Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Flock of Turkeys

Happy Thanksgiving, to those who keep the feast. Here in the UK it's business as usual—except in Oxford, it's not.

Last night some students occupied the Radcliffe Camera. They are protesting the government's proposal to convert grants to loans and to allow universities to charge up to £9000 pounds tuition. This may not seem a lot of money for a university education to some Americans, but the economics of this country are not like those of the USA; people live much closer to the line.

The students are still in there, and as a result, the Old Bodleian is closed as a precautionary measure until they come out. It's the end of 7th week and work for all scholars is at a critical juncture. This morning I cringed when an American graduate student, blocked, as I was, from going into the Old Library, proclaimed in the loud voice Americans seem always to use, oblivious to the fact that their words penetrate all the other noise and voices, "Nine thousand pounds is NOTHING for a university education".

Until last night's occupation of the Camera, my sympathies were with the students, but now have vanished. The beautiful 18th century Palladian Camera is much too fragile to be the site of student protests; it is a privilege to be able to work there in the first place, instead of being confined to some sterile modern space. There even have been reports that the students occupying it were standing on the tables. If these students so value and appreciate education then they should know better than to use a World Heritage Site for their shenanigans, disrupting the work of the serious scholars who are teaching them or will teach them. They have shot themselves in the foot. When they finally do come out, I hope they are taken off and booked and jailed for trespass and whatever else the University can think up to throw at them.

The UK has produced many fine scholars, in part because of its policy of financing university education for all. The professors—in the sense of holding named chairs—I have worked with the most over the years are both from very modest backgrounds: one is the son of a postman and the other, as he once put it, came from East London where ". . . DLitt.s were not exactly lying around on the ground." It is questionable whether without the system that was until now in place, either of these people could have attended university at all. But now the Tory ideologues are heading this country in the direction of educational failure such as the USA is experiencing, and of which the rise of the Tea Party and the support for the idiocies of Palin and Fox news are evidence.

If my support for the students has ebbed, my support for what they are protesting has not. Far from it. I think all the educational reforms the Tories are proposing, as well as the benefit changes, are for the most part merely ideological, without regard to human compassion, much less common sense, and that their poorly thought through slashes will set this country back economically and socially. The rise of VAT to 20% is also folly, and will slow the process of recovery; its effects on the people at the bottom of the economic spectrum are unimaginable. Or all too imaginable. Taxing the banks and the super-rich would make much more sense.

Hard not to be in an apocalyptic frame of mind these days.


Blogger Bo said...

Quite. It's SO bad that I can't even begin to process it. In my field, if yearly fees are £9000 (my whole Oxford BA cost less than half that in 98-01) then who will apply for small subjects like ASNaC, or Theology, when they could do Law or Medicine?! And if they don't apply, how will departments survive?! I suspect this will force Cambridge, then Oxford, to go private---for one thing, being rid of the RAE would be a blessing. Their latest wheeze is linking 1/4 of funding to the 'impact' of your research on the public. Which is fine in the sciences, but if you work on Syriac religious texts or Medieval Celtic---that is, if you do *scholarship*---it's verging on the impossible.

11:40 am, November 26, 2010  

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