by Andy Worthington
They came from all over the country, creating a 50,000-strong throng of students and University lecturers that filled Whitehall. Peaceful but vocal, the protestors were armed only with banners and placards, but at times the noise, as they chanted their opposition to the government’s planned £2.9 bn cut in university funding, was deafening.
I attended the demo for about an hour and a half, and was heartened that so many had turned up. To be frank, every single student in the country should have been there, or they might as well have had ministers turning up at their door asking them to agree that, from today, they will start paying up to £9,000 a year in fees — as opposed to the current rate of £3,290.
There was anger too, as some protestors smashed up Tory HQ on Millbank, while others took to the roof of the building. Some were students, others were not, but predictably, the violence overshadowed the main events of the day in the majority of media reports, and in much of the hand-wringing commentary today. In truth, however, both the massive peaceful demo and the considerably smaller group of violent protestors were indicative of much more unrest to come — and for good reason.
On university education, as on welfare, the coalition government is mounting nothing less than a full-scale assault on the State and on fundamental notions of how British society operates. Critics — either the usual suspects whining about students’ privileges, or the new breed of middle class hypocrites ignoring the fact that their own university educations were subsidized — seem content to accept that university education is not something that contributes to the good of society as a whole, and also to accept, without a murmur, that as a result the axemen of Downing Street should be allowed to impose the most swingeing cuts imaginable.
The government’s comprehensive spending review indicated that the cuts will amount to 40 percent, but once the ring-fenced fields of science, technology, engineering and maths are removed, the blunt truth is that arts, humanities and social science courses — and the infrastructure that supports them — are facing 100 percent cuts, transferring, overnight, the entire burden of university education from the State to the individual.
I find it enormously depressing that no one seems to be calling for moderation — asking, for example, for cuts to be imposed more gradually, and over a longer period of time. As it stands, this is a horribly experimental project, and there is a very real fear that axing the entire budget for arts, humanities and social sciences and shifting the burden onto students will lead to the closure of numerous departments and entire institutions with long and influential histories — think of art colleges and drama schools, for example, or departments of literature and foreign languages — if enough young people decide that debts of £30,000 and above are simply not acceptable.
Also ignored in all this troubling meanness of spirit is any recognition that arts and humanities courses contribute enormously to the crucial role that the creative industries play in the modern British economy, and which is reflected in the huge number of self-employed creative people — in the arts, crafts, and writing, for example — who enrich society while not necessarily enriching themselves, and who would otherwise add to the growing numbers of the unemployed, given that there are currently 2.45 million unemployed people, and just 459,000 available jobs. Anyone thinking coherently about society as a whole might realize that an investment in university education as a whole might actually be contributing to the creation of self-starters, capable of independent thought and analysis, whose abilities might be essential to growth and employment, but cannot necessarily be measured by salary, or by their place in the corporate pecking order.
And yet, this absurd gamble — and this failure to value university education as something that is useful for society as a whole — is being embraced by people who should know better, who have been caught up in the government’s rhetoric about the necessity for cuts to be as deep and as swift as possible. Gleefully clutching scalpels, these same people seem incapable of thinking that the government may be operating for ideological reasons, attacking the unemployed, the working poor and even the middle classes (everyone, it seems, except the upper middle class, the rich and the super-rich) as part of an arrogant and essentially neo-con attempt to reshape the UK as a country that is as harsh and pitiless — and as consumed by greed — as the United States.
Are these cheerleaders for draconian cuts not aware of the mind-boggling amount of tax evasion and tax avoidance that takes place in this country, through corporations and wealthy individuals, which could cover most of the proposed cuts? And have they forgotten that the City is directly responsible for much of the deficit, from the economic meltdown of 2008 to the bank bailouts, the loss of tax revenue and the increase in welfare spending that occurred as a result, but is being asked to contribute nothing to the economy? Although an annual levy of £2.5 bn has been announced, this will almost all be given back through the generous cut in Corporation Tax that the government wasted no time in providing to its chums in the Square Mile.
As this an example of what David Cameron and George Osborne and Nick Clegg are hiding when they talk about being “fair,” and about the necessity for all of us to tighten our belts, it is no wonder that yesterday’s massive peaceful protest is a sign of things to come, or that yesterday’s violence — and the cries of “Tory scum!” and newly-coined insults for the Liberal Democrats that accompanied it — are also here to stay.
What we needed at the General Election was a grown-up debate about Britain’s future. Instead, after all the major parties avoided discussing the economy, we got an incomprehensible coalition government, in which the major players — the Tories — have emerged as butchers, acting as though they had an electoral mandate for savage revolutionary change, and content to hack away not just at the poor but also at a significant swathe of their own less wealthy supporters, the Liberal Democrats have committed political suicide — unless enough of them revolt against the university cuts — and the people of Britain are dividing into two camps: the cruel, the complacent and the brainwashed on one side, and, on the other, those with empathy, a quaint belief in the common good, and an awareness that the destructive power of unfettered capitalism has yet to be seriously challenged.
– Andy Worthington is a journalist, the author of “The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison,” and the co-director of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo.”