Defeated by violence and silence

Why has resistance to the government's plans for universities failed? Alastair Hudson decries the state's success in painting legitimate protest as riot

January 20, 2011

Our universities are facing unprecedented public funding cuts, and yet there has been little defence of the sector in the public debate. The only meaningful resistance to the withdrawal of public funding for teaching has come from students. Yet the state has succeeded in marginalising these students by staging police actions that have transformed questions about higher education policy into questions about public order. Consequently, the protesters have been portrayed as anarchists.

Resistance is failing for two reasons. First, the supine failure of Universities UK to represent the sector in any meaningful way. Second, the success of the state in detaining student marchers unlawfully - by allowing the police to use the tactic of "kettling" to control crowds - while at the same time painting them as unprincipled anarchists, thus obscuring the point of their protests.

In a stroke that would have made Derren Brown proud, there has been a simple misdirection that has turned a debate about university financing into a debate about public order. The kettle on 9 December, in which I found myself, was an exercise in state violence against teenage sixth-form and university students voicing genuinely held concern about their futures and the futures of others. This violence gave the coalition government the pretext to duck a detailed debate in the mainstream media about the effect of its ideologically motivated proposals on the future of university education.

In considering how the government was allowed almost free rein to impose its plans, let us begin with the response of UUK and the vice-chancellors and principals of our universities. It has oscillated between two poles. At one end there has been a compliant silence with the government's proposals to terminate the teaching grant to universities and to slash the research budget. At the other end there have been vice-chancellors who have expressed sanguine support for the cuts in the media.

I am sure that I am not alone in having listened in mounting irritation as one vice-chancellor after another appeared on Radio 4's Today programme to voice their lack of real concern about the impending disembowelling of our universities.

The reason for the silence is simple. Many institutions have replaced their vice-chancellors in recent years, and a large number of universities have vacancies at the v-c and upper management levels. The turnover has been caused by leaders who headed for the exit rather than preside over the dismemberment of their institutions. Therefore, the new heads take their posts in full knowledge of the retrenchment that lies ahead. They must relish the challenge or at least buy into the need for cuts. Thus it is unsurprising that they have not denounced the cuts.

In recent months, a number of academic leaders have posited all sorts of dystopian visions for universities. Some have suggested farming out the first two years of undergraduate teaching, leaving them simply to garland their students with the benefits of their university's research expertise in the final year. Such a notion assumes that universities could stop teaching and rely on research income instead. There have also been suggestions that universities outside the elite should not receive research funding so as to concentrate the cash on centres of excellence.

These models for reorganising departments on the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS) side are clearly unsustainable in a post-Browne world. When the vast majority of research funding goes to science and technology departments, the future of AHSS departments will depend on putting teaching back at the heart of our activities, on promoting staff on the basis of their teaching and on improving the student experience.

If the only income that can be relied upon is tuition-fee income from undergraduates, teaching and learning will have to return to the centre of university strategy. Reducing funding for AHSS research or concentrating it on a handful of institutions would mean great upheaval in most universities. Such a move would require a culture change in institutions that use non-permanent staff and PhD students to shoulder the burden of teaching so that permanent staff may undertake research or administrative tasks.

In light of the impending cuts, it is difficult to see why we continue to devote so much effort to research excellence framework planning on the AHSS side. If research will not generate income, the time allotted to it should be reallocated to other activities. I am as committed as anyone to researching and interacting with the outside world, but I know that I cannot expect to do it instead of teaching. Especially now.

So what has been the response from the universities to these sweeping changes? Nothing really. Most academics on the front line are digging themselves in for the duration or fretting over rumours of redundancies among teaching staff who cannot deliver both more teaching and 4*-level research outputs. Many are considering careers elsewhere.

The only substantive response to the government proposals (principally to raising the cap on tuition fees) has come from students and the few academics who have joined their protests.

The protesters are primarily highly motivated, intelligent and passionate university and college students. To silence them as a force, they had to be painted as violent anarchists. If resistance to government policy could be passed off in the media as riot, disorder would become the dominant discourse in the public arena. Achieving this has meant that the coalition government has not had to work hard to make its arguments. For example, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has been able to avoid explaining just how the proposition that removing teaching funding from the AHSS sector and the proposition that no preference is being shown to the sciences can logically coexist in the same universe.

To see just how legitimate protest was rebranded as lawlessness, let us turn to the kettle on 9 December in Parliament Square. Demonstrators lost control of the news cycle and failed to convey their message for two reasons. First, the bulk of the images of the event were taken from helicopters; viewing these images of fires in the square with voice-overs or captions stressing violence and disorder, the immediate perception of the event was as a riot, not as a protest by young people.

Second, photojournalists inside the cordon were focused on getting pictures of riot and disorder, and journalist bloggers outside the cordon recorded only the early events of that night. Therefore, the initial presentation of the event was of chaotic lawlessness. Meanwhile, the vote in the House of Commons was barely mentioned and the underlying issues not discussed meaningfully at all.

How different it was from my experience. It was a good-natured crowd that I encountered. Because of a delayed train, I arrived at Charing Cross station later than I had hoped and had a ragged notion that I would join the tail end of the march to add my body to the protest. Having asked a police officer if I could proceed and been ignored, I walked down Whitehall among a perfectly relaxed crowd.

The march was hugely good humoured. In Parliament Square, which I reached just after 3pm, there was a party going on. People danced around a group of drummers; everyone else was floating around talking. About 15 minutes later, as I was heading off to the Tube, there was a sudden surge of people down Whitehall into the square and then, as I turned back across Parliament Square, another wave of people from Victoria Street.

