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Student tuition fees was the big issue in English politics today. Clegg defended his position at PMQs, while the NUS marched outside. There was potential to damage the coalition, particularly with the politically opportunist change of heart on fees by Labour.

But then it all went wrong for the students: the protests descended into violence and confrontation, and the news channels were filled with students expressing astonishing levels of entitlement. Students justifying their bully-boy tactics made for pretty unpleasant listening. I felt great sympathy for the people working in the Millbank Tower and at 30 Millbank, and in the surrounding area.

The students' message appeared to be that they want taxpayers to give them money, and if they don't, violence will follow. Isn't that a protection racket?

What a nasty bunch.

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I know that you're a Tory and I'm not :), but I'll be curious to hear about the march from the student perspective (and not the media's) tomorrow. One of my second-year lit student organised our college's student entourage at the rally today; he was the one who arranged the coach etc. (I teach him tomorrow.)

Also, some of my teaching colleagues attended. I'll be interested in hearing their perspective. Like me, they're UCU members. I did think about attending, but the sad thing is I don't dare to miss much time as we can't fall behind -- there's so much to teach; I rarely take sick days also and feel bad when I do have to take a sick day. I don't feel bad about missing for an exam board course simply because they help us aid students. We're given tips and information that otherwise isn't received.

I will watch the news at 6pm. I've not seen anything before now as I've been teaching all day. There's been little opportunity even to read work email today -- it's been that busy, alas.

Edit: Ah, it sounds as if it started peacefully and mostly was peaceful until a small minority went wild. *sigh* There's always someone who has to ruin it. :(

Edited at 2010-11-10 06:02 pm (UTC)

I know someone who was on the march..but he was pretty annoyed about the NUS failing to keep things under control etc

Isn’t there a certain inevitability that a protest march against on a topic that fosters outrage in participants is likely to degenerate into violence?

I work in academia, I believe very strongly in the public funding of higher education, and right now even I'm finding it difficult to muster any sympathy for the students' cause.

Of course, the vast majority of the students were engaged in a peaceful, reasonable protest - as is their democratic right. Unfortunately, there's always a small minority (on both ends of the political spectrum) who are more interested in being militant than achieving their stated goals. It looks like they got sufficiently motivated today to screw everything up for the rest of us. The tragedy is that they've probably done more to destroy the argument for student funding than anything Messrs Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Blair could ever have done.

I hope they take the cleanup, repair and policing costs out of the student budget. If it is important enough to the students to protest then I think they should be prepared to foot the bill.

Would it not make sense for organising bodies, in this case the NUS to have to put up a good conduct bond before there public meeting. If it passes of peacefully they the money is returned. If not it is used to cover the costs. This would encourage organisers to keep things under control.

I mean you cannot organise any other type of event without paying for public libality insurance.

I hope they take the cleanup, repair and policing costs out of the student budget.
What student budget? One of the many things that students and academics are cross about is that the Browne report recommended that funding for teaching in all but a few subjects (science, engineering, and possibly but not definitely mathematics) cease entirely, the costs to be paid by the students themselves via a two- or three-fold increase in tuition fees.

Maybe the NUS could cover the bill? After all, they arranged the march.

What seems to have happened is that the actual NUS-organised protest was peaceful, if vehement, but that a small group broke away from the main demonstration and adopted a more violent approach.

I'm not entirely sure what the NUS organisers could have been expected to do. Marshalling 50,000 people is a nontrivial exercise, and if a small number of troublemakers are intent on doing bad things, then there's a limit to what the organisers can reasonably do. At what point do you, as a marshal, forcibly restrain someone who seems to be getting out of hand? What if there's only one of you within range of five such protesters?

The alternative is to say "OK, we're not going to organise an official protest", at which point you're not really representing the interests of your members any more. Or you can say "we're not organising an official protest, but if people wanted to pop down to London on, say, 10 November, then that's up to them" which would be even less responsible.

It's all very well laying the responsibility at the feet of the NUS, and I'm certainly not saying that there weren't failings in the way they handled things (because there clearly were), but it's not clear to me what they could reasonably have done to prevent a small group of determined militants going crazy.

