I like the student protest and the occupations. This afternoon, I "liked" the Slade occupation on Facebook. But I nearly didn't click. What put me off was its subtle conservatism.
Education – and maybe especially the humanities – is a social good as well as a personal good and the coalition's withdrawal of teaching support denies that. OK, the loans are not commercial – only a government could offer that kind of package – so they have some social element built into them, but they have all the appearance of being commercial. They speak to the desire to be no more than that. No thought has gone into designing a way of paying, or rules of access, or who provides education that expresses the essentially social nature of the good in question.
I like the fact that the students are using what means they have available to make the protest heard. Banks can buy influence; students have media value instead.
But. There was going to be a "but". The university we know is a tired post-war modification of a nineteenth century re-invention of a medieval church institution. We should redesign higher education – and students, teachers, parents, workers, taxpayers and politicians should all be a part of that redesign. There is something exciting and forward-looking to be done. If I were arguing what ought to be done, I'd have quite a few Browne-report elements in it. I would ask for a hybrid loan/tax scheme. It would be highly progressive. I would emphasise the continuing education aspects of this: the need for new providers to be encouraged – for example by making all exams at any university open for all to enter.
So, tertiary education deserves imaginative reform. Yet the students have adopted some positions of deep conservatism. I went to look at the Facebook page of the Slade occupiers. I am basically sympathetic.
But when I went to their demands, at the bottom of the page, the second bullet seemed to me to be all wrong. How can it be that the course, the content, the system that is being reformed, is so good that one of their demands is a guarantee of stasis. Either university has got much, much better since my day, or – more likely, I feel – there is a defensive fear of change - conservatism - at work here that does the student cause no good at all. By all means insist on a say in how things change but not that all courses should 'stay as they are'.
As well as fully supporting the demands of the existing UCL occupation of the Jeremy Bentham Room, the staff and students of the Slade School of Fine Art demand the following from UCL:
- A statement from the UCL provost condemning the cuts to arts and humanities courses and stating the intrinsic value of these courses within higher education.
- A statement from the UCL provost guaranteeing the protection of the Slade’s courses as they are. This means preserving the current staff to student ratio, protecting facilities and space and continuing funding for visiting lecturers.
- A statement from the UCL provost guaranteeing the survival and continued funding of all other humanities courses within UCL.
- Free access in and out of the building 24 hours for all students, peers and speakers for the duration of the occupation.
- Ensure no victimisation or repercussions for anyone participating in the occupation.