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Home » headline, Tell me why...

Why I stood up for the students today…

Submitted by on November 30, 2010 – 9:44 pm21 Comments
photo by @luluartist

photo by @luluartist

Today twitter enabled me to time travel to be in several places at once. As i sat on my sofa i was also on the march in Leeds with @luluartist & @ebsnare and i was running down the streets of London with @PennyRed and hundreds of students…and when i did get off my arse to go in the freezing cold with @emmabob3 to Bradford to the demo twitter came with me.  None of these events today have been covered by our local or national press in anything but a fleeting fashion but on twitter the news, the images, the video spread.

But i am still puzzled by something.. I am surrounded by people who have multiple degrees that they didn’t pay a penny for but they are quiet, they didn’t join the young people on the streets today and very few of them shouted their support on twitter or other social sites.
Why is that? Why have the people who regularly fill my stream kept quiet? Why are organisations full of graduates (especially arts graduates) not putting out statements of support for education funding?

It dawned on me the other week that my sister and i are the very first generation in our family to have gone to university. We both received maintenance grants, my sister is older than me and she could even claim housing benefit and sign on in the holidays!  By the time i came to university 8 years later, there was still a maintenance grant (just) and student loans were just being introduced, there were no course fees.

I left university with debts of about £2700. I finally paid off the last instalment of my student loan about 6 months ago, 15 years after i graduated. Had my sister and i faced fees for our education of the magnitude that todays young people are facing i can honestly say i don’t think we would have been that first generation.

So when i hear that future students will be leaving with debts of £30k i wonder how on earth they will cope financially and i wonder how many families will stop encouraging their children into higher education.

Education benefits everyone full stop which is why i stood in the freezing cold today in centenary square with about 70 other people shouting “No ifs no buts no education cuts”.

No i didn’t find it easy or a natural thing to do, i’m not half as courageous as the women mentioned above but it was the right thing to do and if i can do it so can you.

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  • Nick Copland says:

    I followed and RT’d for a few hours this afternoon too… I felt nothing but absolute admiration for these very brave young people. Most of them will not bear the brunt of this unhealthy change – but are willing to run the risk of cold, violence, discomfort and vilification for something they believe in. Despite being a student when Major was in Govt, I never had to fight for my right to education. Hats off to you all… these hollow fools who pretend to lead us should be utterly ashamed of themselves…

  • B Moore says:

    I have a thirteen year old son. He EXPECTS to go to university. He changes his mind frequently about what he might want to study, but there’s no question in his mind that this will be what he does. And until now, there’s never been any question in my mind that he’ll have that opportunity. But now I’m really frightened, more frightened than I’ve ever been for his future, that higher education will not be an option. The £30K debt is the least of his worries. Having worked for pittance in the Voluntary sector for 25 years, I have no savings, no large house to downsize from, no college fund, and significant debts myself: I will not be able to pay for fees.

    In 1930, my grandfather was remarkable in being a working class lad who made it to university. He won a scholarship to grammar school, and got a bursary to go to Oxford (where he was tormented and ostracised because of his background). He went on to spend the rest of his 96 years campaigning for justice and equality and rights for ordinary people. He will be turning in his grave now to know that after all the battles he helped fight, and all the rights he saw won, his great-grandchildren may have less rights and opportunities for education than his own generation. However he would also say that no change for the good ever came from government – it has always been down to the people taking to the streets. He would be very very proud of the students who have been out today, as am I, as should all of us be who have hopes for our children’s future.

    The draconian changes in higher education, though, are not the only way this government is going to take a hatchet to our welfare state. They are turning back the clock to the 30′s in more ways than one. We all have to get onto the streets, and prevent cuts to services, that, when it comes down to the most vulnerable, are going to cost lives.

  • Like B Moore I also fear that I’ll be unable to afford to help my three daughters should they choose to go to university – and one of them wants to be a doctor!

    I graduated in 1971. Looking back, was my degree worth a notional debt of £30,000 or more? Definitely not. The whole HE system is now totally unfit for purpose. For what it’s worth, I think two fundamental changes need to be made.

    First, the drive to funnel more and more 18-year olds into universities has to stop. It’s unrealistic. There have to be other, cheaper and more flexible options to enable people to get useful qualifications. After all, in most cases all a degree does is enable you to get a first job. Thereafter, it becomes increasingly irrelevant. That isn’t worth a huge debt.

    Second, costs and waste have to be stripped out of HE, reflecting what happens routinely in industry. For example, I can see why it should take three years for an engineering degree, but three years for a BA in English? Get real! Change the award structure to accommodate degree courses of two years or even one year. Look at more distance learning, or part-time courses spread over several years, or modular learning. Expand the excellent Open University. Let’s abandon this outmoded and expensive one size fits all system.

