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Attacks on education: crude and subtle methods


All across the UK, students are up in arms. At last count, twenty-eight British universities have seen student occupations of university buildings over the last few weeks, largely in protest at Israel’s recent bombing and land invasion of Gaza. Student groups have been making similar demands across the board: that their respective universities show practical solidarity with the people of Gaza by both providing aid and scholarships to Gazans and by cutting ties to Israel and its military. Responses to this reclaiming by students of university grounds have been varied. Some universities were quick to offer their students concrete concessions – Strathclyde for instance announced less than 24 hours after students occupied a key building that it would cut ties to the Israeli water company Eden Springs as well as provide scholarships for Palestinian students. Others were not so sympathetic or quick to concede – at Manchester, students have been occupying various buildings for four weeks now, while their University has refused to have any substantial contact with protesters. Many occupations, including Manchester’s, continue despite the humanitarian crisis in Gaza being shunted from headlines, a testament to students’ ability to counter accusations of apathy and indifference.

       These student occupations come at a depressing time for British teenagers and young adults. The United Nations recently described young people in Britain as being the unhappiest in all of Europe. They are also forced to take more exams throughout their time at school – around 70 by the time they’re 16 years old. Britain also incarcerates more children than any other country in western Europe (nearly 3,000 under-18s in 2007), with the UK actually breaching the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in several areas. Young people in Britain continue to be demonised by a society that provides them with little other than a strange juxtaposition of consumerism and relative poverty.[1] Time and again researchers and advocates of the rights of young adults have argued that what young people in Britain need is their own space, to be allowed to raise their heads in public without fear of being portrayed as troublesome hoodies. This argument is certainly telling when one looks at the way the mainstream media in Britain has treated the student occupations – telling, that is, because mainstream news has barely touched the occupations at all. University protests have received virtually no coverage in the national press, except in instances where universities themselves responded to student actions with forced evictions, as in the case of Nottingham. For a British student, it’s interesting to compare this to the coverage received by the actions of Take Back NYU!, one of the very few occupations to take place in the US.
        Where UK protests have received coverage, it has been largely negative, portraying student actions as being irresponsible, disruptive, and unnecessary. What is actually at play is a far more complex development within activist student circles across university campuses, a combination of pent-up frustration and reasoned reflection over what real education should look like. For while it is the Islamic University of Gaza that has been decimated by indiscriminate Israeli airstrikes, British universities too have been under assault for a long time. The actions by students in recent weeks can serve to join the dots between these subtler and cruder methods of attacking higher education.
 