I think the conclusion I draw is that organising protests is a fool’s game. The NUS organisers couldn’t control the miscreants, and the police appear to have been ill-prepared and “hands-off” in their approach.

The NUS must bear some responsibility for creating a situation that could only lead to bad behaviour. I would suggest they were naive at best, and possibly complicit in the events that unfolded. Listening to interviews on the news during the afternoon, there were plenty of otherwise reasonable-sounding students who appeared to think that the illegal behaviour was entirely justified.

I think the conclusion I draw is that organising protests is a fool’s game.
Oh yes, it's certainly not something I'd take responsibility for. But sometimes it's necessary. There's been a tendency over the last few decades for politicians to try to insulate themselves from the people they're supposed to represent. If they won't listen, then sometimes you have to shout a bit louder. It doesn't always work, but it's still a sign of a healthy modern democratic society that it happens from time to time.

there were plenty of otherwise reasonable-sounding students who appeared to think that the illegal behaviour was entirely justified.
There's quite a difference between saying that you approve of Tory HQ having its windows smashed, and actually doing it. I'm opposed to almost all violence, and even I can't muster very much sympathy in this case.

And as another friend of mine has remarked, the damage done is several orders of magnitude less than that being perpetrated on the UK education system. A few broken windows, overturned chairs and a bit of burning cardboard is relatively easily sorted out; an already chronically underfunded university sector being pared even closer to the bone (or in some cases the marrow) could take decades to fully recover.

I have to vehemently disagree with your comment “If they won't listen, then sometimes you have to shout a bit louder.”

We have a system of representative democracy, with all of its checks and balances. For a minority to try to subvert that by shouting loudly is absolutely, fundamentally, wrong.

Shouting loudly's fine. It's when they start throwing things...

But seriously, I agree with you. Criminal actions are wrong. Unfortunately, sometimes they're productive. Peaceful protests against the poll tax in Scotland didn't achieve political change. Riots in England did; or that was certainly how things appeared. I would rather it had been the other way around.

What, so we should all just shut up until 2015? The point of representative democracy is that we elect someone to represent us, and they're supposed to take our wishes into account all the time, not just once every four or five years. There's a tendency for those who work in Westminster to forget that the rest of the country exists, and they need to be reminded occasionally.

Also, right now we have a government that nobody voted for, composed of people who are all in breach of at least some of their manifesto commitments (even more than usual). Their legitimacy is somewhat shaky, and I think it's entirely ok for people to say "hang on, most of us didn't want you to do this, and in fact you promised you weren't going to, so could you perhaps stop it now?".

Anyway, it's always been the case that certain minority groups have more influence than others. A director of an FTSE-100 company, for example, has far more access to the ears of government than, say, a teacher, nurse, plumber, taxi driver or other non-millionaire. For those of us who aren't already on first-name terms with the PM, maybe taking to the streets is the only realistic option we have.

What, so we should all just shut up until 2015?

Of course not! MPs interact with their constituents through surgeries. Writing or talking to one’s elected representative is the way to influence the democratic process between elections.

50,000 angry students on a single-issue protest offer no opportunity for balanced dialogue. There is no big picture. They should be ignored for the sake of democracy.

MPs interact with their constituents through surgeries.
I've written to my MP on a number of occasions, and even been to see him in person once. At no point in any of these interactions did he seriously address any of the issues I raised. Can I really be blamed for my scepticism?

There is no big picture.
On the contrary, there's a very large picture. One that is being studiously ignored by most of our elected representatives.

Also, I don't see how you can say 50,000 angry students should be ignored for the sake of democracy, but one person writing a letter to their MP should be heeded. They're just slightly different methods of raising issues with our representatives. Abi, as part of her job, lobbies MPs, ministers and peers about housing-related issues. Is she subverting the democratic process?

Yup, lobbyists are evil!

Some of them are, certainly, but some of them manage to persuade government to introduce or amend legislation in a sensible way. Abi and some of her colleagues, for example, managed to get the last Housing and Regeneration Bill amended to provide stronger consumer rights for tenants of private landlords. The peer they went to see was able to stand up and say "look, all of the main housing research charities and organisations, the people who actually know about this stuff, agree that this is what should be done", and the government accepted the argument and amended the bill accordingly.

