student Protests

I was very impressed by the numbers who protested in London ten days ago. Indeed, the violence done to Tory Party HQ did not bother me as much as the lack of organized purpose in doing so. This ‘violence’ has been trumped up mainly because the police didn’t expect it, not because of its actual severity. Had I managed to get to the top of 30 Millbank, I would have read some manifesto that made demands sufficiently concrete to be made talking points in the media and possibly Parliament.

Instead the action was too easily dismissed as simply the work of an aimless rabble. Moreover, the impact of the protest was dissipated by news programmes juxtaposing Alan Porter and Clare Solomon, i.e. the good cop and bad cop of the protest. They spent more time bickering between themselves than stressing their unity against the tuition hikes – perhaps because they hadn’t worked out their common interest.

My advice: Violence of the sort that was on display is not so bad if it is seen as the spearhead of a unified front. But it is a disaster if it’s easily disowned as the product of a fringe movement that then opens up internal divisions within the student ranks about what the protest is supposedly about. Here, I believe, Porter missed an opportunity — and Solomon played it better (though as a team they just cancelled each other out).

The idea of recalling Liberal MPs who have reneged on not raising tuition fees in university-based constituencies is a powerful move and should be pursued publicly and doggedly. (Wow – Liberals are the biggest Pharisees in our midst today!) This is the sort of political action that would open up serious discussion in media, especially given the Liberal Party’s overall vulnerability.

However, we academics, regardless of party, need to figure out more creative ways of justifying and financing higher education because it’s clear that the current system is unsustainable — and unfortunately the government is right on this basic point.

I have signed the manifesto of the Campaign for Public Universities, but I have a specific take on it. Let’s start with the manifesto statement:

The UK Campaign for the Public University is open to all. It is a broad-based campaign with no party or other political affiliation. It has been initiated by a group of university teachers and graduate students seeking to defend and promote the idea of the university as a public good. We believe that the public university is essential both for cultivating democratic public life and creating the means for individuals to find fulfillment in creative and intellectual pursuits regardless of whether or not they pursue a degree programme.
My take on it is the following: It remains an open question whether state taxes are the most economically feasible way to promote universities as a public good. Higher taxes simply force everyone to reorient their default consumption to something that someone else deems beneficial. Not surprisingly, there is resistance. In contrast, if we operated more on a church model of financial provision (as in the US), then those who have already benefited from a university education, regardless of the careers they have subsequently pursued, would feel grateful and motivated (the two participles that jointly define obligation) to enable others to enjoy the same opportunities (defined here as what they themselves experienced as students) so that the recipients may also do good as well (however they come to define it). This ‘pay it forward’ mentality is an open-ended version of a gift-giving economy, in which the benefactor is respected not by their recipients’ pursuit of a similar career but by their drawing on a comparable enhancement to their potential provided by a university education.

In other words, the hope is that potential donor students will find some far-seeing teacher who would enable them to explore possibilities that benefit humanity as a whole. From a political economy standpoint, the rest is about how long before the knowledge regularly generated by universities translates into knowledge that is beneficial to society as a whole, regardless of their relationship to this less than fortunate elite mode of production.


Categories: Higher Education

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1 reply »

  1. all right, i’ll call it:

    occupy everything, demand nothing 🙂

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