What it is to be neutral
As a student at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, I was part of a group that organised what was to become a week-long (18th – 25th February) occupation of a key university building, with student occupiers numbering 35 to 70 at any one time (an impressive figure, I might add, for such a small and right-wing university). The occupation came on the back of a campaign to collect signatures for a petition demanding that the University of St Andrews: 1) cut its contract with Eden Springs, the Israeli water company that illegally steals water from the Golan Heights; 2) review its ties to organisations publicly known to support the Israeli military, including the aerospace company BAE Systems and the British government’s Ministry of Defence; 3) set up a scholarship programme with the aim of providing 10 scholarships for Palestinian students; 4) organise a campus collection for the Disaster Emergency Committee appeal for Gaza, as well as provide non-monetary aid and establish other links with the Islamic University of Gaza; and 5) provide surplus medical supplies from the Bute Medical School at St Andrews to Gaza through relevant organisations.[2] After having collected signatures from over 500 students and a dozen or so academics, we decided to follow the example of many other universities, including three in Scotland, and called a public meeting to gather support for an occupation.
One thing that should be pointed out for those who aren’t familiar with St Andrews is that it is a very conservative university. It is also an elite university: in 2005 the Sutton Trust found that there was a deficit of 14% between the proportion of state school pupils who, on the basis of their grades, could have been admitted to St Andrews, and the actual intake. This gap between benchmark and actual state school intake puts St Andrews on a par with Oxford and Cambridge Universities.[3] St Andrews is also a vital component of the current so-called ‘war on terror’: the University is now famous for its Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV), a research centre closely linked to the RAND Corporation and which continues to dominate the discipline of ‘terrorology’.[4] It is fair to say that students at other Scottish universities were not expecting there to be much protesting at St Andrews, and as St Andrews students ourselves we certainly felt as if we had our work cut out for us. Many of our campaigns and much of our political organising had failed in the past to grasp the attention of a majority of students. We were thus surprised to get so much positive feedback to our petition and so much support for the idea of an occupation. It was as if someone had burst the bubble that is St Andrews. Certainly the Israeli assault on Gaza had much to do with this reaction. It seemed to us that students across the country had decided enough was enough – so many decades too late but a welcome move nonetheless.
As we began negotiations with representatives of the University administration, one key issue that emerged was the University’s refusal to compromise its professed neutrality with regards to the Israel-Palestine conflict and the recent attack on Gaza, as expressed in the Uni’s final statement in response to our demands: "Our neutrality… remains non-negotiable. We seek to create, foster and defend a non-threatening, open society dedicated to study and academic research. We will not support any political cause over another". The idea that St Andrews was an educational institution and not a political institution appeared on more than one occasion during negotiations. From our perspective, this refusal on the part of the Uni to break its impartiality was invalid since our argument was precisely that St Andrews was not neutral – it in fact indirectly supports Israel’s illegal actions by holding contracts with a number of organisations that assist with Israel’s stranglehold over the Occupied Territories. We argued that any claim to neutrality is necessarily politically situated, since it comes with certain political assumptions and particular understandings of what is acceptable for neutrality and what isn’t.[5]
According to my own research, over the last 9 years the University of St Andrews has received around £1 million worth of funding from BAE Systems, nearly £1.4 million from the MoD-funded Defence Science & Technology Laboratory, £½ million from the Ministry of Defence itself, and £1.2 million from the Defence Research Agency, another government-funded military research body. This has involved the funding of dozens of military-oriented research projects, ranging from developing embedded sensor systems to improving target detection to understanding ‘covert internet channels’. In the initial response to my request to St Andrews for information on contracts involving these and other military organisations, the University at first argued that "confidentiality agreements" with these military organisations prevented them from disclosing details of research contracts, stating that "unauthorised disclosure could damage University relationships with sponsors, which would have a harmful effect on future research funding availability, and the potential benefits of future research to the public may be lost".[6] I should add that after I replied to this response by making the public interest case for releasing the information the University agreed that it should not have sent its original response. Nevertheless, that the University’s first reaction was to state the importance of commercial confidentiality says a lot about the economics of higher education in Britain today.
 
Studying war
One of the most immediate issues that students here in Britain have been protesting against is the invasion of British universities by public and private military organisations. The military has always relied on universities for simple exploratory research, but this reliance has taken on a new momentum over the last two decades. British universities now collectively face a funding gap due to a lack of state funding. As Chris Langley outlines in his report ‘Soldiers in the Laboratory’, cuts in state support during the 1980s forced the ‘rationalisation’ of academic departments, involving redundancies and relocations. This was coupled with a new emphasis on fostering relations between public-sector academics and their employers, leading to the decline of long-term tenure and the dominance of short-term ‘industrial’-focused contracts.[7] The result of this was the rise of the ‘knowledge economy’, of the vision of the ‘competitive university’. This is reflected in endless government reports on the need to "ensure that higher education is responsive to the needs of business and industry", in the words of one White Paper in 1998.[8]
Both the state and the business sector, including many military organisations, seized on this effective privatisation of universities to ensure that research would largely be influenced by the needs of aerospace and defence. In 1998 the Council for Science and Technology was revived as "the UK government’s top-level independent advisory body on science and technology policy issues" (www.cst.gov.uk). Current members of the CST include a former advisor to the Ministry of Defence, a former chief economist of BP, a former director of the National Competitiveness Network of the Cambridge-MIT Institute, and a former Main Board member of Rolls-Royce plc; previous members have included the Chairman of Rolls-Royce and an advisor to the BAE Virtual University Strategy.[9]
Further down the academic-industrial chain, it is easy to find many examples of public and private military organisations gaining influence in research funding approval by getting representatives on research council panels that decide on the relative quality of research proposals competing for funding. For instance, in 2005 a couple of research projects at St Andrews University which were requesting funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council were reviewed by a Physics Prioritisation Panel whose membership included a representative from the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), which maintains Britain’s ‘nuclear deterrent’.[10] In 2007, a Materials Prioritisation Panel at the EPSRC included representatives from the AWE, the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory, Rolls-Royce plc and Sharp Laboratories of Europe Ltd.[11] These are panels designed to prioritise research proposals in terms of quality, with this prioritisation being based primarily on the comments of the ‘expert reviewers’ that make up the panels. It seems fair to say that the more reviewers from the business sector, particularly the military sector, the more research funding will be skewed towards assisting the military.
This analysis generalises to academic research funding in general. Researchers are forced to compete for funding wherever they can find it, and often in engineering, physics and computer science research that means military funders. Research proposals are presented so as to appeal to aerospace and defence companies. What this means is that science and engineering research that could theoretically have many benefits is instead pushed in a military direction, so that companies like BAE Systems – and those they then supply, including Israel – will ultimately be the ones to benefit from the research. This is why Britain now has a number of Defence Technology Centres (DTCs), MoD-funded organisations designed to foster links between academia and military companies. Again, here at St Andrews, physics and computer science departments have signed contracts with both the Electromagnetic Remote Sensing DTC and the Systems Engineering for Autonomous Systems DTC. BAE Systems and Smiths Group, both of whom manufacture components of Israel’s F-16 fighter jets, are members of the SEAS-DTC. These are organisations that fund university research with an explicit military aim in mind. The exploratory nature of academic research is thus lost.
 
