After the riots: What now for student activists?

Posted by: Guest author on Jun 6, 2011
So, it finally happened: British university fees for the year 2012/2013 were announced, and as many students feared, they amount to the ‘emergency-only’ sum of £9000. The student unions’ reaction is, predictably, that of profound disappointment: James Haywood, Goldsmiths College’s Campaigns officer, admits the defeat. As with every lost battle, though, a question arises: will the war rage on?

Haywood and all other student representatives seem positive about not giving up: “we will keep up Goldmiths' tradition in campaigning”. Some members of the anti-cuts group 'Goldsmiths Fights Back' even concede that it would be silly to deny that everybody knew this was inevitable. But the despairing response belongs to a sparse minority, most of the people who were aware of how this struggle was going to end are now ready for the most important, and longest, part of the fight. The war against cuts to education has just started.

The government's measures will make themselves felt, especially in the next few years, when the budget for universities – especially humanities and arts based – will be drastically reduced. University of the Arts London will face a £50 million reduction by 2015, which means that, as SUarts president Louis Hartnoll declares, “almost all state funding will be retracted”. This will essentially make the university privately owned, relying hugely on students' fees, and ultimately lead to the government reducing the places in degree courses in order to afford student loans.

It would be easy to fear the return of art to a prerogative for a white elite. Especially if one considers that the predominantly working-class attended universities, such as London Metropolitan, are those facing the most radical cuts. Also, the impact on day-to-day university life will be evident: at London Met many courses will have to be suppressed, with students even having to change BA during their career. Haywood suggests that art students at Goldsmiths will probably have to cope with extra fees for using the facilities.

For reassurance, Hartnoll explains that it'd be wrong to think that the protests did not achieve anything. “I think that one of the core strengths of the recent protests has been to draw together a large community of dedicated activists,” he says.

Haywood agrees that a new, huge movement has been created, and this is in itself a victory. Activists hope that even if in the short term concrete results seem not to have appeared, in the long run this strong movement will affect how people think of society and the government. This will help to politicise a social group – the students – that in Britain has traditionally been less actively involved in protests compared to other European countries. Politicisation, in the eyes of the activists, is necessary against a measure that is in itself a political rather than economical stance.

“The government - the current Tories but also the past Labour,” Haywood says, “considers education to be a stepping stone towards employment, and not a worth in itself." This is especially true for arts and humanities, areas which are not recognised as contributing directly to the nation's economy. So the government is favouring STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), prioritising, as Hartnoll believes, large companies over the protection of people.

Do not doubt the silence from the student protests: the turmoil continues on a smaller scale – London Met, for example, has recently been occupied. As for the national scenario, we will probably see demonstrations as huge as the March 26th in October/November this year. Now it's time for exams: the biggest proof for the student movement, though, will be in the next few semesters.

by Chiara Rimella

Originally published on jotta.com, republished here as part of our Two Degrees 2011 partnership. jotta is an art and design community founded in partnership with Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and the broader University of the Arts London. jotta.com provides a platform for the best emerging artists and designers, bringing over 8,000 members together through the production of new work, projects and exhibitions. jotta.com
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