Monday, April 13, 2015

What do we want? To be treated like children!

It’s springtime in London and the air is once again thick with student revolt and dry shampoo. Over recent weeks, student occupations have sprung up at the London School of Economics (LSE), Goldsmiths, the University of the Arts London (UAL) and King’s College London, as shower-dodging young radicals have camped out in meeting rooms, lobbies and academic buildings in what one King’s student has dubbed ‘a nationwide protest against our increasingly neoliberal, undemocratic and restrictive education system’.

Taking their lead from a similar occupation at the University of Amsterdam, this string of recent occupations began at UAL last month after the university administration announced plans to cut hundreds of foundation-course places in arts and design. A protest resulted in the invasion of a college building, the pulling of the fire alarm and the police being called, before the protesters set up camp at Central Saint Martins. Students at King’s, Goldsmiths and LSE soon followed suit.

After giving their respective encampments a suitably twee nickname (LSE students have renamed the meeting room they’re held up in ‘Free University of London’), the protesters issued their demands. Aside from the odd quirk and spelling mistake, they are all more or less singing from the same hymn sheet, calling for an end to tuition fees, a living wage for all staff, and more student input into decision-making and curricula.

The protests have inevitably been greeted by teary-eyed leftish commentators as a gleeful return to the spirit of ’68, or, at least, the spirit of 2010, when students marched on Westminster in their thousands to protest against the coalition government’s hike in tuition fees. Owen Jones, who spoke at the LSE occupation, has hailed it as the beginning of a ‘broader movement’ against Tory-led austerity. But, for all the revolutionary bluster, student radicals and their media cheerleaders seem to be complicit in the same wilful illusion.

With no broader political base, no grander message or strategy beyond some curt demands, student radicals in recent years have struggled to make the HE establishment blink. The 2010 protests petered out before you could say ‘fuck fees’, and since then student radicals have continued to shrink in influence. Most nights, the LSE occupation, according to the organisers themselves, only has about 10 people in it. Despite the abolition of tuition fees being the one issue (almost) all students agree on, student radicals are, on almost all campuses, the sort of people you cross the quad to avoid.

These occupiers are blaring on behalf of students who are, at best, indifferent to them. If it wasn’t for their mates in the media, the occupations would barely be a story. But it would be wrong to say the occupations are insignificant. In their own way, these pongy warriors have at least demonstrated just how pointless and infantile modern student politics has become.

Many have reached for comparisons to the British student occupations in the late Sixties, sparked after a wave of rebellion in Paris and Prague. But this simply doesn’t hold up. In 1968, student occupations were mounted at universities including LSE and the University of Essex in response to the Vietnam War and universities’ links to repressive regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa. While then, as now, these student radicals were far from history-makers – riven with naivety, a penchant for shouting down the opposition and mired in People’s Front of Judea-esque sectarianism – they were at least optimistic and outward looking. They wanted to take control, rattle power and remake the world in their image. Today’s student occupiers, by contrast, are only really demanding to be looked after better, and to have their own narrow needs slavishly met.

The shallow obsession with tuition fees is particularly telling. While free university education could well have its place in a broader political project, the demands being made here are incredibly narrow. As Joanna Williams pointed out recently on spiked, the higher-education sector is still heavily subsidised and state-regulated. The cries of ‘neoliberalism’ are simply untrue. In the end, all these students are really demanding is for free education to be delivered to them by means of a rebalancing of the accounts. This is less a challenge to monolithic capitalism than an entitled whine - an act of consumer protest from students who feel they aren’t receiving the service they deserve.

The internalisation of the student-fees hike as a form of ‘exploitation’ speaks to the infantilisation of student politics. Dig deeper into the demands Occupy Goldsmiths and you’ll find yet more indications that all these students want is to be protected like fragile toddlers. Along with some other familiar batshit SU favourites, they demand that trigger warnings be used in all lectures and that a Safe Space policy (cracking down on potentially upsetting speech) is enforced throughout campus. Fans of the recent jazz-hands debacle at the National Union of Students’ (NUS) Women’s Conference, in which delegates were rinsed on Twitter for insisting that the potentially ‘triggering’ act of clapping was banned in favour of the old Al Jolson favourite, will be pleased to know that this, too, is standard procedure in Occupy Goldsmiths meetings.

Whether it’s from the scourge of neoliberalism or the tyranny of applause, the student radicals of today only really want to be protected. What do we want? To be treated like children! When do we want it? Forever! That is just about the least radical demand there is.


Baby boom and high immigration means 20,000 British children 'won't get into any chosen primary school'

Thousands of children face missing out on all their chosen primary schools next week amid a snowballing crisis over places.

Councils are struggling to cater for rising pupil numbers, fuelled by a baby boom and high immigration.

As a result more than 20,000 youngsters could be denied a place at all of the schools listed on their applications this year.

It will mean ‘significant numbers’ forced to travel long distances to schools in other areas, experts have warned.

Many local authorities have had to create classrooms in disused buildings, build extensions to schools and add ‘bulge’ classes to cope with the extra demand.

More than 600,000 children are set to receive their primary places for September on national offers day this Thursday.

Matt Richards, senior partner at consultants, which helps families challenge admissions decisions, said he had already received calls from worried parents.

‘It’s highly likely there will be a significant number of parents that won’t have a place in any school this year, let alone a preferred school,’ he said. ‘They will be told to travel very large distances – two or more miles – to areas where there is less demand. In a city like London, this could take over an hour and a half.’