It's certainly a problem when someone like David Geffen invites Peter Mandelson over to his luxury yacht for a chat about copyright protection, because you then have a single person, not even a British citizen, having undue influence over the legislative process.

But for the most part, lobbying is really just people who have an opinion (often a highly informed and evidence-based opinion) presenting their case in an organised way. There's nothing stopping any of us writing to a peer or MP (although only our constituency MP is obliged to respond). At what point does it start being (evil) lobbying?

My experience of that is getting in return the form letter that has obviously been sent to everyone who raised this issue, and doesn't address the points I raised. I understand the utility of form letters and don't object to them in principle, but they're a fruitless exercise if they don't deal with the points raised; and in that case it's not balanced dialogue, it's the brush-off.

An idea I agree with, what subjects are useful? Science, engineering, medicine, law. We need those so fund them to keep the numbers up, otherwise if you want to do a more hobby type subject with limited job opportunities then you can choose to and fund it yourself.

But even if the student is paying fees, who is really paying? Why we are, well in the short term. The student is getting a loan, backed by the government as a very low interest rate, so it is government debt. I think it is really just a physiological difference in whether the future debt is tied to the individual or to the country as a whole.

what subjects are useful?
My view, for reasons described elsewhere in this thread, is that all subjects are useful in some way, to somebody. Business studies, for example, would be utterly useless for me, in the sense that I wouldn't get anything much out of it, I wouldn't do very well at it, and it wouldn't enhance my life or career prospects noticeably. But there are people for whom it would be tremendously useful, possibly springboarding them into a lucrative career of some sort, or perhaps just giving them various mental tools that will enable them to interact with the world in a manner beneficial to themselves and/or everyone else.

Similarly, I've got a tremendous amount out of studying mathematics and computer science, both in career terms (I've been paid to do both at various points over the past fifteen years) and also in how I look at the world. But there are others for whom university-level mathematics wouldn't be any use. Maybe some of those would get more benefit from studying ancient history, modern French literature, or theology.

Yes, there are certain subjects that have a more obvious benefit to the short- and longer-term economic and social health of the country, and this is why the proposed £1bn cuts to the scientific research budget would have been a criminally stupid idea (and why even just freezing the budget isn't entirely sensible). But I think it's important not to be swayed by the kind of rhetoric that regards non-science disciplines as "hobby subjects", because all of them have value to some people, and thereby to the country in general.

who is really paying? Why we are
I don't see any reasonable alternative, I'm afraid. And to be honest, there are few more deserving things that money could be spent on. Tax breaks for big corporations? Nuclear weapons that we can never use?

The main crux of the debate is that the fees are tripling unexpectedly. If they weren't raised, do people think it's right for the family to pay for their childrens university tuition now. In all the main Asian econnomies, only the family pays for the child's further education. It just doesn't occur to them that it should be paid for by taxes of others. Why can't we get that state of mind here?

Because education should be available to those qualified to make something of it, and that would price people with unfortunate or unsupportive families out of something that ought to be a right.

I'm more than happy for my taxes to support others' educations, as mine was supported for me. There are some uses of tax money that may be more urgently needed at times, but I doubt whether there is a better long term use of a nation's tax money than funding education.

Should taxpayers fund higher education for all? Or education for those who could benefit from it, for those who are deserving, for those who are academically able, for those who have potential?

And education in every subject? Or only in those that have a social or economic benefit?

When you were funded through higher education, universities were for the minority of school-leavers, and you were academically able, and you worked hard and could take advantage of the education on offer. The massive expansion in higher education in the last twenty years has seen many encouraged into light-weight subjects at second-rate institutions. If we could lose the dross, we’d have more taxpayer’s money to spend on real education.

Beyond school the student should qualify for higher education on merit. And by and large, the tax payer should fund that; it's an investment in the future of the nation.

I think more people should be in higher education than was the case when I was there; but I also think having a target of 50% of people in higher education was the wrong way to go about it. Emphasising increased funding for a strategic balance of subjects might have been a better way to go. Note balance; although I'm a scientist, I think the arts are important too, and even "light-weight" subjects have value so long as it's not everyone that's doing them. We don't want thousands of experts on the navel fluff of the Egyptian Pharaoh, but having a few probably enriches us all. (Hope I haven't offended any Egyptian Pharaoh navel fluff experts...)

