The twilight of the public university? Inside Exeter’s occupation

By John Heathershaw
December 9, 2010

I have just returned from a student occupation of one of the largest lecture theatres at the University of Exeter. A brave, passionate and critically engaged group of students have since Wednesday debated the reasons and consequences of the rise in tuition fees and cuts to the teaching grant.

They are people of faith and those without, socialists and liberals, activists and learners. They aspire to a society where personal wealth is not the ultimate objective and hold that the notion of public good is not some fanciful idea which is economically indefensible but is integral to keeping us all together as society.

In short, they are what university should be about: the free and open discussion of alternative ideas. It is these alternatives, be they scientific or cultural, political or economic that drive society forward. It is the inclusion of all of society – from rich to poor, from global to local – that provides this rich environment for the exchange of views of all kinds, from all corners.

Like Symon Hill, whose Ekklesia blog spoke of these matters recently (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13734), I come from a modest background and attended what Tony Blair would call a ‘bog standard comprehensive’. I would not have been able to afford university without accruing massive debts had it not been for the modest grants I received from my Local Education Authority in the 1990s. I went on to gain a PhD from the London School of Economics and am now a lecturer at Exeter in Politics, a subject no longer considered worthy of public funding.

I was not initially convinced that university was a good idea but my intellect and my aspirations were inspired by my time at university.

In these last few weeks I have wondered whether I would have gone at all had I been faced with the prospects of today’s Year 12 students: that is, 40,000 pounds of debt. However ‘progressive’ the system of repayment will be (and it is much less progressive than many have claimed) it is wholly unreasonable to saddle the poorer members of society with that kind of debt.

Moreover, the effect on universities of such a market driven system will be catastrophic. Uncertain funding based on the logics of supply and demand will see many departments and even universities go under. Perhaps more significantly, the quality and morale of staff will diminish as leading researchers leave for other countries such as the US, Canada and Australia where far greater amounts of public money are invested in universities.

Particularly badly hit will be the social sciences and humanities whose teaching grant has been removed in its entirety. There is no question that departments of classics, ancient history, anthropology, archaeology, language-based area studies and sociology will go under as students increasingly opt for trainings (Law, Business Studies) which are deemed to better prepare them for the job market.

In the several hours that I have spent with these students during preparation, marches and the occupation we have discussed many alternatives which are not being addressed by the Government and by many Vice-Chancellors.

Here are five of the alternatives discussed by students and staff at the Exeter occupation.

1. Identify the real cause of the problem: the unmitigated flow of capital and accumulation of personal debt. The debate on university funding has been stifled by the fact that the two leading parties were both committed to massive cuts across the board whilst the third has jumped into bed with the most draconian of the parties. For the coalition, it is Labour’s spending that has got us into this mess.

That is a half-truth and forgets that the real cause is the crisis of global capitalism. Absurd trading in derivatives and ridiculous house prices fuelled by cheap mortgages available (particularly to investors) were the cause of the problem. How can more debt be the way forward for students?

2. Raise taxes for those that can afford it. The coalition’s 20:80 split between tax increases and spending cuts leaves the wealthy with their ill-gotten gains from 35 years where inequality has risen dramatically. Labour’s proposed 40:60 balance isn’t much better.

Public money saved the banks and the savings of the wealthier members of society. We want our money back and progressive taxation is the way to get it. It is this kind of taxation and concomitant social spending that made our society livable and increasingly equitable from World War I until the 1980s.

3. Close tax loopholes. As students and staff demonstrated in Exeter on Wednesday 8 December 2010 we were not far from Topshop and other branches of the Philip Green Empire who have become notorious in the last week for dodging taxes in a perfectly legal way. In reality most big businesses do this and the government allows it. A group of students surrounded Exeter’s branch of Vodafone on Thursday evening in protest against the six billion pounds in taxes avoided by the company in the last fiscal year. This money would easily pay for universities without the rise in fees.

4. Put public money in different places. Over seventy billion pounds is to be spent on replacing Trident as an ‘independent nuclear deterrent’. The problem is that it will not be meaningfully independent. Trident today relies on American satellites and communications networks for targeting and it is impossible to imagine us breaking with the US to use our weapons. WikiLeaks disclosures have revealed the UK’s obsequiousness with respect to the special relationship. What has the symbolic value of nuclear weapons done for our independent foreign policy?

A second example relates to public money spent on saving failed states. This was actually doubled to almost 4 billion in the Comprehensive Spending Review of October as Department for International Development money was protected from cuts. This seems like a good thing but has led to more development funding being directed to national security purposes.

But the problem is that the idea of the failed state is a misnomer and fundamentally misunderstands the social basis of political order. Are we putting billions into the war in Afghanistan, losing hundreds of troops and killing thousands of civilians on the basis of a false premise?

When we fund security and statebuilding, it is now clear that lots of money goes to private security companies which pay Afghan contractors who pay the Taliban. Would we prefer to fund the Taliban or the Classics?

Ironically it is the study of the kind of subjects which are now deemed of no public value that raises these uncomfortable questions for the government.

5. The value of public goods must be defended. However much they deny it, this government is driven by an ideological claim that private needs and wants are better than public goods. The state will be pared down to provide what the private sector cannot. All else will succumb to the discipline of the market.

This is a particular view of society. It forgets our history and fails to recognise that those things that have improved living conditions have tended to come through public funding. It is public universities that produce inventions, state schools that inspire the disadvantaged, welfare that reduces inequality and the NHS that makes Britain one of the most equal societies in the world in terms of healthcare.

Clegg and Cameron’s vocal defence of the progressiveness of the reforms can only arise from the relative privilege of their backgrounds. They have probably never had to worry about debt nor have been brought to see it as a danger and a wrong. They believe in the market because they have never suffered at its invisible hand.

But the Liberal Democrats, and in particular their leader, will go down in history as the principal culprits. It is they that had the votes to defeat this. I speak as a former supporter and former member of the Liberal Democrat Christian Fellowship when I say that they have wholly sold out.

Because of these changes universities will become less universal – that is open to all ideas and all people. They will now be ever more exclusive and market-driven whilst topics of research and education not deemed economically worthwhile will gradually disappear from more and more universities.

I hope that some of my future students at Exeter will come from disadvantaged backgrounds. I hope that they will explore alternative ideas in university like the students of occupations across the country have done. But I am disheartened and fear that both these things have been made much less likely by these reforms.

However reprehensible the violence of 9 December, this was prosecuted by a small minority and is a distraction from the real issues of long-term structural violence prosecuted against the young by making higher education even less accessible to them.

Exeter’s occupation is inspiring and I am sure it will not be the last such event given the destruction being wrought on British society by the public spending cuts.

But it is difficult not to conclude that university occupations across the land take place in the twilight of the public university.

In reality, we have been less public and less universal for years. The 9 December 2010 vote in parliament is one more nail in the coffin of both the idea and practice of the university as a public good.


© John Heathershaw is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Exeter. His most recent book is Post-conflict Tajikistan: the politics of peacebuilding and the emergence of legitimate order (London: Routledge, 2009).

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