No free market, no free education
What is so exciting about recent student action in protest against the military corporate takeover of British universities is that in many cases students are linking military involvement in academia with the wider issues of the effect of neoliberalism on students and of the myths surrounding the ‘free market’. My own interest in the military’s influence in universities was sparked by a 2007 report from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, titled ‘Study War No More’. The report details military funding of academic research, industrial placements and other projects at 26 universities across Britain.[12] One of the report’s most interesting conclusions regarded the nature of partnerships between public funding bodies and private military companies. As the authors of the report note, the vast majority of UK university research is funded by public research councils and government departments, while private industry funding constitutes a very small proportion of universities’ total research budget – around 7% in 2000/01. Indeed, the financial benefits to universities from military companies’ sponsorship of research projects is uncertain, considering the vast profits made by military companies as compared to the tiny annual contributions those companies make in as part of collaborations with public research councils. The authors of the report have their own answer to this strange situation: "In order to understand the relatively low value of military industry’s R&D spend with the university sector compared to the large number of projects they are involved in, we must consider the high level of direct and indirect taxpayer support that military companies receive – money which effectively subsidises the projects they conduct with universities".[13]
       In other words, military companies rely on massive state intervention in order to benefit from research outsourced to universities. Moreover, both the state and the private military sector are well aware of how this system works, with the former actively encouraging the latter to take advantage of it. Hence the main conclusion of the 2003 Lambert Review of Business-University Collaboration was that business should alleviate the pressures of global competition by closing their own research laboratories and instead outsourcing to universities, since university laboratories are "very attractive partners for business" due to their being "unlike corporate or government owned research facilities".[14]
  While military companies continue to receive lavish state subsidies for research, students are forced to pay the price of the marketisation of higher education. Consider the 2003 White Paper on ‘The Future of Higher Education’, which argued universities needed "real freedom – including the freedom to raise their own funding, independent of government".[15] This is a strange kind of freedom, since it actually forces universities to compete for funding elsewhere, with students footing the bill. Thus the report contends "it is reasonable to ask students to contribute" to the costs of higher education; this again implies a choice, when in fact it is demanding that students pay increased tuition fees as a result of government attempts to "compel institutions to improve their efficiency and management".[16]
      Such statements on the need for improvements through ‘marketisation’ make it clear who is intended to benefit from university as a ‘service’. A 2000 report from the UK’s committee of university executives spelled out what higher education is for: "universities need to give priority to identifying their core business… [through] a widening of educational values to include company certification, learning outcomes relevant to the workplace, personal development and flexibility".[17] University is thus a business, one which must create obedient students ‘relevant to the workplace’ in order to attract funding. This is a reduction of higher education from a ‘public service’ to a ‘business service’.
 
