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What to protest?

In Education, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics on November 18, 2010 at 2:32 pm

David Weber

To those watching the news last Wednesday, the question of what to protest, and who should protest, was a key one. Those towards the right might wonder what the point is of protesting higher tuition fees, given that poorer graduates will be better protected and universities forced to ensure wider social access. Those further to the left might also wonder what the point is of forcing such a small issue so high up the agenda, when far worse cuts are around the corner. Both will have different priorities, and both will wonder why their are not the issues being protested.

I identify with both these sentiments. Indeed, I see little difference, bar the emphasis on different lines of appeal, between the two positions. They can be complementary. It is their attitude to other questions which sets them apart, not their attitude toward this one. I personally agree with the goal of deficit reduction, provided it attempts to protect the poorest. I also do not instinctively support every cut made in the name of deficit reduction, and I think some of the “smaller” cuts can actually be more harmful.

I think my attitude towards the student protests in London was cemented by a picture I saw recently of an old school acquaintance with a group of friends. Two of them had placards protesting the fees rise. But another had a placard saying “Save EMA”. My view is that if you can’t see the competing values here, you’re in need of some educating.

The fact is that people weren’t marching against the abolition of EMA. They were marching against tuition fees and university cuts. If you thought EMA was more important, you should have stayed away from that march. Also, the sheer lack of prioritisation annoys me. You think supporting university students is important? Supporting core schooling is far more important. That generally determines whether or not you go to University to begin with.

Not only that, but EMA, perhaps unlike quite a lot of University spending, was efficiently spent. It provided a hard-nosed set of incentives so that pupils attended lessons, worked hard and met their target grades. It should be a model for government spending. Instead, it’s being scrapped, and most university students don’t seem to have noticed.

Generally, unless you genuinely think that no cuts to public spending should take place, students should shut up about tuition fees. The settlement has been more generous than people dared hope when the Browne review came out, and the fact is that, to again quote Polly Toynbee, students are fairly low down the pecking order. In terms of upfront support and the ability to make ends meet, they are significantly better supported today than they were in the 1990s, before tuition fees were even introduced. The march against tuition fees might encapsulate student anger, but more than anything it encapsulates mismatched priorities.

Even worse is the rush with which some students have defended the property damage at Millbank. Students have been quick to use excuses such as “the democratic process isn’t working” as a blanket defence for all action “taken against the state”. But the action wasn’t “taken against the State”. It was taken against a private party with links to the ruling politicians, and even then, it was hardly affected. 95% of those affected did not work for the Conservative party. So the vast majority of people affected were ordinary, non-affiliated workers. There’s a less than flattering label aimed at those who disrupt those lives in the name of fighting a battle against the State.

I’m not one to exaggerate, so I won’t use it. But I will say to those telling us to “pick a side” — do you know what that implies? War. Do you know what war involves? Generally a surplus of death and suffering. So unless you can tell me what side I am on — a student from a middle income background, receiving a full maitenance grant, and getting into more debt than the average student — and convince me of it, stop comparing this to a war. It isn’t one. Most of us do not, and will never divide easily into “sides”.

One final note: I agree with people that the Liberal Democrats could actually have done more than they have achieved on this issue. My position is perhaps not the obvious one: I don’t think they could have reasonably kept fees much lower. But I do think they could have committed the coalition to a timetable for bringing fees back down as the public finances improve. I can understand why they don’t want to, however, and it gives me hope for their essential nobility: I’d say any extra money floating around is probably much better to spend on the real losers of public spending cuts, not students.

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  1. Interesting article David. As someone who should be sleeping right now however, I feel nonetheless it is my duty I respond to some perceived wrongness in your blog entry.

    Firstly, you take issue with somebody protesting about the cuts to EMA in a march about a rise in tuition fees, and say they should have stayed away from this march. I think that’s wrong, because the march wasn’t specifically about the rise in tuition fees and university cuts, although how it was reported in the media you would think otherwise. The National Union of Students and the University and College Union called it a march for their campaign on “Fund our Future: Stop Education Cuts”. You can find their statements on http://www.nus.org.uk/cy/News/News/You-Have-Marched—Thank-You and http://www.ucu.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=4779. Many people were marching against the abolition of EMA – alongside a host of other things, including cuts in ESOL, increased fees in FE for adult learning, and privatisation of arts teaching, not just a rise in tuition fees. It was a broad alliance march, not a single issue one, so its perfectly fair for somebody to have been there in support of EMA.

    Secondly, you take issue with the prioritisation that people make, and in particular say that if people oppose tuition fee rises, it implies they believe there should be no public spending cuts. I’m not one to expound the virtues of democracy, but one positive thing is that people can protest quite legitimately against government policies they believe will affect them negatively, and considering the vast majority of people marching were teachers and students, I feel they did have a legitimate claim to giving education a high priority. I don’t believe it encompasses mismatched priorities simply because they don’t share the same priorities as you or I – its perfectly legitimate for them to feel perhaps we should cut other things in government spending, such as trident or defence, or rise taxes, particularly on the rich. It’s not as if its a binary option between spending cuts in HE or no spending cuts whatsoever.

