Notes on @thirduniversity Rabble for the @poddelusion Live in Leicester, 16th August 2011

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[Disclaimers: These are the work-in-process notes that I’ve prepared for a *five-to-seven* minute stint as part of a live-recording of Pod Delusion at Leicester’s Skeptic in the Pub meet last Tuesday (16th August, 2011). In their own words The Pod Delusion “is a weekly news magazine podcast about interesting things. From politics, to science to culture and philosophy, it’s commentary from a secular, rationalist, skeptical, somewhat lefty-liberal, sort of perspective.” I probably won’t use this all – and I don’t want to constantly repeat myself and I what I *really* want to talk about is what the third university is planning come the revolution *cough* 9th of November.]

Yesterday, the UK’s longest running student occupation in recent history, Glasgow’s Free Hetherington, declared victory as their occupation of the ex-postgraduate club of Glasgow University, comes to an end. Those involved in the 6 month protest against the Principal’s plans for cuts, compulsory redundancies and the closure of courses and departments at the University, managed to exert pressure to get the institution’s management to reconsider their decision and agree to halt such proceedings. The full details of which are still being negotiated (in detail) between the students and those in charge. This is an important, but  under-reported development of the student movement against the future self-destruction of the higher education system – as we know it. 

In the shadow of last week’s troubles, where the tories confusingly called for the ‘education’ of young people, but in the same breath supporting the rise in tuition fees and limiting access to post-16 institutions, we have to take a moment to understand what we mean when we are talking about eduation, indeed the purpose of a University come the illustrious 2012/2013 9k term. The focus on employability and the need for ’employability skills’ (such as the ability for me to teach my students to have ‘self-belief’, networking skills and ‘creativity’ if I want to keep a position in the UK higher education sector) has been increased since the publication of the Browne Review in October 2010, where the relationship between increased undergraduate fees and future income were explicitly linked for the first time (Browne Report, 2010: 35). The expectations of future acceptors, who once used to choose a university based on the love of a subject area or the quality of the course content, may instead only seek to attend universities that can guaranteed successful career prospects (BCU Acceptance Survey, 2009) Can you blame them – when the average debt predicted for the first 9k cohorters is set to average of £60,000 – the pressure to earn and ‘pay back’ that cost, as well as maintain an appropriate standard of living, becomes forefronted as a priority. Essentially, the government is contributing a new set of educational tools for society; a pedagogy of debt. 

Come September this year, we are looking at the last generation of students to enter the university system at the current cost of £3920+ a year. In three years time, when those students graduate, the system will be supported by the new collatoral of the accepting, ever obdient 27k 18-21 year old at its heart. What we know of the education that we enjoyed, albeit at a cost beyond what the majority of those in power experienced, will have been wiped out in favour of Lord Browne’s decisions. The collective memory and the collective purpose of the university can be wiped as quickly as the effects of a riot on the anger of the phone hacking scandal – it is almost as if the school terms are designed in such a way to neutralise radicalism before action can take hold and spread. Already, we are being to see the shutters come down on the next generation of students and with cuts to research funding – the next generation of PhD students and therefore, the next generation of critical thinkers who could pose a challenge and alternative to those in positions of power. What are the alternatives for those brought up to believe that the only route after complusary education is one of the University? 

Interesting things started to happen after the Browne review decision last winter. There was resistance and there were protests – and it was the a-typical, until then generically posed as a-political student cohort. They were the first to act. We watched, as police kettled young people in the cold of November, as they protested for the future of education, knowing that most of them would have graduated beyond that system by the time changes were implimented. At the same time, over 30 universities across the UK went into occupation, reclaiming spaces within the university campus and using for places of learning. Out of the student occupations, many groups and collectives began to form in order to challenge, question and reimagine what a university might look like. Some examples include Leed’s “Really Open University“, the University of Utopia and the University of Strategic Optimism. Other happenings saw groups running learning spaces, where individuals could volunteer and contribute skills and sessions where others could take part and learn from each other. These include the “Really Free School” in London, the Glasgow Open School, the Free University of Liverpool and the Third University here in Leicester. Some, such as the Social Science Centre in Lincoln, are taking on the responsibility to run an organisation that will offer the equivelent of degrees to participants, working as a cooperative to create a geniunely workable and sustainable alternative to a degree paid for by debt. However, this list of places is not limited, where I find that the more I speak and write about these occurances, the more I find out other projects and similar acts of community-led education systems. These are reasons to be excited, in a world where you can’t predict the social, political – and dare I say, economical impact of what the government’s austerity measures may have on us in the coming weeks, months and years. For me, the glimmer of hope that these spaces and the people I’ve met through my very quick introduction to radical politics and media, has been a power antidote to the neo-liberal rhetoric of the mainstream and dominant narratives of 2011. 

So what can be done in Leicester? I’ve already mentioned the Third University, content on being Leicester’s 3rd best, which was set up on the day of the first set of UCU (Univesities and College Union) strikes back in March. Like many good idea, it was dreamt up in a boozer, after many discussions about what the strikes could do and what they represented in terms of the larger picture of resistance against changes to education. We asked ourself what it meant to defend a building and if there was indeed, uncontested space in which these critical ideas of what a university means could be discussed. Through the process of several ‘happenings’ (because we can’t/won’t call them meetings or committees) we discovered that, actually, the third university was an idea to learn things from each other (especially people who are passionate about their favourite things) and to help provide space in order to do that. It doesn’t have a set of demands, but it does have a customer charter, it doesn’t have a governance structure, but it does want you to get involved in anyway you feel that you can. 

So as I conclude, I think about what will happen come September as the students begin again and what can be done to share stories, knowledge and keep the history and understanding of what happened last year alive whilst the system attempted to neutralise it. The battle of ideas – and the battle of knowledge and understanding are key here. These stories of action – especially when they result in positive outcomes, when the media prefer to report on their own agendas- are worthy of being heard and being shared. For me, I see the links between alternative media, citizen reporting and viable alternatives to the corperate and business-like approaches that is being to dominate educational mission statements. It is important that not only are these alternative heard about, they are also shared, passed on and encouraged to grow for as long as they are required. As we have seen from the Free Hetherington, it is possible to make a stand and to make a change against what is happening – and although we cannot predict what will happen in response to the promised demands, we know that there are people out there who are commited to re/defend our education system and those of us who are in, against and beyond the university as it stands. 

The third university is working closely with Leicester’s community media network Citizen Eye, running sessions alongside other events and workshops. We will be running a week of activities/lessons and things during community media week in November, a week leading up to the 9th of November national demonstration in London.