I’m just going to come out and say this: Sally Hunt made me cry.
Sally Hunt is General Secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) and the crying incident occurred during her speech at the NUS/ UCU anti-cuts demo a couple of weeks ago.
I don’t normally stand in the street in the middle of the day, weeping. In my defense, it was only a few tears. I was also exceedingly tired, having staying up half the night, working. Plus, it had been a reasonably emotional build up to Hunt’s speech, walking from Trafalgar Square to Tate Britain with 50,000-ish other people in the blazing, cold November sunshine.
I should probably stress that from what I saw, it really was a peaceful protest. I saw a lot of anger – including the first Millbank window smash – but it wasn’t all destructive or negative anger. The emotion was running high, but this was as much a celebration of what is good about education as anything else. A rabble of people out to declare themselves and their worth. A large and diverse rabble too, which I felt showed a fair degree of altruism as well as the spread of impact of education on peoples lives.
These protests feel very different from the ones in the late 1990s when the fees were re-introduced. I was still at school. A friend and I went on the big anti-fees demo in London. I say big, but there were probably only a few thousand there. The general feeling was that schoolkids weren’t organised or connected enough with the NUS to go, and current university students didn’t care because they wouldn’t have to pay. We shouted about education being for all and waved our signs. We didn’t think it would do much, but it made us feel better. Tourists asked us to pose for photos. They thought we were sweet to be out with out placards and balloons. I remember shrugging with a slight feeling of anti-climax as we got on the tube home.
Despite the introduction of fees, I did go on to university. I was lucky. My parents both went to university themselves: there was a cultural acceptance as well as financial support (though my younger brother is another story). I also worked before and throughout my time at university, something I think helped me understand and appreciate my education more, as well as simply pay for it. I got a degree, and another, and another (and another, and another…). All, in some way, studying issues of how academics connect to the rest of society. I also shared what I’d learnt, moving on to work as a lecturer.
So, university education is something I’ve experienced, studied and produced. It’s something I know about and care deeply about.
That slightly embarrassing crying moment? It happened during Sally Hunt’s speech. She showed a student video against cuts, breathlessly declaring “this is why education is so important: it helps make people brilliant”. I heard her voice break, she was clearly trying not to cry. I thought about my students, my teachers, and all the other people that make up a university that I’d been lucky to work with. I thought about the p45 sitting on my desk. I noticed my cheeks were wet.
I didn’t just cry because I agreed with Hunt. I cried because she’s wrong too. People do work very hard in the university sector, and do amazing things, but the system as a whole needs to be better. Some argue that a rise in fees will put more power in the hands of the students. I’m all for student power, but I’m not so sure about this as an approach. I think it limits which students might have the chance at such power in the first place. Moreover, I think that this sort of model severely limits the scope of what a university might be able to provide its community.
Hunt’s shouts of “you say Tories, I say scum” also depressed me. It reminded me of a schooltrip to Winsdor when I was 14. We drove through Eton on the way back, and our teacher got us to lean out the windows of the bus to point and laugh at the students’ silly uniforms. The Eton kids probably thought we looked funny too. Our uniform included a bomber jacket and a baseball cap (Really. The running team and steel pan group had school-uniform shellsuits). The cultural gap between my old inner-city comp and Eton College is immense. It is one based on social injustices which make me sick. But getting one group to jeer at the other just makes things worse. And that makes me sicker.
Most of all, I felt like UK universities had wasted the last decade of relative financial comfort. Now crisis hits, we’re suddenly noticing how great we are (or rather great we could/ should be) whilst simultaneously being constrained by a lack of funds. I felt like privatization of the academy has been handed to us as the only way out and, annoyed at this, all we do was shout abuse as those who won’t listen.
So that was why I was standing outside Tate Britain, listening to Sally Hunt. Binded by the sunshine and my students’ brilliance. Chilled by the freezing cold and impending cuts. Crying.
To end on a more positive note, in the last week, I’ve felt like the frustration has, at least partially, be unlocked. As David Mitchell put it in the Observer yesterday, the ongoing protests demonstrate a growing political will to reform our higher education system. A Campaign for the Public University has been launched, as was Humanities Matter and I’ve just heard about a similar Campaign for Social Sciences.. Today, the Telegraph has a letter from senior academics calling for a Public Commission of Enquiry, and the student occupations are going strong. More people want to talk about what we can do other than raising fees to improve universities. I’m starting to see the merest glimmer of hope.
Maybe I’m being ridiculously naive. What do you think?