Alan Smithers, professor of education at the University of Buckingham, said pupil numbers had been boosted by generous benefits, immigration and career women having children later in life. He added: ‘We have had unbridled immigration and many of the people who have arrived have had much larger families.’

Last year, almost 77,000 children failed to secure a place at their first choice primary school.

More than 22,400 missed out on all the primaries they applied to and were allocated an alternative on offers day, while 3,700 initially failed to get a state school place at all. Hundreds were still waiting last summer as councils scrambled to find extra places.

Local Government Association (LGA) projections suggest the pressure will be worse this year, saying that for the first time, one in five council areas in England will have more children ready to start school than available places.

It predicted London would be squeezed hardest, with the most oversubscribed borough of Harrow receiving 112 applications for every 100 places.

Earlier this year, Oxford University research found London had seen a significant increase in immigration over the last four years, with its migrant population rising 6 per cent from 2,998,000 in 2011 to 3,187,000 in 2014.

Outside London, Bristol, Leicester and Slough will also reach ‘tipping point’, the LGA said. Last year, it predicted 130,000 extra primary places will be needed by 2017 – around 4,750 new classes or 500 schools.

Councils responding to a Daily Mail survey admitted having to bring in emergency measures this year. Those in Northumberland, York and Bolton had added extra classrooms, while Poole council in Dorset built a new school.

Last night a Tory Party spokesman said: ‘Almost nine in ten children went to their first choice primary school last year.’


Is the Modern American University a Failed State?

Modern American universities used to assume four goals.

First, their general education core taught students how to reason inductively and imparted an aesthetic sense through acquiring knowledge of Michelangelo, the Battle of Gettysburg, “Medea” and “King Lear,” Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” and astronomy and Euclidean geometry.

Second, campuses encouraged edgy speech and raucous expression — and exposure to all sorts of weird ideas and mostly unpopular thoughts. College talk was never envisioned as boring, politically correct megaphones echoing orthodox pieties.

Third, four years of college trained students for productive careers. Implicit was the university’s assurance that its degree was a wise career investment.

Finally, universities were not monopolistic price gougers. They sought affordability to allow access to a broad middle class that had neither federal subsidies nor lots of money.

The American undergraduate university is now failing on all four counts.

A bachelor’s degree is no longer proof that any graduate can read critically or write effectively. National college entrance test scores have generally declined the last few years, and grading standards have as well.

Too often, universities emulate greenhouses where fragile adults are coddled as if they were hothouse orchids. Hypersensitive students are warned about “micro-aggressions” that in the real world would be imperceptible.

Apprehensive professors are sometimes supposed to offer “trigger warnings” that assume students are delicate Victorians who cannot handle landmark authors such as Joseph Conrad or Mark Twain.

“Safe spaces” are designated areas where traumatized students can be shielded from supposedly hurtful or unwelcome language that should not exist in a just and fair world.

One might have concluded from all this doting that 21st-century American youth culture — rap lyrics, rough language, spring break indulgences, sexual promiscuity, epidemic drug usage — is not savage. Hip culture seems to assume that its 18-year old participants are jaded sophisticated adults. Yet the university treats them as if they are preteens in need of vicarious chaperones.

Universities entice potential students with all sorts of easy loan packages, hip orientations, and perks like high-tech recreation centers and upscale dorms. On the backside of graduation, such bait-and-switch attention vanishes when it is time to help departing students find jobs.

College often turns into a six-year experience. The unemployment rate of college graduates is at near-record levels. Universities have either failed to convinced employers that English or history majors make ideal job candidates, or they have failed to ensure that such bedrock majors can, in fact, speak, write and reason well.

The collective debt of college students and graduates is more than $1 trillion. Such loans result from astronomical tuition costs that for decades have spiked more rapidly than the rate of inflation.

Today’s campuses have a higher administrator-to-student ratio than ever before. Those who actually teach are now a minority of university employees. Various expensive “centers” address student problems that once were considered either private matters or well beyond the limited resources of the campus.

Is it too late for solutions?

For many youths, vocational school is preferable to college. Americans need to appreciate that training to become a master auto mechanic, paramedic or skilled electrician is as valuable to society as a cultural anthropology or feminist studies curriculum.

There are far too many special studies courses and trendy majors — and far too few liberal arts surveys of literature, history, art, music, math and science that for centuries were the sole hallowed methods of instilling knowledge.

Administrators should decide whether they see students as mature, independent adults who handle life’s vicissitudes with courage and without need for restrictions on free expression. Or should students remain perennial weepy adolescents, requiring constant sheltering, solicitousness and self-esteem building?

Diversity might be better redefined in its most ancient and idealistic sense as differences in opinion and thought rather than just variety in appearance, race, gender or religion.

The now-predictable ideology of college graduation speakers should instead be a mystery. Students should not be able to guess the politics of their college president. Ideally, they might encounter as many Christians as atheists, as many reactionaries as socialists, or as many tea partyers as Occupy Wall Street protestors, reflecting the normal divisions of society at large.

Colleges need to publicize the employment rates of recent graduates and the percentage of students who complete their degrees so that strapped parents can do cost-benefit analyses like they do with any other major cash investment.

A national standardized exit test should be required of all graduates. If colleges predicate admissions in part on performance on the SAT or ACT, they certainly should be assessed on how well — or not so well — students score on similar tests after years of expensive study.

Finally, the federal government should hold universities fiscally accountable. The availability of federal grants should be pegged to a college’s ability to hold annual tuition increases to the rate of inflation.

At this late date, only classically liberal solutions can address what have become illiberal problems.


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