    Overall, the coalition’s current policies are wrong – but there have to be viable alternatives on the table, or the current protest risks being written off as just noise. Universities have to play their part by looking critically at what they do, and making radical changes to their own practices. At the moment I don’t see them doing that with any rigour. In the meantime, many young people and their parents are just victims in the middle.

    • Boff says:

      Just reacting to the line “I can see why it should take three years for an engineering degree, but three years for a BA in English? Get real!”
      Blimey where do I start? Classic conservative (small ‘c’) reasoning, let’s cut the arts and encourage the real work, blah blah blah. For the record I haven’t got a degree in anything. But travelling round the world I’m so aware of how important, how indispensable and how much of a flagship British culture is. The last three or four governments, bit by bit, have eroded our culture and capitulated to US cultural hegemony, for the sake of saving some cash – forget English degrees, let’s dumb down and watch X Factor, hey at least the sets are well-built.
      The arts, our literature and music and language and the rest, are as important as our engineering, our sciences, etc. Let’s not start narrowing this awful cuts cuts cuts culture into a fight amongst ourselves – “Oh well if we have to have cuts then let’s lop it off the bookworms”.
      No cuts in engineering, no cuts in English, let’s have cuts at the top, at management level, we all know too well that’s where the money’s going.

      • I’m not saying ‘Let’s abolish all arts degrees’ or I’d never have got to university. I’m saying, let’s use our educational resources more proportionately. I’d argue that science and technology actually do matter more than the arts because of the levels of skill and responsibility demanded. Arts degrees make less of a social contribution and most could be completed to the required standard in less time.

        The arts are supposed to encourage bold, creative thought, so it’s ironic that their supporters tend to be so defensive and conservative (that word again) when asked to think the unthinkable and accept sacrifices alongside everyone else.

        And ‘cuts at the top, at management level’, while much to be desired and probably destined to happen, won’t produce anything like the savings required.

        I don’t like educational cuts as my daughters will suffer from them. But as I said originally, there has to be a viable alternative on offer. Anger and resentment is not, on its own, an alternative.

    • Lucy Bannister says:

      I just wanted to say in reply to your comments about viable alternatives, these conversations are happening but the timescale imposed by the government isn’t allowing the luxury of being able to formulate anything other than direct opposition just now. The vote in parliament on the proposal has been brought forward to 9th December (next week) so there needs to be a big push to stop the tuition fee proposals being voted through. Once that has been achieved there should be proper consideration applied to planning the future of schools, colleges and universities that ensues education remains open to all and doesn’t become an expensive commodity that will saddle the next generation with unimaginable levels of debt.

    • Amy Shephard says:

      Wow, I must say I am not much of a blogger but have really enjoyed reading these thought provoking comments!

      I am lucky enough to be a graduate because my Mum seems to believe that a degree means you can do anything…unfortunately I don’t quite agree. I can honestly say that I learnt so much during my 3 year Communications and Sociology degree at Leeds Uni and wouldn’t be the adult I am if I had simply stayed at home.

      However, I never considered the cost of Uni. My parents aren’t wealthy, their financial situation is similar to Rebecca’s, but they supported my tremendously because I only qualified for the minimum loan. Therefore, I feel like I owe them something, to be a self sufficient adult with a good job! This isn’t really something my degree has really contributed much too…

      I work in customer service for a well known telecoms company. I enjoy my job most days but I am surrounded by young adults who lack the basics in spelling, grammar and people skills. While I am confident my time at Uni helped my develop these skills, I do look back on my time at Uni and with hindsight wish I’d studied something that led to a real career but still afforded me the opportunities to grow into an educated adult.

      I’m not saying that some subjects are more worthy than others, I studied history at AS-level, a subject my husband sees as pointless while I completely disagree. Our history, culture and those of others are hugely important and I agree with Rebecca that educated individuals probably do cost the tax payer less in the long run…quite a dilemma!

      Maybe as a society we need to decide what we want our young people to get out of higher education. For those who don’t come from wealthy backgrounds surely a degree is about bettering yourself and the ability to earn a decent living? Especially when you’re so conscious about the costs involved.

