A letter from inside the student Occupation of Senate House (Bristol, December 2010)

Solidarity Letter

This is an open letter from a member of the Occupation written from inside but not on behalf of the whole Occupation group; we hope many members will also write from their own perspectives. The Occupation in general is about protesting the proposed cuts in education and raising the cap on tuition fees.

We consider peaceful direct action in the form of an Occupation to be reasonable and proportionate in the context of the overwhelming power imbalance we are attempting to negotiate with and the unwillingness to take seriously our objections before. The Occupation is taking very good care of the Senate Room, to avoid detracting from the credibility of our protest message.

We acknowledge that some aspects of the proposed changes, particularly increasing the threshold at which loan repayments will start after graduation are fairer (if they are actually maintained*), but we strongly object to the cuts in funding for university teaching staff and the doubling or tripling of tuition fees.

We deplore the poor level of consultation with academics and students before the Browne Review. Academics tend to be intelligent, socially responsible and have in depth knowledge of the education industry. To consult a disgraced former CEO of BP ahead of academics about economic reform of their own industry shows the nature of the government’s intentions.

We question where £9k/yr for tuition fees would be spent on Arts courses which currently have typically 4-8 contact hours per week, and with the proposed 80% cuts in teaching budgets we believe the argument for value for money for even fewer contact hours at £9k/yr is laughable. If students are to be asked to pay so much, it would be more appropriate to start by setting out what they would be paying for, but the government plans to debate and vote on plans to legislate on value for money much later down the line.

Plenty of better practical alternatives to cuts have been proposed; the simplest of which would be cutting tax avoidance by transnational corporations and the super-rich who use offshore tax havens to avoid approximately £120bn/yr of UK Corporation and Income taxes. By comparison, the cuts in higher education funding are a tiny proportion (about a tenth?). ‘Death and Taxes’ are supposed to be the two universal certainties, but for the super-rich taxation is effectively optional now.

Positive Money and the New Economics Foundation have proposed detailed plans for radical reform of the banking system, which would make all the cuts in public spending unnecessary and prevent future monetary collapses.

The public deficit was caused by the fundamental structural design of the banking system which takes profits privately but intrinsically depends on implicit public underwriting and periodic bailouts, and as a private business according to Free Market doctrine regards itself as only accountable to its shareholders and not responsible to the public interest. The banking crisis was not caused just by incidental abuses of the system, but because the banking system itself is fundamentally not fit for purpose. The essential corruption of the banking system and over-spending on aggressive militarism is to blame for the public deficit, not education or overspending on public services in general. The Tory-led coalition chooses to emphasise cheating on the social welfare system, but in fact tax avoidance by mega-corporations and the super-rich costs the Treasury fifteen times more in lost revenue per year. The real productive economy depends on education and public health, so cutting funding for education and moving towards privatization of the NHS at this point, is economically a nonsensical response.

Again, the timing reveals the rhetorical nonsense in the government’s position in that the increase in revenue from student loan repayments will only start from 2016, when the Treasury expects economic growth to have returned anyway. *With regards to the timing of the change in loan repayment structure effective in 2016, some economists are already suggesting that the repayment threshold of £21,000pa is not sustainable in the context of the government’s budget, and is likely to be returned to the current £15,000pa threshold.

The student occupation believes that the government’s cuts in funding for higher education are not really a matter of practical necessity at all, but are ideologically motivated- especially the targeted cuts against the Arts and Social Sciences, which tend to be more socially concerned subjects.

We are all familiar with everyday examples of how privatized services, e.g. the trains and the extortionately expensive privately run cafe in our university library, are almost always far more expensive and inefficient in the end than the same services provided by public funding or cooperative businesses. We oppose the marketisation of higher education in principle and we believe there is more to education than the economic aspect: education brings out the best in people, as full human beings, not only as workers in a corporate hierarchy.

We believe the commodification of education presumes a competitive, hierarchical view of human nature and culturally leads to the disintegration of society as a moral community, it also increases the already extreme level of social inequality in the UK –the UK ranks around 63rd in UN GINI Index of social inequality, and this social inequality has been proved empirically (The Spirit Level) to be the primary cause of most social problems, rather than absolute wealth or poverty. The Nordic countries have the lowest social inequality in the world (besides Japan) as well as the highest levels of public funding for education, and consequently have the highest UN HDI rankings of public health and happiness.

The public spending cuts in general, and particularly the cuts in higher education funding and the tripling in tuition fees, have been proved to be disproportionately against the poor, and will increase barriers to social mobility.

We believe that any action against a part of our society is an attack on all of us. The overwhelming evidence presented in The Spirit Level: why more equal societies almost always do better proves that increasing social inequality is harmful for our whole society and actually harmful for all income strata, not only the poor.

Tuition fees of £9k/yr plus maintenance loan of around £3500 means students from 2011 will be graduating with at least £30,000 debt before they start to try to afford a mortgage for a family home. Students on five year courses such as Medicine and Veterinary Science will graduate with at least £50,000 debt. With house prices in the UK so extremely high compared to the rest of Europe, probably due to the banks’ parasitic speculative profiteering rather than real economic factors, this means the next generation is hardly going to be able to afford to bring up offspring in a home fit for a family, unless the older generation gives up something. The degree of hierarchy between generations, like in WW1, is at the point of becoming self-destructive from the point of view of survival of human society.

We call on all Lib Dem MPs who pledged before the election to vote against any rise in tuition fees to honour their promises to their constituency electors or resign. Abstaining will do nothing to swing the vote and would still be a direct violation of the trust bestowed in them by their constituencies. MPs primary responsibility is to represent their electors in their constituency, not loyalty to their political party.