Two years have passed since the government slashed government funding for universities by 80% and allowed them to charge up to £9000 fees to fill the gaps. £9000 fees are a reality – so there is no point in protesting, right? Wrong. Of course the student movement is still angry about fees, but this is now about so much more.
What we are seeing is a wholehearted shift in the way in which we see education in this country. Higher fees, cutting of university state funding and encouraging prospective students to see themselves as ‘consumers’ browsing the ‘education market’ for the ‘best value’ degree – these are all attempts to shift the idea of education as a right and a public good to a privilege, a private good. This has the potential to be hugely damaging for the country as a whole. At the very simplest level, we will always need doctors and lawyers; at the highest level, blue sky thinking and intellectual curiosity are things to be treasured. This isn’t an extreme proposal – just look North of the border or to Scandinavia, where providing public educational opportunities is seen as an upmost priority. We all benefit from the fruits of universities – and not just in economic terms. Cambridge has certainly shown that over the centuries. Education is and always should be regarded as a social good.
We all pride ourselves on Cambridge’s excellent and continuing access work. Due to CUSU’s campaign we still have our fantastic bursaries system in place, but let us think about postgraduate studies for a moment. With £9000 undergraduate fees, postgraduate course costs are almost certainly bound to go up. But with the incredible void in funding available – particularly for taught masters courses – who will be able to access this level of education? We need to be calling for a fair funding system for postgraduate study as a priority.
Let us not forget the Government’s recent abolition of international students’ automatic right to stay in the UK for two years after graduation, just one part of a dangerous agenda to discourage international students from coming to study in the UK. It is the exceptionally diverse, international, academic community which makes UK Universities – including Cambridge – world class, and we cannot let that be lost.
And lastly, what about the people who have not even had the chance to be where we are now? The young people who have lost their EMA, and have the prospect of more than £27,000 debt just to go to university. We are the lucky ones. The NUS #Demo2012 on the 21st November is about campaigning for an education system which will benefit future students, just as it has benefitted us.
We are protesting because we can see the public value of education to our country. We are campaigning because we value the space for diverse, academically-driven universities. We are marching because we care about future generations.
Rosalyn Old is President of Cambridge University Students’ Union
(Photo credit – Jess Touschek)