      Maybe the answer is studying more of a mix of subjects e.g. more elective modules with more flexibility that will allow students to find a subject they really enjoy, that will benefit them in a career whilst still gaining the necessary transferable skills? After all, I chose my subjects because I excelled at them at A-Level but to be honest I don’t think I really thought much about the future and I wish I had known then what I know now…life after Uni is difficult and not just because of the debt but with rising costs of living I am overwhelmed by the feeling that it HAS to be worth it. I don’t just mean the ability to gain a high paid job but to do something you really find rewarding with your life. It’s a real shame that I know so many graduates in jobs they had to take to pay the rent, not because they enjoy them or earn a decent wage.

      I just don’t see how we can sustain a higher education system that doesn’t help our young people into rewarding careers (not just high paid ones!) We can’t ignore the fact that universities cost money to run. I feel strongly that opportunity to go to university is hugely important but I think the whole system and the institutions involved could do with a revamp so everyone has a fair chance to obtain a degree, grow up into a respectable adult and have a bright future…I’m sure increasing the fees isn’t the answer to this…

  • I very much doubt I would have enjoyed a degree, given my background, growing up in Thatcher’s years, with a mum who took 4 jobs rather than take state benefit. Lord only knows how I ended up taking a ‘Micky Mouse’ degree in History of Art, given the very little exposure I had in visiting galleries and museums.
    I sometimes wonder if I had my time again would I take the same degree or something more vocational, and the answer is No (to vocational). Because the stuff I learned was not really the stuff I was taught.
    I learned how to be critically engaged, to be resourceful,how to research, to motivate myself, to channel my inquisitive nature in a structured way, to get by with very little tuition (4 hours in the last year, 6 in the first 2)
    I learned that I was not intellectually clever, but I was smart, and my skills were ‘people’ skills. I learnt about making connections, connecting others, joining the dots.
    I learned that I had to work to support myself throughout university
    I certainly would not have seen those life skills as worth placing myself in debt for £30k or more for, even though I rate them pretty highly now.
    I most likely would not have the rich (as in experience, friendships, opportunities to appreciate the world) as I do now.

    I’m sad that our generation, have got ourselves into so much debt generally. Prior to university I kept a bank balance in the black. Once at Uni with the onset of loans, and easy credit, the amount I was in debt became irrelevant mentally, it was a drastic change in mindset. Live today, pay back at some time in the future. That has never shifted, and I wonder how many of my age group are the same? Once debt became a natural state of affairs, it became ever easier to keep borrowing against the future.

    When you are 19 you don’t think about the people who will pick up the tab, or at least I wasn’t thinking about them. Now our students, and my children are left to fight the battles that we we are too scared to fight ourselves. Or I speak for myself.

    In some ways we are all a bit complicit in this state of affairs. It’s those that have the most to lose that are fighting the larger ideological battle for our rather apathetic, debt ridden nation

  • Jane says:

    I think when i wrote this blog one of the other things that was really bothering me that i didnt manage to articulate very well was my shock at how the education cuts(and in fact most of the other cuts too) are being spun as “well if you go to university you will benefit and so you must pay for it” There is a shift away from working towards a better society and instead towards better individuals. I am not so interested in getting into discussions about arts vs science (for the record im a science graduate who now works in the arts and so i see the value of both) i am deeply disturbed by the subtle severing of the link between education and a better society. The natural progression of the argument “the individual that benefits from going to uni must pay for it” is that when i then need access to that individuals knowledge (eg if i need to go to the doctor) then i must buy access to that knowledge and here lies a very snowy slippy treacherous slope…

  • E B Snare says:

    It’s clear that there are various problems with the entire education system currently prevailing in the UK, especially in further and higher education and most importantly, in the way we view that education.

    I can only agree with Jane in the understanding that the anti education cuts movement (part of the larger anti-cuts movement) is about how we perceive education as a whole, and how it is perceived in contributing to society. Emphasising to students that they must pay, including cries of ‘getting value for money’, only reinforces the notion that progression and individual and societal development is inextricably linked with economic power. It will then eventually become a state of limited access to knowledge, either at the start or the end of the chain, which is only accessible through economic possession and power. Many students from 16 upwards, right through to post-graduate level, still have difficulties understanding how these cuts to education will affect them personally. My tutor once told me of a big job (can’t remember his name) who pointed out that we used to take political action knowing that it would stretch beyond our lifetime: now, that has disappeared, and we need to reclaim it.

    As Emma points out, some of the greatest things learnt in education are not what you are taught, but how you are encouraged to think. Possibly a cynic would argue this is exactly the reason why education is being hit so hard: because teaching people how to think is incredibly dangerous.