    As for Millbank though, I’m genuinely baffled by anyone who defends the attacks there as legitimate, as violence by anyone but the state can never be legitimate in a democracy. However, I do suspect its only a very tiny minority who do support actions like that, and we can safely say they’re wrong.

    As for the Liberal Democrats, it seems likely to me that their policy on tuition fees was partly based on their strong electoral support from students, and more based on the feeling that they would never get into power and have to follow it through. I don’t believe the Liberal Democrat leadership was ever too keen on it anyway, and it was mostly a grass roots policy. However, it does seem wrong that they could so spectacularly u-turn on a fairly crucial, and dare I say visible dividing line, policy. It would have been better if it was more properly discussed and agreed upon at the Lib Dem conference, particularly since according to David Laws the Lib Dem leadership was considering even before the election on abandoning their tuiton fees policy.

  2. “Firstly, you take issue with somebody protesting about the cuts to EMA in a march about a rise in tuition fees, and say they should have stayed away from this march. I think that’s wrong, because the march wasn’t specifically about the rise in tuition fees and university cuts, although how it was reported in the media you would think otherwise.”

    True, and I don’t think the march was very successful in that case. Also, I have larger problems with people protesting against *all* education cuts, just as I would someone protesting against *all* defence cuts or, if they were cutting the NHS, someone protesting against all NHS cuts.

    “I’m not one to expound the virtues of democracy, but one positive thing is that people can protest quite legitimately against government policies they believe will affect them negatively, and considering the vast majority of people marching were teachers and students, I feel they did have a legitimate claim to giving education a high priority.”

    If everyone successfully protests cuts that affect them, then government gets nowhere. Given that this is obviously not the case, one has to think about who does successfully protest cuts. It tends to be the most politically influential, which does not amount to the most deserving. People should take a hard, cold look at the nation’s priorities before making such a series decision to protest specific cuts.

    “It’s not as if its a binary option between spending cuts in HE or no spending cuts whatsoever.”

    No, but it’s “cut universities, or cut elsewhere”. I’m not convinced that University public funding is as high a priority as people on that march seemed to believe.

    “However, it does seem wrong that they could so spectacularly u-turn on a fairly crucial, and dare I say visible dividing line, policy. It would have been better if it was more properly discussed and agreed upon at the Lib Dem conference, particularly since according to David Laws the Lib Dem leadership was considering even before the election on abandoning their tuiton fees policy.”

    I believe I read that the Lib Dems tried gauging support among the grassroots for dropping the policy. I don’t think it’s “wrong” that they U-turned, although it is unfortunate for them.

  3. Well, successful or not (although I have no idea how you define “success” for a march), that’s what people chose to protest, and if they choose to oppose completely all cuts, then I think that’s fine as well. People are legitimately allowed to feel that the government should be spending more, not less, on areas such as education.

    If you’re defining “success” in a march as resulting in a change to government policy, then certainly government wouldn’t get too far. But that’s not the point. The point is that there is protest, legitimate and non-violent, and that forces the government to take those views into account, or at the very least, that their views get heard by everyone else, as should happen in a deliberative democracy. I would argue that getting a policy change isn’t the only priority of a march – its also to have their views broadcast across the nation (perhaps which eventually leads to a policy change). I’d also deny that people haven’t taken a “hard, cold” look at the nation’s priorities – people just disagree with the priorities the coalition government has set, or at the very least have an alternative plan, such as the graduate tax the NUS is fond of advocating.

    And it’s not a case of either cut universities or cut elsewhere – there can also be tax increases, or allowing the government to run into an even higher deficit. I’m not saying these are remotely good economic options, but that people are entitled to say things like “tax the rich more”, and that’s a perfectly legitimate world view.

    It’s certainly right that you criticise the view that people hold of education, and say that actually people should put other priorities higher on their agenda. However, I’m strongly against your view that people on that march who don’t see the different values are “in need of educating”, or that university students haven’t noticed EMA cuts, or that students should shut up about university fees, or indeed that the people on that march lacked prioritisation. There were people who came back from the march who I talked to who had perfectly coherent ideas and beliefs about how the government should respond to the deficit, and they feel that supporting higher education is even more important for our long term economic growth, and that cuts in HE and increases in tuition could damage our international economic competitiveness. I think those priorities are fine. I suspect you might be being a bit elitist here in presupposing that since people are on that march and not sharing your priorities, they obviously haven’t thought it through. Far be it for me to accuse other people of being elitist though!

    I think its wrong for a political party to change on a policy platform they were specifically elected on without a major change in circumstances that makes the policy unworkable or undesirable. I don’t believe there has been such an economic change between May and October that the Lib Dems are justified in changing on this policy; the budget deficit is forecast as lower now than it was in May. It says quite specifically in the Liberal Democrat manifesto that, http://network.libdems.org.uk/manifesto2010/mini/libdem_2010_students.pdf, “We are also opposed to raising the cap on tuition fees”. This policy stance is still workable – there’s no reason why funding cannot come in other ways – and is still desirable – certainly at least by the Liberal Democrats grassroots, 59% of whom believe MPs should stick by their decision, http://www.libdemvoice.org/tution-fees-what-party-members-believe-lib-dem-mps-should-do-21647.html.

  4. […] a somewhat excessive and unfair rant about priorities of students marching in the recent protests, I intend to take a step back and […]

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