David Barclay, president of the Oxford University Student Union, says David Willetts's plans are rotten to the core, and will teach students the price of everything and value of nothing.
David Barclay is the president of the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU). Oxford today became the first English university ever to pass a motion of no confidence in a government minister, universities minister David Willetts, with 283 academics voting in favour and only five against; below is an edited copy of Barclay’s speech to the Congregation today
Some people struggle to understand why students are so angry about a system whose sole purpose is, as Willetts has said, to ‘unleash the force of consumerism’, to put power in our hands and let our choices shape the future of higher education.
Part of the reason is that power sometimes corrupts, and we want no part in the corruption of the syllabus at this or other university.
Under Willetts’s plans, the choices of 17-year olds with limited information and varying perceptions of financial pressures will push some subjects to the brink of extinction and so narrow the scope of academic endeavour for generations to come.
If we were to bow to student choice and the government’s access targets we’d slash classics and double medicine, but students from every discipline would be horrified by such a move.
In my hometown of Glasgow, a great university is already cutting courses in Eastern European languages. A liberal economy endangers the liberal arts, and we simply never asked for that kind of power.
The market which this government is so desperately trying to create in higher education has nothing whatsoever to say about tutors and students discovering and rediscovering the world around them in partnership. A consumer-producer relationship cannot and will not enhance the power of what we do in Oxford, it can only diminish it.
The fundamental lack of confidence from the student body stems from this gut sense that the core of the government’s plan is rotten, and would turn our successors into the Orwellian definition of cynics who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Many people get very angry about the intellectual and practical contradictions of the government’s plan, and rightly so. But it is the people that I speak for who will feel the real cost of the political confusion, the u-turns and the mixed messages.
I speak for a generation of humanities students who will never get to use the new facilities they desperately need because the capital fund has dried up, all the public support for buildings has been slashed and our fundraising is focused on bursaries and fee waivers.
I speak for a generation of brilliant minds who will never become graduate students or academics because the mountain of debt required to get through undergraduate life creates an impossible pressure to start paying it off.
I speak for a generation of disadvantaged students who will never even come to Oxford, deterred by the extraordinary leap in fee level and by the majority of British parents for whom £27,000 is more than their family brings in a year.
Today you have a chance to pass judgement publicly on the damage that is being done to higher education in our country.
The chance to say that the language of the market has no place in universities, that proposals of back-door entry for the rich and last-minute bargains for the poor is simply not good enough, that it is not acceptable for a prime minister to force us to raise our fees and then slam us with dodgy statistics on our ability to attract the most debt-averse sections of society.
But you also have the chance to start building something better.
To speak of what higher education really means for the academics and students who experience it every day, of how proper public funding should reflect the benefits to the whole of society of Oxford’s historic mission, of why as a sector we deserve a minister who speaks the language of intellectual community and challenges us to reach our highest aspirations.
The experience of a flourishing Oxford University will stay with us wherever we go. Today, and in the coming weeks and months, we need you to take this chance and make sure that the next generation can say the same.
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