Broadly I agree with you, but I think a data-based approach to tax-payer funded investments would be welcome.

To be able to justify funding education as an investment in the future of the nation, there must be measurable results. I think it would be a much easier argument to make if the subjects being funded were robustly defended. Hard sciences and the traditionally-academic arts subjects would have no problem in justifying their funding — indeed, there are good arguments to be made for increasing the funding of some subjects.

But other subjects are much weaker. Cross-discliplinary courses that provide no more than an overview of each subject should have no place in a university. Lop out any degree course with “studies” in its title, lose any law courses that aren’t proper legal qualifications, get rid of any business courses that don’t result in an MBA. Why should vocational courses be masquerading as three-years of full-time academic study? There is a lot of chaff in universities. I just hope the cuts meet their deserving targets.

Why should vocational courses be masquerading as three-years of full-time academic study?
OK, so this has drifted into the "academic vs vocational" argument, which is itself a valid and interesting one. Personally I'm inclined to agree with you to at least some extent. We desperately need to get rid of the snobbish attitude that many people have to vocational subjects, although I do think there's something to be said for a bit of cross-pollination: give the vocational people some academic grounding, and give the academic types some experience of more practical matters.

I suspect what happened is that the universities, desperate for money, spotted a niche in the market, and used their academic credentials to entice people onto courses which should probably have remained as practical training programmes. But I can't blame them - they were encouraged to do so by the government of the day, and they needed to find some money from somewhere.

And education in every subject?
Yes, absolutely.

... light-weight subjects ... dross ...
That depends on what you mean by "light-weight" and "dross" - they're not well-defined concepts, and you'll get a different set of answers depending on who you ask. I'm extremely dubious about the validity of management and business studies (it all seems like nebulous, hand-wavy nonsense with little connection to what it purports to describe) whereas I think classics should be more widely studied, but I suspect I'm in the minority there on both counts.

Jack Cohen said something in a talk I went to a few years ago: Most people think that the end product of a PhD is a neatly typeset, bound thesis on the shelf in the library. But it isn't, the real end product of a PhD is the person who's done the PhD.

And I think it's the same with any programme of education: the real point of studying isn't to learn a specific corpus of facts which may or may not be relevant to something the general public consider important; it's how it changes the student, what it does to the way they see the world around them, how it enhances their ability for critical thought. Which benefits all of us: god knows this country, this world needs more people who think carefully about stuff.

For example, the five years of Latin I did at school have had no direct practical or economic benefit to me, but they enhanced my appreciation of language, my understanding of grammar, and have made the world a richer and more splendid place for me as a result. The same goes for the various texts they made me study for GCSE English Literature, even though I completely hated it at the time and really didn't get along with the teacher (Mr Charters).

You have a distinct advantage in having educational experience of high-quality universities that award degrees in academically-challenging subjects. Most of your students are able, and benefit from their education.

It is a pity that the cuts are falling across all institutions; I would prefer to cosset good universities and close down the worst.

Up to the age of 18 (A-Level) yes but university education is expensive. There are many responsibilities in being a parent and one should be to save a uni fund from the week your child is born as it's you who decided to have the child. Collective responsibity to pay for others people's children's uni education is not a good use of public taxes. Major companies should set up scholarship schemes so that very poor families who wish to send their child to further education can apply for.

It's not just the individual graduate who benefits from their education, the entirety of society does. The most obvious benefits are economic in nature, but one certainly shouldn't underestimate the non-economic side-effects of a highly-educated populace.

I'm certainly happy for my tax money to be spent on funding education for everyone, to as high a level as is useful to them; furthermore I have no objection to people learning less practical subjects, as long as they learn something. And if a more vocational route suits some people better than a traditional academic one, then they should be allowed to do that too. There are many far less useful things that our tax money gets spent on, at least education provides a decent return on the investment.

It also keeps school-leavers off the dole queue. I wonder whether that is the biggest motivation behind the expansion in student numbers in the past decade.

As a compromise, I suggest that the family pay half of the tuition but only for the first two children. Any further children must be fully funded by the trust fund system of the scholarship system for the poorest.

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