A Rainy Wednesday in London, with a Side of Protest

UPDATE BELOW

There’s a huge protest in central London today. An estimated 10,000 students and supporters are marching against tuition fees and rising unemployment. It’s fair to say that I’d be pissed off too if university tuition in my country went from free (in 1997) to £9,000 (at 64 universities in England today.) That’s just 15 years, and a . . . something like infinity% increase. It’s also a huge cultural shift in a system of higher education that was focused on privileging merit over the ability to pay. (Though awarding academic achievement is a flawed art, it’s a better system that making higher education accessible only to those who can afford it.)

And then there’s my own country, where £9,000 a year tuition doesn’t sound so bad. (That’s only about $14,300 a year.) The U.S. comes up with all kinds of justifications for high tuition rates and has whole industries making money off students’ (and families’) need for cash to pay for college. And the world is changing. And unemployment is troubling. And so, 10,000 students take to the streets of London to show they’re rightfully pissed off.

I’ve been following The Guardian’s live blog of today’s events, and one of the suggested chants is: “Education for the masses, not just for the ruling classes.” That seems pretty straightforward, right? How did the following become such a radical notion: that education should not be a luxury like a Louis Vuitton handbag, but rather something collectively supported because an educated society benefits us all?

I think a lot about higher education, as partnered with making theatre, it’s how I make my (barely) living, and I believe that higher education needs a massive rethink. My radical proposal is that we start rethinking without breaking the backs of the students we serve or the faculty who are the heart of any university.

So what’s the problem? Let’s go cliche, shall we? It’s the economy, stupid. For example, the liberal arts education model in which I so passionately believe is damned expensive by any measure, and there are very few economies of scale to take advantage of. Plus, there’s no greater efficiency as years go by–you can’t teach a student any faster twenty years into your career than you did fresh out of graduate school. A rigorous model of higher education that focuses on critical thinking is hugely time intensive. There’s no getting around that, but one wonders if the institutions that surround the teacher-student relationship have lost their way in the way they’ve expanded beyond their core mission.

It’s why I’m curious about new people-focused models, like The Saxifrage School. They’ve rejected campus infrastructure for fulling integrating with a city, focused on raising graduation rates by keeping students and practical learning at the heart of what they do, and eliminating debt by making higher education affordable.

The model raises lots of questions, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. (Is higher education about making citizens or scholars, for example? Does accreditation matter? Can this model work for theatre majors? English Literature? Why not?) Because we’ve got to get out of this mess higher ed seems to find itself in these days (on both sides of the pond) that raises tuition to astronomical heights, while cutting faculty salaries. It seems like our priorities need a re-think, and though I’m not so naive as to think a student march through a rainy London November day is the answer, it’s a way to start a conversation.

UPDATE 11/23/12: Student march ends in eggs, fruit and anger. It’s actually the lack of leadership, stupid. Le sigh.

 

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