Saturday, 29 June 2013

How to Dumb Britain Down by 2020

Our Glorious Financial Leaders

So this week Danny Alexander, the Scottish comprehensive school boy whose Oxford University fees were paid by British workers, tells us that student loans are to be privatized. The precious responsibility for upfront financing of students in higher education is to be handed over to ruthless profiteers. Nobody whose parents or personal trust fund can’t foot their university bill is likely to find mortgaging the remainder of their working lives to virtually unregulated moneylenders a reasonable price for a degree. 

H. Briggs, 'The Ancient Britons Instructed by the Romans'
As a nation we have forgotten that an educated populace is an inherent good. Until well into the Renaissance the inhabitants of what are now called the British Isles were regarded as the backward primitives of Europe on the periphery of the civilized world, as in this picture I discovered on the same day the loan shark book news broke. Plus ├ža change.

We have forgotten that humans can use their brains to organize activities, including education, without letting the financial market dictate all. I am astounded at our collective passivity as the vampire of capitalism advances into areas of society where it has no business intruding. Unless we do something I predict that within the next fifteen years fees will be introduced for education of 16 to 18-year-olds.

My incomprehension of the prevalent apathy amongst my colleagues set in on 9th December 2010, when hardly anyone in Classics nationally registered the symbolic importance of the abolition of state contributions to most university fees. They certainly did not come to join the nation's students outside Parliament. Of my own then colleagues at Royal Holloway, only one came along, the others saying that they could not shift the date of their Christmas dinner (some later admitted they had been deluded). But from Oxford there did come the indefatigable Tim Whitmarsh,  who has organized the petition against the loans policy you can sign here.  

That freezing day very nearly proved that people power can stop retrograde legislation: the policy was approved by 21 votes, after five hours’ debate during which we were charged by police horses outside Parliament. But during that five hours, the majority decreased by nearly seventy-five per cent. With a few more establishment figures joining the protest, we might have succeeded in keeping that small collective public stake in our nation’s universities.
My current research investigates the ways in which poor Britons in the long 19th century managed to get themselves some education despite every single obstacle the ruling classes placed in their paths. This week I read the inspiring story of John Relly Beard, author of numerous books to enable working people to study the languages and culture of Greece, Rome and England, including Latin Made Easy (1848) and Cassell’s Lessons in Greek…Intended Especially for those who are Desirous of Learning Greek without the Assistance of a Master. He was adamant that that his purpose was ‘to simplify’ study ‘so as to throw open to all who are earnest in the great work of self-culture.’

Yet for all the impoverished Victorians who managed to teach themselves, the doors of the universities remained firmly closed to them. They are about to slam shut again. In the same year as Beard wrote those inspiring words, an education-starved Chartist addressed a rich Cambridge undergraduate: ‘The real reason for our exclusion is because we are poor—because we cannot pay your exorbitant fees...because, by your own unblushing confession, it insures the University of “the support of the aristocracy”' (in Alton Locke by Charles Kingsley, 1850).  

Education has been before where incompetent leaders want us to go again. Let’s not let them win!


  1. My eldest daughter has just graduated - with £35,000 of debt. My 3 other daughters aspire to go to university- I wonder if they will go. Perhaps the government aspires to creating a class of helots controlled by a small educated 'elite'.

    1. I fear that is exactly what the current government wants. Most young teens I know through my own children are deeply put off the idea of uni.

  2. Why is it that universities are full of academics who have first-hand experience of the true value of a university education, yet cannot commit to actively preserving it as a public institution, open and accessible to all? 'Widening Participation' is just a smoke screen when behind the scene government and management policy is moving in the direction of marketisation and privatisation; in effect treating education as a tradable commodity.