There was no announcement, no warning, no call for the crowd to disperse - nothing of the sort. Just a sudden awareness that no one could leave. It was with a sick feeling in my stomach that I realised that the police, in full riot gear, had closed off every exit from Parliament Square by 3.30pm.

It was not at all clear what was about to happen. The action was intended to be threatening. The police trapped people who were on their way home from work, mothers with small children, tourists who were admiring Westminster Abbey and others - as well as the very middle-class students who had come to add their voices to a peaceful protest and who now wanted to go home. Many of them were frightened 16- and 17-year-olds huddled in small, frozen groups, astonished by the indifference of the many riot police who would not even shift their balaclavas when refusing the students' pleas to be allowed to go home. For hours we were fed misinformation about where we could find an exit. In time, we realised that we were just being sent in clockwise circles around the square.

The sight from inside the kettle was of a cordon of riot police several deep. The officers in Parliament Square were wearing black full-body armour, riot helmets with visors down and balaclavas that covered their faces except for their eyes. They were also toting batons and riot shields. The most disturbing sight was the eye slits in the balaclavas. The eyes were the only human body part on show. And because the officers themselves were no doubt nervous or hyped up, those eyes swivelled from side to side or stared at you silently. The impression was of a predatory animal considering whether or not to spring.

The aim of such kettles is to cow a crowd. No one among the corralled could doubt that senseless intimidation was the purpose of this "police" action.

Of course, it was not a "police" action. The police stop crime and arrest criminals. In the modern argot, they serve the community. This paramilitary activity, with anonymous personnel dressed in paramilitary clothing and using paramilitary tactics, was intended to foment disorder so as to create a story that resistance to the state's university policy was based on violence rather than legitimate protest.

The word "kettle" is so revealing that I am astonished that the police use it. It derives from the German word "kessel" - literally "cauldron" - to describe an encircled army facing annihilation. The purpose of a crowd kettle is to raise the temperature in an enclosed space until there is an explosion of energy in the form of public disorder. It aims to foment fear and incite law-breaking. If violence breaks out, the police do not stop it. Few people are arrested. Officers seek to hold their lines and to maintain the kettle.

All the acts of criminal damage, riot, arson and several petty offences that I personally witnessed were committed hours after the kettle was imposed. And yet police officers did nothing to stop them or to arrest the culprits.

Let me give you some examples from that night, based on the fate of the Supreme Court building, which demonstrate that this was a paramilitary action and not a police action. As a law academic, it was perhaps something in my subconscious that made me seek refuge in the doorway of the new Supreme Court on the quiet side of Parliament Square. It had already been occupied by photojournalists. When a dramatic fire was lit, they all leaped to their feet. "Look! There's trouble!" one yelled with barely concealed glee.

I left that doorway after a while because I needed to keep walking to stay warm in the intense cold. After about three or four hours of being corralled in that freezing square by several walls of paramilitary police officers, it was with a profound queasiness that I saw that the Supreme Court had literally become a toilet. It seemed to have become a metaphor for the human rights abuses that were going on around me.

A couple of hours later, I saw a skinny young man in a balaclava repeatedly hurl chunks of concrete at the windows of the building as two cordons of riot police watched in silence. I searched the recesses of my memory for the names of the common law cases that compelled police officers to intervene if they saw a crime being committed. But these were not police officers. This was not a police action. They were not interested in stopping crime or in arresting its perpetrators, even when those offences were being committed within a few feet of them. Their purpose was to make a paramilitary show of force.

The kettle began a little before 3.30pm; I was finally let off Westminster Bridge at 11.30pm. This final exit from the bridge (again with no announcement or direction as to how we were to be permitted to leave) was in ones and twos. We were forced to walk through a tunnel formed by baton-wielding, shield-toting riot police. This gauntlet led us off the bridge, where we were photographed individually without our permission by two officers and then required to walk in the road to Waterloo station flanked by a wall of officers on the kerb. It was a massive and premeditated overreaction.

The news cycle was dominated by riot and "threats to the heir to the throne" (an unexpected windfall for the spin doctors).

So, what does this tell us about the debate over higher education? Well, it shows us that violence has been used by the state against the only people who have sought to protest seriously about the funding cuts and their effect on future generations of students.

Resistance to a programme of intellectual vandalism and the mindless transformation of higher education is being criminalised so that it cannot gain any traction in the political debate.

At a time when our economy is struggling to emerge from its over-reliance on the financial sector and the housing market, failure to ensure that the next generation is sufficiently well trained and well educated is suicidal. The previous government's goal of ensuring that half of all young people attend university has disappeared. All that is known for certain about the introduction of high tuition fees (perhaps up to £9,000 a year) is that they will dissuade potential students from low-participation groups and low-participation neighbourhoods from taking up a place at university. Those who would be the first in their immediate family to attend university are less likely to take that risk. Consequently, the transformative possibility of higher education will be denied to them.

To keep a population compliant in the face of the ideologically motivated dismembering of public services, that population must be kept in ignorance and starved of alternative sources of information. It is by dominating the public discourse of higher education funding with a narrative of criminal damage and riot that the people are being starved of alternative information. It is by ensuring that access to higher education will in future be restricted to those who can afford it that this government will undoubtedly go some way towards keeping the population in ignorance.

What has not been spoken about enough is the devastating effect this is having on the morale of university teachers. What hurts me most is watching colleagues who are excellent teachers and committed academics starting to take steps to leave the sector. Perhaps the most significant violence for such individuals is the destruction of our vocation as teachers in the public sector. Our choices are either simply to weep or to fight back.

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