The dangers of austerity

As protests over hikes in student fees rock the UK, a Cambridge scholar offers a personal take on the issue.

Spurts of violence marred recent protests against austerity measures that will affect students across the UK [Reuters]

Editor’s note: As protests over hikes in student fees rock the UK, Cambridge University’s Dr. Charles Jones offers a personal take on the unrest and the issue at large.

My bladder, now in its seventh decade, was one of the unsung heroes of last week’s kettling in London’s parliament Square. It stayed the course for twelve hours! – Not bad.

Having to pee in public is a minor indignity that I was glad to be spared, but it was inflicted on hundreds if not thousands of young men and women quite indiscriminately last week, and it is hard to see the whole exercise as other than punitive, especially those that lasted several hours on Westminster Bridge, above the dark waters of the Thames, as the London winter temperature plummeted.

This recently adopted technique for suppressing public debate in Britain consists in luring marchers into a space that can be sealed off by the police before they reach their intended destination. Within the space there is no food, no water supply, no latrines, and no policing.

There was a rather touching impromptu carol concert in one corner of the square, but otherwise the only entertainment was watching the intermittent attempts to break out and move from one corner to another.

I worked for a while, reading a doctoral dissertation on South African foreign policy and reflecting that its author, an activist with the African National Congress – the movement which led the struggle against apartheid, was likely to face far worse problems than ours.

My request that the police intervene to deal with malicious damage was ignored for close to an hour; kids had started to break the windows of the Treasury, which is not easy! When the police finally did act it was with massive force; by that time, sadly, it needed to be.

They baton-charged the perpetrators and a minor battle ensued in which more than one bystander was hurt. Police too were injured, I don’t deny it. They themselves are graduates, students, parents, and probably as fed up as the rest of us with the policy of tuition increases they were called upon to defend.

Yes. There were some hooligans intent from the outset on damaging property and attacking the police. Some idiot had foolishly screened off the centre of the square with metal fencing so that the marchers would not damage the grass. The metal fencing panels, about two metres by three, were ideal for the construction of wedges, like medieval siege battering rams, with which demonstrators tried unsuccessfully to break out of the trap.

But most of us had been there in order to rally and listen to speeches putting the arguments against the government proposals being debated that very afternoon in parliament. We simply waited, and waited, and waited, untill between ten and eleven we slowly filed out past the video camera that will doubtless have captioned us “trouble-makers”.

The effect of all this was that the British press over the next two days was dominated by reports of violence at the heart of the capital. There was no conspiracy here, but it did rather nicely distract from the disarray of the coalition government, which only narrowly won the commons vote approving a threefold rise in tuition fees at British universities. Both the ruling parties split on this issue, the first major legislative test of the coalition.

This is unfortunate, because the long-term consequences of the current changes in the funding of education and higher education seem likely to have profound effects, damaging Britain’s universities, restricting access to higher education and exacerbating inequality in a country that has already been polarising for more than a decade.

The government claims that transferring the costs of higher education to students and their families will permit a valuable reduction in public spending at a time of austerity without deterring students from poorer households from going to university. No one has to pay up-front; the costs are covered by loans. But this neglects the psychological impediment of indebtedness.

Many will not believe it’s ever going to be possible for them to repay the debt; and they may be right, since it is unlikely that the government projection of the average income of today’s graduates will materialise, based as it is on the income trajectory of the much smaller cohort that graduated a generation ago.

So the effect on public finances will very likely be negative in the long run. And what will the bank manager say to the young couple who come along in ten years time to buy their first house, already burdened with close to £100,000 of debt? This sort of ill-considered social engineering has consequences.

In the meantime, a valuable principle has been lost. This is that the gain from widespread university education is not retained by those who receive it; it spills out into society, at home and abroad. As a form of soft power, it complements British foreign policy. And to the extent that it does these things it should be paid for from general taxation.

But so long as public order and the safety of the heir to the throne command the headlines, that debate we’d hoped to engage in on Victoria Embankment will remain – Oh! – That bladder again! – Just so much pissing in the wind.

Dr. Charles Jones is director of the centre of Latin American Studies at Cambridge University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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