A Riot in a Political Vacuum

9th December 2010, Tuition Fee Vote day, a historic moment when all eyes were on Westminster, parliament besieged, Charles and CPB mobbed… Where to start?

Firstly, there are many aspects of the university funding proposal I would contest, and not least the speed with which it has been rushed through with little respect for due Parliamentary process. But that parliamentary process, however compromised, was seriously overshadowed in the press by the goings-on outside.

I don’t think I am alone in finding something about yesterday’s directionless swarm of protestors distinctly disturbing. Was what happened really an act of positive political engagement? Or, as Brendan O’Neill has commented, a mindless and disparate riot taking place in a political vacuum?

Inside the chamber, the debate was fairly civilised and wide-ranging: business more or less as usual. Outside was a scene from a disaster movie. Helicopters wheeling overhead, roving news teams, riot police, things on fire. Apart from the inconvenience, it would have been a memorable day for the customary batch of tourists. And as a spectator it was certainly exciting to see.

But back in the office, switching between the cogent MPs’ debate in the chamber, and news coverage of the mounting chaos outside, I increasingly found myself doubting the presence of any coherent political motive amongst the angry mob. They are right to be angry: it is a ridiculous state of affairs. But throwing a tantrum and causing trouble is not the same as engaging with politics.

Protest, done well, is a great thing. But this was an offence to the honourable tradition of student protest for two reasons.

Firstly, where was the progressive or intelligent objective? Dumbly calling for ‘no fees’, cussing Tories and starting fires, instead of at the very least recognising there is a problem to be solved (which there undoubtedly is, whichever side of the fence you are on) is destined to be fruitless.

Secondly, back in the day, people, students, whoever, used protest for altruistic reasons. Stop the war, end poverty, etc. Yesterday’s protest was at heart self-interested, which makes the violence somewhat more distasteful.

I doubt they were even clear what rights they were fighting for, and on what basis. However they can’t be blamed for being confused: there is little clarity about the source of the current problem in the political debate.

Is this about Education? Or Social Advancement? Because there is a difference between the pursuit of knowledge (the former), and training for work (the latter), but they are frequently conflated. Browne’s report only reflects a trend already well underway.

I would suggest that people go to University for a blend of reasons. Someone older and wiser has told them they should, there aren’t that many other obvious options on leaving school, and it is a visible measure of their own success and ability. They believe it will lead to a better job and more money than they would achieve otherwise. It will more than likely be fun. Three years of relative independence without the corresponding restraints of responsibility. At the very least new set of friends. And then there is good old fashioned Intellectual Curiousity, a genuine hunger for knowledge, a desire to push forward academic frontiers.

There may be more, but for most, I imagine the motivation is probably a mixture of all of the above in varying proportions. But arguing that someone else should foot the bill on the principle of ‘freedom of education’ is only really appropriate when the motive is simply ‘education’. Today it rarely is.

We are now suffering from a fundamental contradiction that few will openly acknowledge, because to not sound pro-social mobility is unpalatable: Universities, traditionally a system for educating an elite few, have metamorphosed into a (rather blunt and disproportionately expensive) social mobility tool. Thus the arguments for subsidising fees and funding teaching have been commuted from arguments about paying (or not) for education, to paying for social mobility, or greater equality. Politicians can never say that they don’t want social mobility. But why can’t they at least discuss whether sending everyone to university is still the way to do it?

Those who benefitted from a university degree in terms of social mobility in the past did so partly because of its unusualness. Not that education is ever a bad thing, but making ‘the degree’ a commonplace will surely have the opposite effect. It has not ‘solved’ the social mobility problem, and in fact Labour would have to admit that in spite of the best intentions their record on equality was poor: reason enough to riot in itself.

An age old system of elite education, having been identified as a tool for increasing social mobility (which it once did), has been dramatically opened up for the mass-production of education. In the process the original idea of the institution has been diluted beyond recognition, costs have risen astronomically, and the abundance of degrees has caused both their necessity as a prerequisite for employment and their devaluation. Now, attending university has become a financial burden that is unavoidable and unmanageable for both state and individual, an educational freight train that no-one can stop. No wonder people are feeling impotent and angry.

I wouldn’t want to be in the position of sorting out the mess, and Labour must be thankful they aren’t having to respond to Browne’s report themselves. But what happened yesterday was chaos drowning out any sensible conversation. Worse, I am not sure anyone has benefitted.

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