Policy and penny pinching are driving students and staff further and further apart

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“What is to be done?” after the announcements of the Comprehensive Spending Review, as well as the publication of ex-BP chief executive Lord Browne’s Higher Education Review, this is the question being asked throughout the country.

The problem is common to us all, yet every sector is searching for its own solution – and within sectors different interest groups are forming. Students are wondering how they might combat increased fees (and decreased education); teaching staff struggle with cuts to the teaching budget; university administrators construct their plans to navigate the next two years, beat off their competitors, and re-imagine the university in line with the (probable) total privatization of Higher Education in 2012.

Thus, an actual as well as a “merely ideological” separation of interests appears; yet even as it appears each distinct grouping is incorporated actually and ideologically in line with neoliberal hegemony. Going against the tide, one finds oneself isolated, one’s actions ineffectual, one’s arguments missing their mark. Going with the tide, each group senses some potential advantage to be had – at least, down to the common denominator: those who are genuinely subaltern because effectively excluded from the ‘negotiating-table’ (perhaps students fall within this latter category). The partial cause thus fails against the oppressive weight of the totality: the objections of pressure groups appear “unrealistic”.

What am I talking about? The various political negotiations (observable in strategically timed interviews, premature disclosures of key information, the tapping of pressure points) between Government departments (not to mention the two parties of the coalition); the compromises that see Vice Chancellors accepting budget cuts in exchange for the destruction of the fee cap and deregulation of funding and admissions; the trickling down of this to departments, where Heads construct crisis plans to keep their departments afloat; the individual academics who allow this to work by conducting research for department business plans, teaching extra hours, making do. Then there are the students who, along with their families, bear the brunt. But they too make do: for, after all, they do want an education (perhaps even need an education), and will take the little they can get, if it’s all that’s on offer.

A thousand pressures and conflicts, but we make do – and not just for ourselves, but for others. Heads try to do the best by staff, staff by students: the actual conflicts between these separate but united groups obscured by good will, compromise, and mutual care. Indeed, it becomes apparent that without this care, this making do (call it the “big society”, if you will), the system would collapse overnight, unable to function were it not for our will to humanise the ruthless asceticism of austerity. The paradox, then (though is actually no paradox): our struggle against the system is caused to function in such a way that it actually aids the consolidation of the system. Dissent and contradiction are harmonized into false unity.

The question remains: what is to be done? Perhaps you will disagree with my analysis – I’m sure it’s not unflawed. But, I am convinced that, one way or another, a student movement against increased fees and cuts to Higher Education will not succeed so long as it remains a partial cause. It will not be enough to go out on the streets and demand our plight is recognised; it will not be enough to observe the illogic of Government policies. I’m convinced that we cannot bring into question the logic of these anti-intellectual attacks without bringing into question the whole: the problem of our pseudo-democracy; the problem of an economic system built upon exploitation; the problem of the incorporation of culture and the academy into the ideology of the free-market; in short, the problems of capitalism, bureaucracy, secrecy, corruption and violence upon which our (crisis-prone) society is founded and functions. But, it is exactly here that a new unity appears: an actual basis for solidarity between all sectors and all people who recognise the existence of shared problems, shared needs, shared desires. It is this common experience that should dictate the course of future action, and our mutual desires the ends of that action: not policy, not MPs, not politics – not even the iron laws of the economy.

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