To Students, in Solidarity

by Priyamvada Gopal

Later today Cambridge Defend Education is hosting a teach-in at King’s College against the cuts and increased tuition fees. Among those speaking: Alex Callinicos, Stefan Collini, Richard Seymour, Stathis Kouvelakis and NLP’s very own David Wearing.

Priyamvada Gopal, English Faculty member at the University of Cambridge and Dean of Churchill College, sent students the following message of support.

Dear all,

I am sorry not to be with you today at this exciting and important occasion. I want to wish you the very best for the launch of Cambridge Defend Education and to express my solidarity—as well as that of many of my colleagues— in the broader and longer nation-wide, indeed, international struggle that lies ahead. In the last few weeks, we, your teachers, have watched with admiration and no little pride as you emerged in your thousands to issue a challenge to the anti-social forces of unbridled greed and self-interested philistinism that govern this country (and the world beyond). While they are not the only site for challenge and resistance, a process that necessarily involves building strong coalitions across groupings and trades, universities do represent a space of privilege and, therefore, responsibility of widening access to and, in time, universalising, that privilege. The time and space in which to think, learn and grow intellectually, to be able to hone and deepen analytical, communicative and critical skills in the company of others, is a wonderful opportunity, one that must be extended to all young and, indeed, older people. ‘The whole object,’ as the late Jimmy Reid said in a Rectorial Address at the University of Glasgow, ‘must be to equip and educate people for life, not solely for work or a profession.’

Our current government, with the able assistance of the previous one, seeks to claw back the hard-won concessions and the very real democratic victories of a century or more as the right to an education was extended across social and economic boundaries. We are now at a watershed moment: this is the endgame in a decisive struggle to determine whether we move forward as a society towards social justice or revert to a time when not only were wealth, property and education the prerogative of an entitled few but when it was deemed right that this should be so. None of us, whether students or lecturers, university-educated or trained in a vocation, employed or forced out of the labour market, can afford to sit back and let history and the will of the oligarchy who rule us take their course. The great value of the protests you initiated last week is that it reminded society of this imperative and you will continue to remind people in weeks to come, including in the planned actions of 24th November when you will be joined by school pupils in Cambridge and across the country.

There is little that I can teach you about struggle and resistance, you who have shown such initiative, courage and determination over the last weeks; in actuality, it is you who have inspired and energised your teachers. But with the hat of past experience on, I can speak to what the powers-that-be are likely to attempt in the months to come. They will tell you are that you are being asked to do no more than your share in a time of widespread austerity. Ask them why you and future generations must pay when corporate tax has just been reduced, banks bailed out and their levies up for reduction and company debts written off. They will tell you that education costs money and that it is only right that you should pay when you are earning it yourself. Ask them if they are willing to pay back, with interest, every penny that was spent on them by the state when they helped themselves to a free education. And ask them, when they insist that they are not asking people to pay at point of entry, why they are not substantially raising the taxes of the most wealthy in this country, those who have benefited in every way from the subsidies that society has provided them. They will tell you that you are being selfish, that in the pecking order of pain, there are those who are much worse off. Tell them that it is not a choice—that every human being in society is entitled to a fair wage, to decent working conditions, to benefits when they are incapacitated or sick, to education, primary, secondary and tertiary, and that without these, all talk of fairness, providing opportunity and raising aspirations is hot air, sententious nonsense with no material foundation. They will tell you that your actions, however non-violent, are disruptive and unproductive. Tell them that the only unproductive action is the failure of elected representatives to listen and respond to the informed will of the people. When they dismiss you as privileged kids playing at being radical, tell them better that one episode of principled radicalism in a life is worth ten lives spent in slavish conformity.

And understand this: this struggle is not yours alone and you are not alone as you wage it. I have spoken to a great many academics, both at Cambridge and elsewhere, in recent weeks, and the overwhelming majority are with you in this campaign to defend higher education from the depraved attacks of those who would instrumentalise people into corporate wage slaves and consumers, and reduce society to a set of skills aimed only at increasing corporate profits. Indeed, with the exception of a handful who have been co-opted by the bloated administrations of our universities and dream of retiring with fat pensions on high six-figure salaries (even as they decimate ours), there is nobody who does not think that the present movement towards turning universities into privatised corporate fiefdoms is alarming and dangerous. With both groups set to lose so much, student-teacher unity is crucial at this point in time as indeed is active solidarity with others who face the sharp edge—public sector workers, the unemployed, the ill, the incapacitated, and those forced to choose between wage cuts and having a job at all. Power works through division and compartmentalisation; resistance involves refusing these divisions and showing the world once and for all, that universities and their students can be part of the struggle for a better world, and not privileged enclaves unto themselves.

So with that, folks, onwards and upwards. It will not be easy and it will not be quick and painless. Stay the course. There are promises to keep and many rough miles to go before we sleep. Let me leave you with the words of Frederick Douglass, freedom campaigner. You will find them useful next time you run into one of those people who claims to love democracy passionately but declare themselves troubled at agitation. (By ‘physical’ need not be meant physical violence against other human beings, so I caution against a too literal reading of this quotation!).

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

In solidarity,

Priya

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First published: 21 November, 2010

Category: Activism, Education

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