Bristol students protested yesterday against the visit to Bristol by the Minister of State for Universities, David Willetts MP. See more information, with pictures and videos, of the various forms of protest on display here. In response to the staff and students’ protest, the Minister agreed to meet with five representatives. Here is the transcript from that meeting:
Meeting with David Willetts, 10/05/12 at Chemistry Dept, UoB.
Cerelia Athanassiou (C.A) – Postgraduate international politics student
Georgina Bavetta (G.B) – Undergraduate politics and philosophy student, UBU officer
Jamie Melrose (J.M) – Postgraduate researcher and teaching assistant, SPAIS
Matt Hollinshead (M.H) – Undergraduate philosophy student at UWE
Rowan Tomlinson (R.T) – French lecturer
- Before going in, we were briefed by David Clarke (Deputy VC) that we should remember we are representing the University, so we should take care not to bring any disrespect to UoB’s reputation or do anything embarrassing.
- Similarly, we were then taken in by Willetts’s security officer and told that we should switch off our phones and not bring in any recording devices to the meeting – they had to see us switch everything off. At that point, University Security took down everyone’s names; there was an initial kerfuffle over the fact that Matt was from UWE, but then we said that he was invited there by us and that we are vouching for him. Georgina put down her name as the person responsible for him.
- We were then taken to the Head of Chemistry’s office, told to leave our jackets and bags in an adjoining secretarial office and sat down waiting for the Minister (about 10 mins). One of the members of the security team remarked to a member of staff that we had “been ordered….I mean asked to turn phones off”.
- It should be noted that the attitude of the security staff was both intimidatory – “I think I’m not going to let this one in” – and patronizing – “Don’t waste your opportunity now; you’re very lucky to get a chance to speak to him”. On questioning the assumptions of gratefulness and deference behind the latter quote, Jamie got the former, or words to that effect, as a reply.
- Willetts’s press officer came in first, telling us how fortunate we were to have received 5 minutes ‘diary time’.
When Willetts came in, we all introduced ourselves and said that Jamie had a few words to say at the beginning (as we had established between ourselves quickly beforehand).
J.M: We want to note that this protest is in solidarity with Owen Holland, who was recently suspended from Cambridge University for two and a half years for disrupting your visit by reading a poem. Are you happy with what has happened to him?
D.W: I don’t think it’s fair of me to comment on the internal procedures of Cambridge University. All I can say is that I had been invited to give a lecture, and many people were disappointed that I was prevented from making it. I value freedom of speech.
G.B: I’m glad you value freedom of speech, but does that not extend to Holland? Surely by that logic you should condemn the decision to suspend his studies…
D.W: I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to comment on the internal procedures of Cambridge University.
M.H: It’s ironic that you are talking about freedom of speech and inability to lecture when the policies that the Government are implementing at the moment are denying junior academics the ability to teach as well.
D.W: We have no alternative to the cuts in the face of current financial problems.
R.T.: Problems that are not being remedied by your government’s insistence on ‘austerity’.
D.W.: Now we could have a wider debate about economics, but I don’t want to do that. Either you raise the fees or you cut the number of students or the teaching provided. The policy being implemented in universities is the fairest, most progressive thing to do: to have graduates pay for the education they have received. We inherited a spending plan from the last government, and in fact the amount of teaching resources at the end of this term in office will be better than it was at the beginning.
R.T: You’re justifying the imposition of 9k fees by relying on the argument about the need for austerity. But haven’t you in fact used this opportunity to introduce other measures and changes that are hugely detrimental? We’re all very concerned by the moves towards privatisation in the White Paper. We don’t want a university sector that resembles the American model. People have argued that the extortionate fees in the US are justified by the provision of extensive bursaries, but really this financial support is largely tokenistic and not half as extensive as is made out. Is that privatised system something that the Minister endorses?
D.W: What we are envisaging is not an American style system. We have things that the American system does not have. They have no universal student financing system. They have no maintenance grants. At the same time, when you argue against privatisation you are somewhat missing the point. Universities are, after all, not public sector bodies; they are autonomous bodies. This is a good thing. Would you want the entire cost and running of universities to be taken on by the state?
