Unlocking the future of education

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.
colourful banners in sunshine
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.

Educate Don't Segregate
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.

Protest gets to Parliment

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.

after the demo (Victoria station, 7pm)

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?

17 thoughts on “Unlocking the future of education

  1. Tas

    I’m not one for party politics but I do support the concept of subsidised education and I don’t believe fees should increase. However, reform of the education system is long overdue. We need to ask ourselves how relevant the course content is to what graduates require and I’m sorry to say -if you’ll forgive me for generalising- that a lot of content in many courses appears to be filler material. As a scientist who has been through ‘the system’ free of charge, I can say there are a lot of good/brilliant things about universities but they do not always train people adequately.

    The number of people who go to university with no real idea of what employment they are aiming at is surprisingly high. The number who come out from a three-four year degree and still lack what employers consider as valuable skills is also too high. We do need an evolution of education so that it produces graduates that have a wider skills base and we need to fit other young people into training that suits their strengths. Everybody should contribute to this debate because it concerns not only students, it concerns virtually everyone. We need a forum where everyone can contribute ideas and everyone can feel that they are being heard. We don’t need rhetoric either from the street or from politicians. Maybe a public commission is exactly what is needed as long as it deals with the issues, everyone participates and it is not just another government PR exercise.

    1. Jakob

      The number of people who go to university with no real idea of what employment they are aiming at is surprisingly high. The number who come out from a three-four year degree and still lack what employers consider as valuable skills is also too high.

      This seems to presuppose that the point of university is job training rather than education; what about the value (economic and more broadly) to a country of a well-educated citizenry?

      Don’t employers always moan about university graduates’ skills? Like the jeremiads about the numbers of STEM graduates, the complaint always seem to boil down to ‘Universities aren’t doing our jobs for us and producing ready-trained graduates able to start work right away. Oh, and the starting wages they want are too high.’

      This isn’t to deny that universities may be failing some students, but the claim that this is a widespread problem makes me ask ‘cui bono?’

      1. Tas

        You make a relevant point on training vs. education. I am in favour of general education and we do provide 12 years worth of it free of charge for everyone. Yes, we do need the arts and humanities degrees as well as Science and yes all that does benefit society generally. However, my question was whether we can afford to have a whole three-four years worth of it without also expecting that those who benefit from it should also prepare themselves for employment at the same time. Making yourself more employable is no bad thing and we shouldn’t hoof it all into the employer’s patch. I don’t know if shorter courses with more additional skills training are the answer but it is something that has to be looked at. I don’t think all employers are necessarily whinging about universities not doing their job for them. Having been both sides of the ‘fence’ I know many feel that universities could do a much better job preparing the raw material. All employers will always want to drive down costs, so in effect you are criticising the nature of capitalism, which is a whole different debate. I don’t know if the politicians will ever want to have a honest debate about the whole education system but if enough people make a fuss, they may yet relent.

  2. SmallCasserole

    David Mitchell advocated pissing through Nick Clegg’s letterbox which I don’t consider positive in the least. Much as I would like to support a campaign to improve higher education and to fund university education via general taxation, under the circumstances I’m finding it a bit of a struggle.

    1. alicerosebell Post author

      No, I don’t think that’s positive either. It slightly upset me that that was, for many, the key message in that piece.

      Though I would also say Clegg should be criticised.

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  4. gimpy

    From a cold and calculating political strategy perspective an us vs them approach does seem rational. This is quite literally a battle over the education offered to the young and to future generations. A poisonous sentiment expressed against the parties currently in power may well cause in them a great fear of becoming permanently unappealing to large sections of the future electorate. No party can do this and not worry about its survival. Self-interest may result in more consideration of policy proposals and implications. In this sense I can sympathise with the sentiments of Sally Hunt.

    This is not to say that your arguments are wrong, I find much to agree with, but politicians in government are not yet ready to discuss solutions in public, and at the moment perhaps the focus needs to be on causing them to do so. It is undoubtedly necessary to discuss coherent and positive solutions, and to involve the public as much as is possible, but the priority has to be to make them engage in dialogue

    1. alicerosebell Post author

      The us vs them got the campaign noticed. It also helped people bond around action and, I suspect, unlock more discursive lobbying. It has that going for it.

      So, shouts of Tory Scum leaves nasty taste in my mouth, but I didn’t go when people started shouting it. I still stood by them. I also took the more developed points that stream off those shouts – that the cuts are ideological and that those with elite educations are largely out of touch. I can see the motivation, I just don’t personally feel comfortable with it.

      1. gimpy

        It’s certainly a lowest common denominator tactic, but the interpretation I favour is that it’s a convenient distillation of rhetoric for sloganeering purposes. If the debate remains at this level then it is problematic but I don’t think it will.

        But the last times chants of tory scum went out against a government they lost, apparently permanently, any chance of election in almost all of Scotland andmost of the north of England. They cannot afford to have another generation absorb this sentiment, especially not when protests are even happening in areas where Conservatives do well.

        I am torn between the desire to see rational debate with public prominence and an appreciation of more brutal rhetorical strategies.

  5. Jakob

    A very moving post; could you unpick what you mean by a ‘better’ university system though? AIUI, the past 10 or so years have been financially stable only by comparison with the current situation, with universities being asked to do more and more with ever less. What should have been done differently?

    1. alicerosebell Post author

      I don’t know what I mean by better – I think it’s up for debate. That’s why I want more of a discussion about it.

      Take your point about the last few years not necessarily being that easy for doing much more – already have been making cuts.

  6. Thomas Ehrich

    As depressed as you may be about the British university system, it could always be worse — you could live on the western side of the Atlantic, where a decent education costs more than your house.

    The debate about practical education versus education for its own sake is an ancient one. As someone with an undergraduate degree in philosophy, I tend to side with “education for its own sake” — but as a scientist I also recognize that, as we learn more and more about the natural world and become better able to apply that knowledge as technological advancement, we will need to make decisions about where to prioritize. In other words, an in-depth study of Aristotle in the original Ancient Greek would be wonderful, but at some point the kids also need to learn how DNA reproduces and what an electron is — so how do we decide what to teach and what to learn?

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