Still sing the songs of protest

Attempts to crush dissent, silence alternative thinking and promote conformity jeopardise higher education’s future

March 21, 2013

Martin McQuillan cites a revealing statistic in his analysis of the judicial response to the student protests against higher tuition fees that swept through London two years ago: of the 15 students who pleaded not guilty to violent misconduct, 14 have subsequently been acquitted.

For McQuillan, dean of arts and social sciences at Kingston University, this highlights a disproportionate response by both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, a level of excess that goes beyond mere heavy- handedness and enters the realm of persecution.

At the very least, the figures suggest that the CPS royally messed up its assessment of whether or not there was a realistic prospect of conviction in many of the cases.

But is it more than that? It would be fanciful to suggest any formal collusion between the police, the CPS and the policymakers who introduced higher fees with a view to stamping out dissent and terrifying others into compliance.

In times of change, voices of protest from those willing to stand up for the fundamentals are more crucial than ever

However, McQuillan argues in his feature this week that the severity of the response should sound the alarm about a general desire to crush the spirit of those willing to take a stand against policies with which they fundamentally disagree. If he is right, then what do those who would expunge protest want in its place? Passive consumerism?

That might be convenient for those in power but it would be potentially disastrous for society, the academy and the well-being of the country as a whole.

The idea of education for business’ sake also crops up in our lead opinion this week.

Steve Sarson, senior lecturer in the department of history and classics at Swansea University, describes his own protest (albeit on a smaller scale) over a policy that replaced the academic work his students had signed up for with employability skills training: namely, how to write a CV.

Sarson is not against his students learning skills that will help them find jobs - what lecturer does not want their charges to go on to fruitful careers?

But he does question being asked to devote an entire seminar - one of 10 on his module teaching the nuts and bolts of history as an academic discipline - to a practical matter unrelated to his area of expertise and with no scholarly content.

As his piece in this week’s Times Higher Education details, he approached the matter constructively and his students rose to the challenge he set them. But it would probably have been easier to take the view that this was the way the wind was blowing and start to integrate something that belongs with the careers service into his academic programme.

If the attempt to insert CV writing into a history course hints at a shift to uncritical acquiescence with market values, to toeing the line regardless of whether it is right in an academic context, that’s a worry. And in times of change, when new pressures are being brought to bear on all those involved in delivering higher education, voices of protest from those willing to stand up for the fundamentals are more crucial than ever.

They aren’t always right, and some will turn out to be vexatious or pursuing warped agendas, but simply silencing them will put us on the road to ruin.

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