R.T: Do you not believe in education as a public good?
D.W: Of course it is a public good, but there are private benefits. Graduates earn more than those who do not go to university, so it is they who should be paying for their education; it is based on the fact that earnings are progressive.
G.B: Income tax is also progressive. Why not fund it with that?
M.H: …especially when those from working class backgrounds are much more likely to be debt averse.
C.A: And to return to a previous point you made, the things that distinguish UK universities from their US counterparts, like the maintenance grants you mention, are things that we have as a result of social struggle [I think it’s at this point that David Clarke told me to be civilised] and of the resulting public sphere that you seem so intent on destroying now.
D.W: We are trapped in a language of fees, loans and debts. This is a graduate tax, just one with a connection to the university. This isn’t like being in debt with a commercial loan. The rates of interest are low, and you only pay it back when you are earning 21k. It is really not that different from what is being proposed by the NUS.
R.T: I’m a French lecturer, and in France where education is valued and defended as a public good, a wider variety of students have access to it, as opposed to the UK where we have already seen and are likely to see a further significant drop in the number of students from under-privileged background in universities.
D.W: People talk about the European systems but I was at Sciences-Po the other day [in Paris) and the reality is that this institution – the equivalent to an institution like Bristol – charges fees upfront; this policy does not do that, it charges afterwards.
R.T. The reality is that an institution like Sciences Po does not represent more than a tiny percentage of the HE institutions in France. Most universities in France are free at the point of entry.
G.B: I’d like to touch on an issue which is relevant to us here in Bristol, having struggled against proposals to replace bursaries with fee waivers.
(Deputy Vice-Chancellor, David Clarke gets very flustered and interrupts)
D.C: Well actually we have listened to students and are offering new students a choice between a fee waiver and a bursary.
G.B: All I want to know is what the minister thinks about this and whether he supports replacing bursaries with fee waivers.
D.W: I think it seems fair enough to say that students should be offered the choice between a fee waiver and a bursary. I have spoken to Liam Burns about this, and he has told me that he prefers bursaries, which to me a clear sign that he acknowledges that tuition fees which you pay off after university are not as evil as everyone is making out.
G.B: I highly doubt that what Burns is doing is endorsing tuition fees; it’s just a recognition that protecting bursaries at the expense of fee waivers is the lesser of two evils.
M.H: Many students are deciding not to apply to university because of poverty.
R.T: And it’s all very well saying that it’s ok, because the fees can be paid off gradually, over a lifetime, but that fact is that the burden of debt won’t be equal as many upper-class students will have their fees paid off by their parents, straightaway. After all, £9k a year is often the same as the fees for a public school education so not a massive difference to them, whereas poorer students are being left behind.
* At this point, David Clarke and the ‘aides’ started making moves to get Willetts out of the room
C.A: I just want to point out that there are only five of us here today with the chance to talk to you. That is not good enough. Would the minister be willing to make a promise to come back to Bristol to talk to students about higher education policy and give the rest of the student body a chance to have their say? There are many important issues which need to be discussed that can’t be covered in a five minute interview, including REF scores (at which Willetts rolled his eyes) and the privileging of research over teaching.
D.W: I am more than happy to talk to students and explain our policy to them.
[Further efforts to get DW to commit to a return visit and to a full debate, in the spirit of his apparent commitment to freedom of speech]
R.T: Would you like to comment on the freedom of speech that led to the vote of no confidence in you at Oxford University, a vote that I was involved in?
D. W. It is as it is.
David Clarke ended by saying that he would like to thank the Minister for taking time out of his schedule to meet with us as he was standing up and looking at us expectantly. To which Matt replied that Clarke can thank him, but he will not. I think most of the ‘delegation’ did say thank you, whether standing up or still sitting down, all very civilised, though I think we did make it clear that we were in fundamental disagreement with the Minister, with the UoB senior management and with the Government. To every one of our points, Willetts just replied with the standard Government spiel, but I think we did communicate that just as there was a senior management delegation happy to appease, there is also dissatisfaction here with government policy. We didn’t represent all disciplines of the University, but at least there was a mixture of undergrads, postgrads and a lecturer there to register that this dissatisfaction is not just limited to one constituency.