If you haven’t heard, there’s a war on higher education going on. As nearly every social service that makes civilization, well, civilized is currently up for debate, it’s not particularly surprising that university funding hasn’t really made it on to most peoples’ radars. But in Britain, the restructuring of higher education that is going on is both profound and disturbing, and today, we actually did something about it.
I’ve complained about the Oxford system—and, by comparison, vaunted the U.S. one—many times on this blog. That said, one thing that is positively amazing about Oxford is that it is both elite and public; students here pay a pittance of the actual cost of their education. This is not some historical idiosyncracy, like Latin grace and sub-fusc. It’s the result of a conscious realization made by the British people, at some point, that universities like Oxford serve the public good, and thus deserve public funding. The new ConDem government here, however, has rejected that and decided to bring the university under the yoke of the all-powerful market. The future of Oxford rests in American innovations like crushing graduate debt and insanely high fees.
To some extent, I don’t have a dog in this fight: I’m fully funded, and I’m likely escaping to a private university with a cushy endowment next year. Even the proposed 80% cut in teaching funding isn’t likely to hit me (80% less of zero teaching is still zero teaching, after all). While I can escape British policy, though, I can’t escape the ideology. It is not just in the U.K., after all, that policymakers seem to believe the notion that the life of the mind is not worth very much, or that there is no use in research without an immediate economic benefit. Self-interest has never been my thing anyway, of course, and it’s precisely because “elites” know that they’ll still be able to get an education in the post-public university system that these cuts are happening in the first place. So, naturally, I laced up my blackspot sneakers, and set out for another protest.
I can’t decide whether turnout was incredibly depressing or extraordinary. I reached Cornmarket Street and found six-hundred Oxford students out of their libraries, and by the looks of it, out of their comfort zones. I doubt six-hundred Princeton students could be convinced to protest against grade deflation, much less give a shit about public education. But then I did the math, and realized that 600 is less than 10% of student body—so what are the others doing? They can’t all have trust funds covering their fees, can they? Or do they just not realize how insidious all of this is?
The Socialist Worker’s Party was there—they always are—with a handful of provacateurs (“I think I met you at the Afghanistan protest in London”) and a set of pre-fab signs. Did the Oxford students holding the placards they distributed actually know they were currently advocating for a worker’s revolution and a general strike? Evidently some did, as I saw people gradually pulling out pens and changing their signs. Here we show our true colors: “Free education” became “Fair and reasonably priced education.” “I oppose all cuts” is edited to “I oppose all cuts to my university.” And, “Down with the Browne Report” is mealymouthed into “I support some elements of the Browne Report, just not the rise in fees” (no, really, someone wrote that). The war on higher education only matters when it hits us; and even then, it only matters to six-hundred of us.
The protest was on the road to being decidedly, well, pitiful, until the police intervened. Our mob of humanities majors and philosophy dons wanted to walk to High Street; they wanted us to take a seat around Radcliffe Camera, contemplate our navels for a few minutes, and go home. A few of us decided that we would go to High Street anyway; they formed a line, and we did too. A few seconds later, I was on the other side of a row of bobbies, yelling to tentative looking Oxford Students, “Don’t worry, you’ll still get an investment banking job if you come over.” And, then, they did, and the police parted.
For a moment, we were unstoppable. The news reports will make us look like a bunch of whiny overprivileged kids fighting to keep our silver spoons firmly planted in our mouths. They might be right. But when I am seventy years old living in a hut somewhere in the forests of Northern Finland, trying to avoid the conservative dystopia of the new dark ages, I will take my grandchild on me knee and say, “Yes, when they finally put the nail in the coffin of social democracy, I fought back, and I don’t regret it for a minute.”