According to the phrase attributed to Irish poet W B Yeats, education is “the lighting of a fire, not the filling of a pail”.
If you’re starting university in Britain in September 2012, you may find getting the fire lit something of a struggle. Even filling the pail might be a stretch.
While never perfect, at its best higher education in this country has represented a protected space in the lives of some young people; a time to develop as human beings before they were subjected to the exigencies of wage labour.
One does not have to romanticise the regime in pre-1998 higher education to acknowledge that a socially-funded break from parental authority, and prior to the managerial authority of the workplace, represented something progressive and worth defending.
Access to higher education was never universal, but the introduction of tuition fees of up to £9,000 has sent access into a regressive tailspin. Applications for 2012/2013 were down nearly 10% at English universities (Scottish and Welsh institutions have different funding regimes).
English students can expect to graduate with a debt of nearly £60,000. University fees in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland are the highest in the whole of Europe. The first hurdle, simply being able to access higher education, is high for working-class people.
But let’s say you’ve made it. You’ve resigned yourself to the debt, and you’re in. Now you have to find somewhere to live.
According to figures in the Telegraph, the average weekly rent for students in London is £108.03. The Financial Times reports even higher figures: an average of £190 in London, £124 in Leeds, £119 in Manchester, £115 in Birmingham, and £114 in Nottingham. The Telegraph reports student rent averages of over £90 per week in Norwich, Exeter, and Cambridge.
Face it: you’re not going to afford to live unless you have an income. You’d better get a job. But according to figures published in Metro, the average student can only make £3,000 a year by working part-time and in holidays, while the average yearly outgoing is £17,482 in London and £16,279 elsewhere. The majority of working students find work in service, retail, catering, and hospitality sector jobs where low pay, long hours, and casualisation are endemic.
But you’ll do your best. You’ll work the killer shifts behind the bar, in the coffee shop, or in the Students Union, and then drag yourself to class. Or will you? A study from May 2012 showed that the average undergraduate spends more time studying alone now than they did six years ago.
Due to funding cuts and job losses, you shouldn’t expect to spend more than 13 hours a week with teachers (in lectures or seminars).
If you’re studying at a newer university, you’ll be lucky to get 12 hours.
But at least, during the time you’re studying, you’ll be in control. At least then you’ll be able to explore and develop. Right? Well, sort of.
If you’re studying a science or engineering degree, then it’s possible your department has a relationship with a multinational corporation.
At the University of Sheffield, you could be lucky enough to study in the BAE Systems Centre for Research in Active Control. Relationships like this mean that an arms company, a pharmaceutical company, or some other worker-exploiting, planet-scorching giant could have hand in the design of your curriculum. Are you learning in order to develop your own creative and critical faculties, or are you “learning” to meet the needs of big business and better mould you to fit into the workplace?
Courses at what are clearly intended to be the second tier of institutions are even more explicitly workplace-focused. “Vocational” degrees like Leisure and Tourism Management or Hospitality and Catering are little more than training for your life at work, without even the pretence of learning for its own sake. Your degree is now simply preparation for junior-supervisorial or middle-management roles in industries where exploitation is rife… like those where you’ll have to work in while at university to support yourself through your studies.
In Humanities courses, an ideological regime of aggressive post-modernism, or quasi-post-modernism, is hegemonic. “Grand narrative” theories of history, like Marxism, are dismissed as outdated and reactionary. Only nebulous, amorphous approaches based on never-quite-pinned-down analyses of “discourse” are allowed. And you’ll probably be encouraged to rely on “readers” and anthologies rather than actually tackling potentially difficult source material yourself.
So, let’s recap. You’re coughing up £9,000 a year, plus astronomical rents, to spend little time with teachers, studying courses designed to render you pliant workplace-fodder, and getting shat on in some low-wage job the whole time because that’s the only way you can get by. You’re by no means sure of a job at the end of it.
That’s the university experience the government wants you to have. But, while you can’t wish the reality of fees and cuts out of existence, you can carve out a different experience for yourself.
And it starts by seeing yourself, as a student and a worker (or future worker), as part of a class struggle. Not as a passive victim, but as an active political agent. You can choose to fight back against the fees regime, against low pay, against high rents, against the control of your curriculum by big business.
Supporters of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts all over Britain are organising activist groups on campus to take the fight to government and higher education bosses on a variety of different fronts. Whether it’s fighting against a local cut on your campus, acting in solidarity with the struggles of academic and non-academic workers at your university, organising with other working students to fight for your rights in the workplace, or participating in national mobilisations like the NCAFC’s radical bloc on the National Union of Students’ 21 November demonstration, you’ve got three years of action ahead of you that can give you a different way of looking at the world. You’ve felt the attacks, but by getting involved in campaigning you can feel the resistance, too.
And active political engagement doesn’t just mean headless-chicken activism, running around building for the next demo or activism. Involvement in campaigns like the NCAFC, and in socialist groups like Workers’ Liberty, should also provide a space for mutual and self-education, where you can get a different, or expanded, take on ideas.
You can learn and read about the histories and ideas your under-staffed, under-resourced department can’t teach you (or won’t teach you, because those setting the curriculum don’t want you to learn it).
And you can develop your creative and critical faculties in order to help you better engage with the world around you, simply for the sake of doing so, rather than because it’ll make you a more attractive commodity for prospective employers.
This isn’t about prefiguration. Being an activist at university doesn’t give you the keys to a magical utopia where you can seal yourself off from the attacks, the pressures, and the sheer bullshit that uni bosses and the government are subjecting you to. Most of the struggles you’ll get involved in will be difficult and hard-fought, and you’ll almost certainly lose some of them. And becoming a well-read, cultured, committed revolutionary militant isn’t going to make your degree any cheaper.
But it can change the way you experience your time at university.
Class-struggle activism can provide a space where you can learn, explore, develop, and fight for control over your destiny.
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