Students fight back
In a letter to the Independent on Sunday on 15th February, Wes Streeting, President of the National Union of Students, spoke out about the student occupations by reiterating the tired charge of anti-Semitism, saying: "I do not believe that the sit-ins relating to the Gaza crisis have been the student movement’s finest hour". This is the same Wes Streeting who has freely admitted shifting the NUS to the right on many student issues.[18] Seeing Streeting’s comments on students having "the right to study in an environment that is free from disruption, intimidation of harassment" reminded me of a comment he made last year regarding the perceived rise in student expectations. The President of the NUS linked this upwards trend in expectations to steadily increasing tuition fees. What isn’t discussed is the fact that students did not ask for their tuitions fees to be increased. The 2003 White Paper’s talk of a "partnership between students, government, business and the universities" is a façade: it is an unequal relationship that has been imposed on the weakest partner.[19]
Student actions in university campuses across Britain are a collective attempt to redress this imbalance. Activist students have been reclaiming their universities as open spaces for learning and creativity. Different occupations have involved resistance workshops, teach-ins on Israel-Palestine, and discussion groups on military funding led by faculty from the very departments that receive the funding. Like most recent youth movements in Britain, the occupations have been experiments in non-hierarchical organising, in getting students used to consensus decision-making with as little divisions of labour as possible. Many staff and academics have lent their support to the occupations, noting the similarity between student actions today against Israel and those of the 1980s against Thatcherism. Students are also now linking different issues together: the continuing rise of tuition fees, the military skewing of research, the lack of public space for young people, and the war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza.
Perhaps most importantly, all the occupations of university buildings have had the great effect of bringing students from across the UK together – communicating with each other’s groups, visiting each other’s occupations, organising regional and national events. With any luck the links between the issues and the links between students will reinforce eachother. It is, however, a cruel reminder of the effectiveness of government attempts to stifle student activism – and public space for young people in general – that it took the horrific Israeli attack on the educational infrastructure of Gaza to make us realise just how much we have been suffering from subtler attacks closer to home.


[1] For an excellent discussion of the way British society treats young people, see: Suzanne Moore, "A new deal for British children" New Statesman 3 July 2008, http://www.newstatesman.com/uk-politics/2008/07/children-social-kids-young.
[3] Sutton Trust, State School Admissions to our Leading Universities, March 2005, http://www.suttontrust.com/reports/Stateschooladmissionstoourleadinguniversities.pdf: 9.
[4] For more on terrorology, see: A George, "The discipline of terrorology" in Western State Terrorism (Routledge, 2001).
[5] Eric Herring, "Remaking the Mainstream: The Case for Activist IR Scholarship" Millennium: Journal of International Studies 35(1), 2006: 112.
[6] Personal communication, Business Improvements, University of St Andrews, 21 November 2008.
[7] Chris Langley, Soldiers in the Laboratory (Scientists for Global Responsibility, 2005): 18.
[8] Our competitive future: building the knowledge-driven economy (Department of Trade and Industry, 1998).
[9]http://www.cst.gov.uk/cst/about/members.shtml; Langley, Soldiers in the Laboratory: 19.
[12] Tim Street & Martha Beale, Study War No More: Military involvement in UK universities (CAAT & FOR, 2007).
[13] Ibid: 18.
[14] Lambert Review of Business-University Collaboration (HM Treasury, 2003): 3.
[15] The Future of Higher Education (Department for Education and Skills, 2003): 77.
[16] Ibid: 2, 80. For further analysis of the 2003 White Paper see: Andrew Robinson & Simon Tormey, "New Labour’s neoliberal Gleichschaltung: the case of higher education" The Commoner 7, 2003, http://www.commoner.org.uk/previous_issues.htm#n7.
[17] CVCP & HEFCE, The Business of Higher Education: UK Perspectives (Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, 2000).
[18] Lucy Hodges, "NUS President Wes Streeting: ‘Moving to the right on tuition fees makes sense’" Independent 26 February 2009.
[19] The Future of Higher Education: 3.

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