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The War on Education is Tearing Students Apart

The government’s financial assault on higher education seems to be unstoppable, and testing the unity of the United Kingdom’s student body. 

Times have never been so bleak for students in the United Kingdom. Since tuition fees were first introduced in 1998, the government has launched a series of cuts to higher education. Students starting university this year will be the first to miss out on the government’s now scrapped maintenance grants, meaning those from a low income background will be leaving university with £51,600 of debt. But while in the past government attacks such as these have brought the people that bear the brunt together, it seems that these changes are pushing students further apart.

The now abolished maintenance grants were one source of conflict amongst students. While they opened the doors to people from low income backgrounds to attend university, many people who are financially classified as coming from middling backgrounds found the system unfair. One student commented via online forum The Student Room “what difference does it make to me whether or not my parents have money if I’m paying my way through uni like every other person?”

The assumption of the government appears to be that parents from middling incomes should financially assist their children through university, but this is not always feasible. Parents may appear to have a substantial income on paper, but may also have to support other children and relatives, or have large debts, neither of which are taken into account.

Nationality is another divisive issue for students. Tuition fees for international non-EU students at Sussex now range from £14,800 to £27,405 per year. These students are also not entitled to student finance. This discriminatory system can make international students feel vilified, and ensures only those from rich families can get in, creating a class divide. Should Brexit go through, prospective EU students will likely face the same extortionate fees, and current students may also be affected. This system contributes to racial and xenophobic prejudices and divides across UK institutions.

One in four non-EU students at the University of York, for instance, said they felt discriminated against because of their ethnicity. The University of Warwick in particular has noticed a surge in racist behaviour in recent years – last year, Warwick’s cheerleading society ran a Django Unchained-themed slave auction social. More recently, a black Warwick student discovered racist slurs had been graffitied on her bananas by fellow students in her accommodation complex. The University’s problem with racism seems to be related to a (relatively) large population of racial minorities, with 28% of students coming from outside the EU.

Another division arising among students is between subjects. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010-2015 cut all direct funding to humanities subjects, and increased government auditing of universities. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) last year contributed £200 million to 73 higher education institutions which was to be invested soley in STEM subjects. STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – are favoured by the government due to their application to high-earning, high-profit industries.

This inequality in funding and blatant government bias has drawn a wedge between the arts and the sciences – a wedge that we as students have failed to challenge. Back in February two opposing Norwich Tab articles appeared proclaiming the superiority of BAs and BScs respectively. Alice Cachia, who wrote the initial article arguing the superiority of BAs, claimed the subjectivity of arts degrees made them more difficult, and that they were more applicable to the real world due to their focus on people and communication. She also complained about the teasing she had received from science students: “What’s the point to your degree?”, “Haven’t you learned to read yet?”, and so forth. Emily Kench’s reactionary article, “Stop being stupid, BScs will always be harder than BAs” made a stab at what she considered the relative easiness and unemployability of the arts. The articles attracted a huge number of shares on social media and hundreds of comments by people keen to ridicule and aggravate what they deemed to be the “opposition”.

This seemingly petty feud poses a threat to the inter-disciplinary style of education that universities have been striving for. The University of Sussex, since its inception in 1962, has been dedicated to providing students with an education less limited that the traditional, elite institutions that once defined British higher education. Initially opposed to the umbrella schools and faculties that it has since adopted, Sussex’s vision was to create students skilled and educated in a variety of disciplines who understood the importance of looking beyond their specialised field.

Today, the university continues to encourage interdisciplinary study, with elective modules available on many courses and a high intake of  joint honours students. Last year’s intake of history students for instance included 96 students studying single honours and 93 studying joint honours. However, even these joint honours degrees are becoming more limited. Students applying for 2017 entry will not be able to study the likes of chemistry, biology or genetics alongside any subject outside of the life sciences. Joint honours degrees are more prevalent and expansive within the arts and social sciences, which a skeptical person may argue is encouraged more for employability purposes than for freedom of academic exploration.

Another issue worth touching on is the trend in criticising people for going to university for the “wrong reasons”. Some conservatives insist that the reason to study at university ought to be to train for a particular career – studying law to become a lawyer, studying medicine to become a doctor, and so on. More liberal individuals still turn their nose up at people who go to university because they do not know what else to do. Admittedly this may seem like a rather measly excuse for spending £9,000 a year, but with so few job prospects for school and college leavers, university can seem to many to be the only option. It is getting increasingly harder to seek employment in the UK regardless of your education, but surely obtaining a degree can only increase your opportunities. This issue then is also reflective of government failures – in this instance to generate employment opportunities.

Certainly there has been a great deal of student activism to tackle the government’s attacks on higher education. The Free Education Demo in London last November, which many Sussex students attended, attracted around 10,000 protestors. The event was a great example of a social group uniting against an oppressive force. We have seen these struggles time and again throughout the 20th and 21st century, whether that be in the Civil Rights movement, the miner’s strike or the LGBT rights movement. However, the student movement seems to lack the commitment to active and public protest. One of the major reasons for that is division.

So long as students continue to bicker, they are ignoring the main issue. It is the government’s cuts to higher education that are raising student debts, making student life less affordable, reducing opportunities for international students, and limiting the freedom of university degrees. Any movement to oppose this must be inclusive of people from all backgrounds and all faculties.

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