Interview with Maeve Mckeown from the UCL Occupation: ‘We may have lost the battle (on tutition fees) but the war is far from over.’

Maeve McKeown is a PhD Political Theory student at UCL.  She took part in the UCL Occupation and all of the major student protests. Her blog applies political theory to the student movement and she is also a contributing editor at the New Left Project. Maeve took time out to talk to Selina Nwulu about who will be most affected by the rise in tuition fees and her involvement in the UCL Occupation.

What is the reality that students now face in light of the increase of tuition fees?

Young people going to university will face the choice of studying what they want to study for personal or intellectual fulfillment, and the subject that will get them a job that ensures they can pay back their debt.  And the debt will be substantial – £27,000 in fees for a three-year course, plus living costs (say a further £15,000), plus interest!  What eighteen-year-old from a working class background will study English or Classics now?  Because the harsh reality is, there are very few jobs for graduates.  One in five 18-24 year olds is currently unemployed.  Even if this situation changes in a few years, there will be a generation of students studying vocational degrees through the fear of debt and unemployment.  Intellectual curiosity, creativity and the cultivation of critical thinking – once the goal of student life – are being sacrificed to the market economy.

Considering the Liberal Democrat’s previous election pledges, what has been their justification in now supporting a threefold increase in tuition fees?

Many Lib Dem MPs, including Deputy PM Nick Clegg, signed an NUS pledge saying they would scrap tuition fees.  But the minute they got into power they reneged on this promise.  Their excuse is they didn’t know how bad the deficit was and they can’t make all the decisions they would want to, because they are in a coalition government.

Nick Clegg promised that most universities would charge £6000 per year in fees, but this has proved to be another lie – most universities have said they will charge the maximum £9000 per year.  He has also repeatedly said that if universities want to charge £9000 per year they will have to ensure access for students from underprivileged backgrounds.  However, the group that will be targeted is students who qualify for free school meals.  This is a completely arbitrary scheme because what about those students who are just above the threshold for free school meals, but are too poor to afford the extortionate fees?  Or what about kids from large families, where parents will have to make tough choices about which kids they will support through university?  Anyway, given his track record, I don’t hold out much hope for this scheme.

Who will the increase of these fees affect the most and why?

As I’ve suggested, the increase in fees will affect those just above the threshold for free school meals and others who will struggle to afford university for other reasons (like being one child out of several who want to do a degree).  The poorest will be catered for with patronising bursaries and the richest because it won’t affect them – everyone else is left out in the cold.

Will measures such as the graduate tax scheme and making repayments on earning £21000 per annum be a fair and sustainable way of paying back these loans?

A graduate tax is different to what the government is proposing – it is a levy on a graduate’s income, which will be tied to their earnings.  The NUS is in favour of such a scheme, but I believe in free education – I think everyone in society should be able to study at any level of the education system.  The government’s plan, instead, is that everyone pays back their fees, student loan and interest until the age of 40 (the amount isn’t tied to income, but rather the course that you do).  They argue that because you start paying back when you earn £21,000 per year that it is more progressive than the current system where you pay back when you earn £15,000 per year.  But at the minute, you pay back £9000+ when you earn £15,000.  Now it will be £27,000+.  So while you start later, you are paying three times as much!  What’s fair about that?  The government has also failed to realise that more women go to university now than men, but women earn 16.5% less than men, so will be paying back their fees for longer.  This has terrible repercussions in terms of gender equality.

What’s the general feeling amongst fellow students and lecturers?

Students and lecturers are outraged by the proposed changes.  There have been occupations and staff strikes across the country.  If only the government cared what we have to say!

How have you felt about the student protests and have you encountered any police violence?

The wave of student protests has been a real surprise.  I went to the first demonstration on November 10 2010, I expected it to be a small, with a few hundreds students.  Instead, there were 50,000 students!  There was an incredible atmosphere.  I left about 3pm, but later that day some students smashed the windows of the Tory HQ, Millbank, and one student, Edward Woollard, threw a fire extinguisher off the roof.   It was a shame that the media coverage focused entirely on the activities at Millbank, rather than the show of strength of thousands of students who peacefully protested against the government’s proposals.  That pattern was repeated across the demonstrations.

In terms of police violence, I have been kettled several times.   Kettling is where the police cordon off an area, trapping protestors inside, sometimes for hours on end.  They don’t provide toilet facilities, or food and water.  It’s a stressful experience.  Friends of mine have been beaten by the police.  And the police have used disgraceful tactics like charging kettles with horses.  They have also been filming all of the protests and keeping records of those involved, which is an infringement of our civil liberties.  Sometimes, they have refused to let people leave a kettle unless they have their photograph taken.  It seems to me that the police have hugely overreacted to the demonstrations, but I think they are also trying to provoke people.  That’s the point of a kettle – contain people in a small space, so that the pressure will increase and violence will break out.  Then the police can claim it was the protestors’ fault.

How did the UCL Occupation come about?

We had a protest on UCL campus on 24th November, following the huge student demo on the 10th November.  There were about 150 people in the quad and someone suggested marching around the university.  When we got to the Jeremy Bentham Room (a large conference room), someone suggested we occupy it and we all agreed.  I later found out that this had been planned by a small group of UCL activists.

What is your role in the UCL Occupation?

Initially, I was just one of about 200-300 people (our numbers swelled once we established the occupation).  One person who had been involved in climate camp was facilitating our meetings.  I had experience chairing meetings from my background in debating and model United Nations, so I volunteered to do that.  We used the consensus model of facilitation , which was new to me, but I soon got the hang of it.

We set up several working groups, which organised different aspects of the occupation.  Everyone chipped in to different working groups.  I also helped out with the media working group, talking to the press, organising interviews and updating twitter, facebook and our blog.  I helped the events group on a couple of occasions, and I wrote a couple of Christmas Carols!

In light of the student protests, do you think that we’ve seen a change in student apathy?

Absolutely!  UCL was considered a conservative university with a large proportion of public school students.  But in the past six months we’ve had three occupations!  I’ve seen people go from being apolitical to joining Black Bloc in that time.  It’s unbelievable the rate of radicalisation that’s gone on in British universities this year.  Young people are definitely no longer apathetic.  This is just the beginning in terms of protest and direct action, I think there’s a lot more to come.

What do see for the future of higher education?

I think it’s pretty dismal to be honest.  The main problem with the Browne Report is not so much the fees, but the fact that state funding is being almost completely removed from universities.  Only a few science subjects will be funded, meaning all the arts and humanities will be left open to market forces.  Subjects that don’t lead to jobs will perish.  Intellectual freedom will suffer in a bid to provide the biggest and best courses to student consumers.  Stefan Collini has written about these dangers here, and I have here.  It’s a worrying time for higher education in the UK.

Do you feel like students have lost the battle- what is next for the UCL Occupation?

No, not yet.  The poll tax passed in Parliament but was never implemented.  And now students have linked up with local anti-cuts groups, NHS activist networks and trade unions, which can only make the movement stronger.  March 26 saw 500,000 people out on the streets of London protesting against the government cuts, and when the cuts start to bite we will see even more.  We may have lost the battle (the vote in Parliament) but the war is far from over.


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