    I’ve read a lot (probably too much) information from articles and commenters on both sides of the cuts argument, as well as those from different factions within it. I would like to thank Jane for making a clear declaration of her support of what will soon become a larger, more widespread movement, and would encourage others to do the same. However, I would also like to encourage everyone involved with this debate (specifically those within the anti-cuts, anti-Tory ideology movement) to remember that divisions within are easily manipulated by those without. The left (and I mean this very broadly) has consistently struggled over the years with animating and uniting its multiple factions to form strong opposition. Now may be the time to do that. The issues and difficulties we are facing within educational institutions that need to be changed will be much easier to tackle when we have realised as a society how important education is, and how much value – intellectual, physical, emotional and moral – it really holds.

    • Steph says:

      You summed up my thoughts on this whole debate more articulately and accurately than I ever could, so thanks :)

      I just wanted to add a little extra something- I went to university not so I could “get a better job” or “develop a career” or “learn skills for the workplace”- I went purely out of a love for learning and a desire to experience not only the whole university life thing (and no, it is NOT all about sleeping in, watching Neighbours twice a day and drinking 238798 jagerbombs before ordering a greasy pizza to take to bed with you) but to learn about and appreciate different cultures. I chose Russian as my degree. So many people around me were like “Oh, good choice, languages will help so much in international business”…I must admit that was the last thought I had, I just wanted to study a language and culture that I found fascinating, to stand on Red Square in Moscow at midnight on New Years Eve, to be able to survive a 36 hour long train journey sharing a cabin with drunk Russians en route to a Soviet-like town in the Arctic Circle…

      …so I guess many people are reading this and thinking “well why should the government/tax payers support someone who just went to university to broaden life experience”?? Because like Emma, Elly and Jane said- education isn’t just about financial gain. I learned SHEDLOADS of stuff during my years at uni, not just academic skills (although I can write a mean literature essay!) but people skills, teamwork skills, leadership skills and most importantly, gained an awareness of so many different types of people and different cultures. Not everyone goes to university to earn money and therefore can’t just assume that the fees etc will be paid back once you start your super high paid executive job. To steal a well known slogan; education is a right and not a privilege. You want a better society? Nurture people to become individuals, to aim towards personal development, to (dare I say it) chase something that makes them happy, not something that makes them rich.

      I’m not sure how this little rant fits in with the whole fees debate…I think I’m just trying to say that money isn’t everything- people are encouraged to go to university to “better society”. In what way though?? Make the country more money? Don’t really care about that if I’m honest, we seem to have made a bit of a mess of the whole financial thing. Concentrate on bettering society in terms of making it fair, just, equal and diverse. Education helps with that.

      Oh and no, I don’t do anything with my Russian now. Not in terms of my day job anyway. Still passionate about the country and the language though. And I now work in the voluntary sector- about to start a new job working to help people achieve better health and wellbeing. I’d imagine if I started charging people for that(even if they didn’t have to pay it back until they were well!) there would be an outcry. Why is it so different with education?

  • Rebecca says:

    I have no degree, I’m not well educated and not particularly articulate so forgive me!

    My second son is in his A level year. He is a high flyer and will be the first in my side of the family to go to uni and will read economics. I am immensely proud. He is a natural mathematician and scientist and has never had reason to think he won’t be going to uni. He did the World Challenge this year in Peru and now wants a gap year. These are all experiences that make you a better person (in my opinion). First son hated school but stayed on in 6th Form because we made him and at 19 years old he will be the first to say that it changed him as a person and gave him skills he wouldn’t have got in the workplace; he can debate better, has better people skills, he had deadlines and therefore developed a work ethic, he can work in a team – the list goes on. My point is that the further you are educated the better skills you have.

    What I don’t understand, and nobody seems to be making much noise about, is that educated people cost the tax payer less and more often than not bring in more tax. Educated people are more healthy, less liable to commit crime and are potential higher earners. So why are we penalising them?

    My family will be in the middle. We are middle class. We aren’t the super rich who won’t notice and we wouldn’t be eligible for help so we will either saddle our child with £30k debt before he even begins working and let him pay it off until he’s 45 or we’ll find some way of helping out but how? Who has that kind of cash sloshing about? Your children are your life and you do what you can for them, I won’t be asking him not to have his gap year as I’d like him to grasp every opportunity available to enrich him as a person.

    So, thank god for our protesting students, I’m immensely proud of them and I’m sick and tired of sitting on my middle class arse and taking everything thrown at us. I wasn’t on the march, I too followed it on twitter, but what I’ll be doing is taking some food down to the sit in this weekend and thanking them very much for standing up for our family.

    • Jane says:

      Rebecca i have to disagree with you – i think you are brilliantly articulate.

      I’ve just heard that MPs are voting on the 9th on the issue of raising the cap on fees. So we have a small window to write to our MPs and ask them to vote against it. Pens out everybody….

