A response to a former student regarding student demonstrations

December 15, 2010

in Activism, Letters

I regularly get messages through the contact form on my website in reference to my blog posts. This morning, I got an email from someone who had read this article and decided that I was spending too much time drinking and not enough time studying on the basis that I had spent much of the 9th December demo coordinating Manchester activists from the Lord Moon at the Mall instead of being kettled. The below is my reply.

Dear whoever you are,

Thank you for your message. In response to your email suggesting that I would be better off studying than drinking or demonstrating; I do not drink. I was in that pub on the 9th December that I mentioned because it was the nearest place that had wireless internet access – I am employed part-time by the University of Manchester Students’ Union to help co-ordinate our cuts campaign and I figured before everything kicked off that it would be easier to try to make sure our students were safe from a warm building that served food that to be standing in the middle of a riot: which turned out to be true.

I find your cut-off point at 18 for free education quite interesting. Why does no-one deserve an education past 18, and not 16? Or 14? Or 11? Why do you consider universal free education compulsory at 9 but something that crippling debt must be incurred for at 19? If the purpose of education is to produce productive, useful citizens, why would we not want that to continue up to the acquisition of a useful skill? In my mind, we should be offering every school-leaver a free tertiary education qualification, be that a degree, an NVQ, a HND, or an apprenticeship. Given George Osborne magicked up £6 billion to give to Ireland, enough to give every student currently at university free education for two years, I do not consider this out of the realm of the impossible. Indeed, it would be of great benefit to society, economically and socially, to have such a well-educated workforce.

I assume you went to uni when you were only paying maintenence loans, because even working 16 hours a week during uni I would not be able to pay off the debts that I have built up in my time at uni at £6000 a year in fees and loans. I wonder, would you have been so happy to accept a marketised education if you were still paying off a debt of £36,000 for a reduced quality of education, with fewer classes, larger classes, fewer books and more university charges?

I’d go to more lectures, but due to the cuts in my education that were pushed through despite claims of further investment, I had about nine contact hours a week in my second year. I have a friend in third year who has four hours of lectures and tutorials a week. What do you propose we do in the meantime? Go to the library? But universities across the country are reducing the number of books they buy. Time to speak to lecturers is restricted, if you even have a lecturer and not a post-grad student – 20% of my entire degree has been taught by fellow students. Would you pay £9000 for me to teach you?

Maybe you got a decent education at a reasonable price and you spent your university days happily ensconced in a corner of your library learning. We aren’t getting that. The student movement isn’t just complaining for no reason, we’re objecting to the cuts in our education, the 80% funding cut in the teaching budget and the tripling of tuition fees for *the same* – the students who have to pay tuition fees and put themselves in debt for twenty years or more aren’t going to receive diamond pens or gold star feedback, they will be getting the same stressed lecturers under pressure to do research than teach, the same poor feedback systems (which have been reduced to a number in a box instead of any meaningful criticism for many of us), the same apparent expectation that we should just know how to write a good quality essay on the basis of a single practice assignment a module.

Perhaps you think that that is an acceptable price to pay for a piece of paper that says “degree” on it, but that isn’t why I am at university. I do not expect to get a good job with an arts degree, I love my subject with the same enthusiasm with which you enjoy berating people who were not as lucky as you to get a good education for free. I want to learn, all of us out on those streets want to learn – that’s why we are demonstrating! Nothing has ever changed in history because we put our heads down and hoped it would all be okay in the end. “I will try harder” (look, I’ve read a book!), gets no-one anywhere.

I’m not going to get free education, but I can stop the closure of my university departments (I have at least two friends whose entire departments were closed a year after starting their degree), I can stop the closure of my building’s study rooms, I can stop my support staff being fired. I can demonstrate on behalf of the tens of thousands of students who won’t be making it through sixth form, let alone to university, because of the removal of their Education Maintenance Allowance which pays for their bus to school. I think that is worth fighting for. I personally don’t like violence, but I think that everyone who dislikes violence should recognise just how far peaceful protest has gotten us so far and why people feel disenfranchised from the entire system.

If you managed to get through university with a resolve to just accept what you are handed by a government whose interests do not coincide with yours, I can only say that I see why you think free education is a waste of time: it was clearly wasted on you.

Yours faithfully,

Sarah McCulloch

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