Student movement is a microcosm of UK democracy


A mass student demonstration against cuts took place in London on November 10. 52,000 people marched and some protestors forced their way into Millbank. David Cameron responded: “Even if we wanted to, we should not go back to the idea that university is for free”. This demonstration breaks the passive consensus that ensured the British peoples’ acquiescence until recently. The economic and political elites’ response to mass demonstrations across the country, including those on Lancaster University campus is a microcosm of the condition of what we know as democracy in the UK. Democracy can be seen as a forced complicity of the masses into the legitimisation of the consequences of the government’s attack on society. It is the consensual representation of capitalism.

Under the illusion that elected politicians represent the general interest of the public in the idea of democracy, we are forced to comply with the outcomes of the government’s policies that shifts the costs of the economic crisis onto the public sector. Authoritarianism is disguised under the promise of common sense discussion on the unilaterally defined agenda of the capitalist elite in the City of London and the Parliament. The government’s talk on the financial crisis disguises questioning crises in other production processes: of commodity and labour. The ability to question the causes of the crisis by the ordinary people is foreclosed.

In contemporary Britain, the universities’ role in the consensual representation of capitalism is more politically complicit than ever. For example, two days before the protest, the Vice Chancellor of Lancaster University, Paul Wellings called for a “constructive debate rather than protests” in an interview in the Guardian, saying that the increase in fees will enhance the competitiveness of the higher education sector. This statement resonates well with the message Cameron gave to Chinese students in his visit to China: ”In the past we have been pushing up the fees on overseas students and using that as a way of keeping them down for domestic students. We have done the difficult thing. We have put up contributions for British students.” This announcement sharply contradicts with other policies of the government, such as the cap on non-EU immigration. Currently, the overseas students account for 60 % of the overall non-EU immigration to UK. On the other hand, the Home Secretary, Theresa May’s exempt of entrepreneurs and investors from immigration cap – “no limit to the number of wealth creators who can come to Britain”, clearly demonstrates the economic class that the government wishes to represent.

By transforming into a service provider to individuals and property, the university becomes a site on which consensus is forced upon to legitimize the viewpoints of managerial elite. Thus, the struggles that take place in the university can be seen as a microcosm of how democracy operates in UK. To identify some local manifestations of these tendencies at Lancaster University, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) announced its plan to open the faculty for business. Developing an enterprising mind set among students was set as one of the main aims of the Enterprise Centre. Although the idea was posed as a question – “Should FASS be open for business?”, the initiative forces critical scholars to comply with the legitimisation of a market directed education and research. Despite the message that came across in the event, “business values social science”, there is overwhelming evidence that thinking is done despite business’ attempts to commodify it.

Another example concerns the recent protest organized by LUSU and Anti-Cuts Groups on campus. This event resulted in one arrest of a student for crossing the tape and un-proportionate use of force by the police, hitting the student on the head with handcuffs. It seems that the return of the truncheon and possible incriminatory practises for students who attend demonstrations in the future will cast further shadow on the idea of university as a free speech environment. Our choice is between complicity into a forced economic and commercial usefulness and exploring the possibilities for collective resistance: thus politicise the highly apolitical university in UK.

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