I’m sitting on a train to Waterloo. In the seats beside me are three young guys. One from New Zealand, one Irish and one from the south of England. They are discussing the Browne Review and I guess that they are around 22 years old. Why? “I was in the first year that top up fees were introduced,” says the English one as he attempts to explain the British HE funding system to the New Zealander.
The conversation continues. Here are a few of the statements:
“The Government has removed the cap on top up fees.”
"Any university can charge anything, I reckon not more than £10,000 for a degree.”
“Cambridge will probably charge more like £12,000.”
“The maintenance grant will cover it if you’re parents earn less than £30,000.”
“At least we are turning it into a business like America!”
This dialogue, combined with large chunks of the media coverage of Browne’s review is worrying me.
What if these three disparate people represent the average semi-informed view of the debate? There was no mention of the Browne Review directly; no mention of the Liberal Democrat’s backtracking on their fees pledge and no mention of David Willetts’ statement that the cap will not be unlimited. They have confused shock coverage of the Browne Review recommendations with Government decree. What if they represent the majority?
The NUS and UCU Demo-lition march will be taking place on 10 November 2010 but the question that I keep coming back to is ‘why?’
The demo was arranged months before Browne and the CSR (for economic context). Posters were designed and petitions were sent out in a time of relative uncertainty over the future of the ‘valley of death’ facing the HE sector. But it was based on little concrete evidence.
A large number of students, sector workers and many ‘lay people’ will be descending on London. All for a variety of different motives ranging from philosophical ideology to job security and personal finance.
My worry is that the vast majority of those protesting (and those watching at home) do not understand enough of the complex detail to have an informed opinion. I’m concerned that the decision to protest has been built on a foundation of emotive language gleaned from activists and the headlines which were ultimately based on Browne’s recommendation rather than what the coalition has actually said.
Headlines and campaign activists skirt effortlessly over the recommendations of Browne and the context of the CSR to galvanise support – everyone political is guilty of it. The rhetoric of engagement may not be wrong, but it can paint a biased picture of a vastly complex issue.
Unintentionally the NUS/UCU are misleading people. The education of what Browne’s recommendations may mean for the sector has been literally shouted down by the emotive cries of the seasoned protester.
If these three guys sitting next to me are anything to go by, then this protest and the resulting coverage may be doing more damage for the cause, the student stereotype and the general wellbeing of the HE sector than good.
The march in 2006 didn’t stop fees.
The Liberal Democrat pledges didn’t stop them being broken.
Will this one be any different? I doubt it. So why are they bothering?