Willetts' intention had been to pop in on his way to Question Time in Kings Lynn and use the platform (provided to him by the Philosophy and Politics departments as part of a public lecture series) in order to announce changes to the governments ‘industrial policy’. However Willetts didn’t receive the warm welcome he may have hoped for and was instead met with protest, resentment and anger.
Over 60 students, academics and members of the public held a demonstration outside the lecture theatre prior to Willetts’s talk with most also going in to the event to make sure Willetts knew just how unpopular he is on university campuses. Despite being taken into the building via a back door to avoid the protesters, they made him aware of their presence as soon as he appeared on stage with a barrage of boos and jeers which continued intermittently throughout his talk. Willetts was seen to shake his head when the Chair mentioned in his introduction the Ministers private education, a fact I guess he would probably rather keep quiet at a time when he is responsible for ruining the prospects of an entire generation of state schooled kids.
Every question in the Q&A session bar one was a direct criticism of Willetts, his HE ‘reforms’ or the Coalition government. It was clear this was not what the minister or his advisers had expected and they appeared visibly irritated towards the end of the event. Originally the organisers of the event had agreed to let the protesters make a statement after Willetts had spoken. However this opportunity was withdrawn at the last minute due to pressure from the Ministers office which reportedly threatened to cancel the talk if the organisers did not withdraw the offer. Despite this attempt by Willetts’s advisers to avoid a potentially embarrassing situation we still managed to read the statement (which can be found at the end of this article) during the Q&A session.
One of the most poignant moments of the evening was when a first year undergraduate stood up and told Willetts how she, coming from a working class family, had seen first-hand the effects of the rise in tuition fees. Her family had seen their house repossessed and understandably were now acutely aware of the negative impact that debt can have. As a result her younger sister now felt unwilling to go to university for fear of amassing tens of thousands of pounds of debt. Willetts’s response was completely devoid of compassion and even lacked the respect to actually address the point the student had made. He explained in great detail how in fact the new student finance arrangements marginally reduced monthly payments but completely failed to address the issue of the psychological effect that debt can have on potential students.
Research has shown that debt aversion is higher amongst students from lower income households. Therefore any increase in the amount of debt a student has to take on in order to obtain a degree is going to disproportionately put off poorer students. I had the opportunity to meet briefly in private with the minister just before his talk and this was one of the points I put to him. He responded by saying that he actually agreed with this argument and that it was in part why the Conservative party had originally voted against the introduction of tuition fees by Labour. The blatant hypocrisy was startling, but nothing more than we have come to expect from a government that cuts from the poor to give to the rich at the same time as asserting ‘we’re all in this together’.
As soon as the Q&A session had drawn to an end a tired and weary Willetts scuttled off without even shaking the hands of the Chair or the lecturer who had responded to his talk. We showed Willetts and his fellow cabinet millionaires that they can’t come to our campuses and expect an easy ride. Our task as students is now to find again the anger, passion and momentum that characterised the movement around the time of the tuition fee vote. With two national demonstrations called later this year by the TUC and NUS we have a lot to do; now's the time to make it happen.
David Willetts is the Minister responsible for the tripling of tuition fees and the introduction of the White Paper, which sets out the Coalition governments plans for the wholesale marketisation of Higher Education.
Education is a public good that provides benefits to the individual and to society that can't be quantified in economic terms. What price do you put on individual development? What price do you put on an educated, tolerant, successful society? To portray the value of education solely in terms of economic returns is misguided and misleading.
This government has made clear, through its attempts to privatise and commodify Higher Education that it only values education only insofar as the economic benefit it produces.
We have already seen the first signs of the lasting damage that this government is doing to Higher Education in the loss of UEA’s School of Music, a move justified by management as a response to government changes to student funding and allocation.
A report published last week by the Intergenerational Foundation found that ‘there is likely to be no saving to the public sector finances from the reforms to higher education funding’. This is part of a worrying trend in government policy whereby reforms driven by ideological prejudice are portrayed as acts of economic necessity but are in fact doing considerable damage not only to long term government finances but to the economy as a whole. This government has proven its economic illiteracy. Its dogmatic doctrine of austerity has tipped the UK economy back into recession and forced thousands onto the dole.
It’s time to re-find the anger and passion that characterised the student revolt towards the end of 2010. NUS is organising a national student demonstration this autumn and has also pledged to support the TUC demo this October. We take inspiration from Chile and Canada where students have won major concessions from their governments through continued campaigns of protest and direct action. This autumn we are set to see a fresh wave of strikes, protests and occupations. As students we will be at the forefront of this movement, leading the campaign against austerity and against the Coalition government.
The Union of UEA Students and NUS have both democratically passed motions calling for Willetts to resign. He is an unpopular minister in an unpopular government. It is time for him to go and to take his fellow cabinet millionaires with him, back to the investment banks and Oxbridge colleges from whence they came.
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