As I write this, I am looking at two very different documents. The first is an e-mail I received on Thursday morning from the Vice Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, David Eastwood. The second is a press release put out on the same day by Defend Education Birmingham, a student organisation pledging to fight privatisation and cuts to university services in the name of free, democratic education. There were protests at the University of Birmingham - my university - on 29 January, leading to 14 arrests and two very different reactions from the Vice Chancellor and the student group.
The vice chancellor expresses the opinion that the actions by the students last Wednesday were "disgraceful events...under the guise of student protest", and talks of "defacing buildings and property, throwing smoke bombs and fireworks, smashing down doors, damaging buildings including Aston Webb and the Old Joe clock tower, rioting inside the Great Hall, and injuring staff". He writes that the university "had no choice but to ask the police for assistance in restoring order and protecting students, staff and university property". Defend Education Birmingham, by contrast, talk of police kettling peaceful protesters, unnecessary crowd control tactics and outright violence.
I don't know exactly what happened on that day myself - I wasn't on campus - but I can say that the atmosphere at the university is not a happy one. There is widespread anger from those who support the protestors, those who support the university, and those who think the whole situation is a fuss over nothing. Personally, I have heard more criticism of the tactics used by the students, especially concerning their defacement of various campus buildings, but that may not be the full picture. (It's hard to gauge majority opinions among over 25,000 students.)
The rumblings have been audible for a while, at Birmingham and across the country. A quick look on Twitter turns up similar movements to Defend Education Birmingham, from London to Aberdeen. Since at least Autumn, hardly a week has gone by at Birmingham without some form of demonstration - the tell-tale signal being a message daubed on walls or floors in chalk, the protestor's best friend.
Furthermore, while their tactics may be debatable (depending on whose account you believe), their aims are coherent and generally well-reasoned. They are for public education, not privatised services; they want fairer wages for university staff; they want better engagement between university management and the student body. It's hardly Stalinism. The problem is that these students feel the need to fight for these things. Finance is slowly poisoning the university system in this country. Everyone knows the system has to be paid for, but the people who use it don't feel they're getting value for money. They see services deteriorating, fees rising, the gap between management and students growing, and their own prospects after education dwindling. It shouldn't be like this, and it's no surprise that people are angry.
Nobody wants violence at universities, from police, students or otherwise, and nobody wants buildings damage and trouble caused. Yet it can't be denied that there are legitimate questions to ask about the future of higher education in this country. On Thursday of this week, there is almost certainly going to be another strike by academics at my university - it's not just students who aren't happy with the way higher education is run, but staff, too. They say they're suffering under pay regimes which don't keep up with inflation. How is that possible when fees have been trebled? Where are universities spending their money?
Britain's universities are the envy of the world. Anyone who attends one of them knows that young people come from across the planet to study here, and pay a hefty premium for the privilege. Yet it feels like our establishments won't stay at the top of the tree if things continue on like this. Universities are too closed off, too restrictive, and too deaf to criticism. Students don't want police on campus - they want their voices heard, they want an active role in the future of their universities. Students don't want services provided by the lowest bidder - they want services geared towards their welfare, not profitability. Students don't want to see their professors and lecturers on the picket line - they want them to be paid properly, because they do a good job for the future of the people they teach.
That's what this whole debate is about - the future. It's easy to say that costs must be cut and fees must rise, because the deficit is gargantuan and the money has to be made somewhere. However, our universities are an investment in the future of our country. They should be places designed to foster learning and creativity - and the management-types who don't listen are just as much to blame for the failure of these ambitions as the rowdy students who hijack peaceful protests to cause trouble. We can't afford to allow our universities to sink further into the quagmire of discord and division. They are this country's greatest asset, and, if the current trends continue, they may start producing ever-diminishing returns.
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