  • Rebecca says:

    Very kind of you Jane, thank you!

    Find your mp here:

  • B Moore says:

    Doctors, solicitors, engineers, artists, teachers, nurses, youth workers, writers, TV producers, community workers, social workers, journalists, childcare workers, midwives, health vistors, social services staff, sports physios…. all did a degree/diploma. Which of them were the only ones to benefit from their education? Higher education benefits the whole of our society, lets damn well pay for it. There are many ways of dealing with this country’s budget deficit, cuts to the welfare state and the education system are inevitable not of a recession and credit crisis but of a government who’s doctrine is small state and sod the poor.

  • Jon Beech says:

    If the principle is that people who are statistically more likely to earn more money should contribute in proportion to this potential, then we should still use parental income as the primary predictor, not educational qualification.

    Some people will tell you that the best predictor of earnings is IQ (*

    If ever you doubt the agenda of the pro-IQ brigade look at who is favoured by IQ tests: they have in effect have become Just-So stories for those who find themselves at the top of the socio-economic heap.

    Burying poor people in endless debt is not empowering. It’s bonded labour for those who want a better life.

    Debt will continue to impact on educated women disproportionately than educated men:

    “Compared with a white British Christian man with similar qualifications, age and occupation, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim men and Black African Christian men have an income that is 13-21% lower”

    Only 59% of disable people with an HE qualification are in employment, compared with 89% of non-disabled people

    So what do you think? In terms of risk assessment, educating women, BME men and disabled people are all sub-prime loan candidates.

    Perhaps, if they are daft enough to try and get educated “we” should stop them for their own good. The odds are stacked against them from the start. The ruthless logic of the market is surely to exclude those who cannot pay for themselves, or who will end up as bad debtors.

    So – the students are right to protest. Education is the biggest leg-up we can give to people born in tough circumstances. And shackling learning to earnings is unequal and unfair, and turns the ladder of learning into a precarious set of stilts. I am glad they are out there. I just wish they were a little more, er, learned in their discourse. Whatever happened to furious citation and statistical juggernauts as the mode of student politics?

    *nerdy footnote: IQ is an interesting field if you ever dig into it: it fetches up delightful stories such as Cyril Burt’s mendacity ( and the scientific racism of the Bell Curve hypothesis (

  • Maria @BloodyNoraDJ says:

    One of the things that has been bugging me about all of this is the common assumption that people only do degrees in order to then get a job. Education is about so much more than earning a living. We don’t contribute to society via our work alone.

    I went through the 11+ system and failed mine. I had to fight for the opportunity to do ‘O’ Levels (GCSES to you younger folk), as our school only offered CSEs -we were literally written off aged 11. I was the first person in my family to do ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, never mind a degree. My education helped me grow as a person, it wasn’t just about getting a job. I don’t earn loads, but I am a bloody good citizen, and I’d much rather my tax contributed to someone else’s education than many of the things it is actually used for.

    And now I face the fight all over again, this time as a parent who wants her son to have the opportunity to explore HE. I absolutely back the students, and the young people campaigning about EMA. Education should be a right, not a priveledge.

  • Maria @BloodyNoraDJ says:

    Privilege, soz. Didn’t think it looked right. Fuck it, scrap education!

  • Phil Ruse says:

    Whilst I agree education benefits everyone, it’s difficult to ignore the likelihood that it benefits the recipient of that education the most in the form of a higher salary. Graduates of the past were very fortunate to live in a time when their education was paid for through general taxation and therefore by people who were generally less well off than themselves.

    • Phil, that argument really baffles me. Is there not a worldwide understanding that having an educated populace leads to economic and social prosperity? Otherwise why would so called ‘developing countries’ be judged on their litteracy rates?

      Scraping the EMA will leave many young people unable to afford to stay on at school to do A-Levels. At the current time jobs are scarce and everyone is fighting for them – do you think someone with few qualifications has much chance of getting a job or just ending up on a cycle of worklessness? This then of course means they are claiming benefits, at a cost to the taxpayer.

      Additionally tax is paid as a percentage of income, so a higher earner pays more tax. Ergo graduates (if the high earnings argument is correct) input more back into the public purse.

      Finally, yes perhaps those who don’t go to university will, somehow have supported someone like me who has (in the same way I support the health care of people with health conditions I hope I will never have). But if we start breaking our society down like this it will fall apart completely. We all benefit from the skills people acquire at university, whether we go ourselves or not. It should not therefore become necessary for a nurse to have milestone of debt in order to gain the qualification she needs to treat you when you are ill.

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