16 of us (staff and students) met with Joan Ruddock (MP for Lewisham-Deptford) that afternoon, and 16 of us (staff and students). We all spoke to her about HE cuts for 30-45 minutes. Here are some of our arguments and her responses:
We said that the underfunding of higher education was making it difficult for working-class students in her constituency to go to university. One of the members of our delegation was a student from a working-class background who had grown up in the area, and is now currently over £20,000 in debt; she told JR about her personal situation. Another student mentioned that he also comes from a low-income background, and that the fees are causing considerable financial hardship (to which JR responded that he would not even been able to attend university in her time). The President of the Goldsmiths Students’ Union said that people now make the decision about where to go to university based on cost, not on intellectual curiosity—and this very fact turns education into a commodity. We asked JR if she herself had to pay for her education. JR acknowledged that she did not, but that she was part of a ‘tiny minority’, implying that top-up fees were the necessary trade-off for the expansion of education.
We raised the issue of the fees review panel, particularly the prominent role given to business leaders, and the exclusion of UCU and NUS. We said that the composition of the panel meant they were very likely to recommend a fees increase. JR said that this was not necessarily the case, but did not make any arguments to the contrary.
We said that as teachers we want to teach as many students as possible who have the desire to learn, but that this is prevented by the fine for accepting extra students. We also mentioned that 25% of prospective students were denied places this year. JR simply said that there was nothing she could do and insisted that Labour had funded higher education generously in the past.
We also said that France and Germany have made higher education part of their stimulus packages, and questioned the wisdom of the UK’s refusal to do the same. JR argued that there are higher taxes in France and Germany, and that higher taxes hurt poor people. We asked about raising taxes for wealthier people or for corporations. JR mentioned that a 50% tax rate was being implemented and that higher corporate tax would cause companies to leave the UK.
Finally, we questioned government priorities, and argued that scrapping Trident or the ID card scheme could pay for higher education. She said that both schemes were a fait accompli and nothing could be done. She also repeatedly argued that the NHS was more important than higher education because it meant the difference between life and death for some.
Overall, we were struck by the contradiction between JR’s rhetoric (in which she tried to appear sympathetic) and her complete unwillingness to do anything about the situation; many of her responses were a defence of the status quo. There was another, ideological contradiction between her (apparent) desire to help the poor, and her resistance to measures such as higher taxes for corporations and wealthier individuals. The discourse she used was an individualising one: she compared a national economy to a household, and saw higher student fees as ‘individuals contributing to their own education’.
This leads to two main points:
1) We need a high-profile media campaign about the value and necessity of accessible, publicly funded higher education. We need to make the case that higher education is not a frill or a luxury.
2) We need to continue to put serious pressure on JR and other politicians, as they will not listen unless there is broad public opposition. This is where we need a political campaign.