A symptomatic trial is underway in London this month. Alfie Meadows, a philosophy student who had to have brain surgery to save his life after he received severe head injuries, most likely from a police baton, during 2010’s massive student protests in the capital, is the one facing charges of “violent disorder.” The investigation of the role of the police in the incident that led to Alfie’s head injury has yet to be completed. It is, however, widely known that the use of disproportionate force as well as legally questionable tactics such as “kettling” (cordoning off protesters for hours without access to food, water, or toilets) has become widespread in the British state’s response to perfectly legal protests and democratic assertions of collective displeasure. Police were also filmed pulling activist Jody McIntyre out of his wheelchair after he was “inadvertently” hit with a baton, an action later ruled “lawful,” given the “volatile and dangerous” situation. Some of Britain’s judiciary have also played a zealous role in what appears to be a concerted establishment attempt to discipline and punish young people: a Cambridge student, Charlie Gilmour, received a sixteen-month jail term for the crime of hanging off London’s war memorial, the Cenotaph, during the same demonstrations.
Meanwhile, even as they are experiencing a historic assault on their funding structures and raison d’être, universities—or, rather, university administrations, increasingly bastions of managerialist and corporatized bureaucracies disconnected from the majority academics and students—have cooperated in what can only be described as a crackdown on student protest and campus dissent more generally. Singling out individuals for punishment, handing out large fines, and even expelling students have become disturbingly routine. A few weeks ago, a PhD student from my own department at Cambridge was “rusticated,” or suspended from his studies, for a staggering two and a half years (effectively aimed at bringing an end to his career). His crime? Participating in a “people’s mic” in which more than fifty students and faculty chanted a denunciation of government higher education policy in the presence of the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, which effectively led to Willetts canceling his planned set-piece speech.
A key figure in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that now runs Britain without a clear mandate, Willetts, of course, has presided over a singularly effective demolition of the renowned British public university. As Howard Hotson pointed out some months ago in the London Review of Books, Britain had managed to develop a world-class system of publicly funded universities with a relatively small portion of its GDP, maintaining “top-ranked universities for only about a fifth of the US price.” Not only have tuition fees been tripled, ensuring the further exclusion of most working-class youth and adult learners (or mature students, as they are known here), but arts and humanities teaching budgets have been almost entirely demolished, with more cuts promised in the near future. As other commentators have observed, the near-overnight demolition is as much ideological as financial, devastating though the consequences of the latter have been in practical terms. What universities should teach and to what end was explicitly and instrumentally linked, in the now-notorious Browne report (2010) on higher education funding, to the needs of “business and industry,” with special protection accorded to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (although here, too, presumably, the emphasis would be less on pure research than industrial applications).
Although unhappiness has been voiced widely in the secure confines of common rooms, seminar halls, and journals, and despite the brave attempts of several small groups, academics have not, on the whole, mounted strong collective resistance to these profound transformations in how higher education is envisioned and delivered. The University and College Union (UCU) has attempted symbolic strike action and working to contract, but its leadership remains largely quiescent and ineffective, hampered in part by its links to the Labour Party, which, sitting in opposition, has yet to spearhead effective resistance to wide-ranging “austerity” measures and an openly pro-corporate agenda that has simultaneously decimated public services and reduced the tax burden on the wealthiest.
In the Against the Day section of the current issue of SAQ, five academics from a range of British universities—Nina Power from Roehampton University, a “post-1992” university now in the front line of decimation; Gurminder Bhambra and John Holmwood from Warwick and Nottingham Universities, respectively; and Simon Jarvis and myself from Cambridge—reflect on the origins and implications of the present crisis, one for which neither academic essays nor conference presentations will in themselves suffice as a response. The questions posed by the essays are urgent; the answers must be found collectively and imminently.
Read Gopal's article, "How Universities Die," for free here.