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Last Year our tutors and lecturers at Oxford University sent out a resounding message of no confidencein David Willets. This Friday 9th November he is being welcomed back, on a shared platform, as part of a humanitus programme lecture series.
As universities across the country face funding cuts; courses are being demolished and staff outsourced- St Peter’s have invited the figurehead of this overhaul to speak. Whilst ignoring the irony given the broad themes of the lecture series; the arts, social sciences and humanities (the degrees most at risk of becoming redundant due to their “unprofitability”) -the insensitivity and political ramifications of this matter.
Willetts’ presence as a speaker sends the signal of recognition and condonence for his position and policies. This will be particularly painful to first years in the audience who are part of the first cohort of an extortionately indebted generation. More widely it will be a sign of ‘back to business as usual’ as Oxford’s priviledged position enables it to abandon its defence of the values of Higher Education without significant material consequence.
The landslide vote of 283 to 5 in the Sheldonion Last June signalled a commitment to the values of a public education system. Staff from accross the academic and political spectrum joined together to express their diagreement with the government’s higher education policies of privitization and marketization.
Willetts’ higher education white paper proposed the slashing of funding to higher education institutions; the aboltion of courses that were deemed ‘not profitable’; ‘unviable’ universities being allowed to go to the wall and the outsourcing of staff. Private companies were encoraged to get involved in Education effectvely enabling public money to be turned into private profit. This marketization of universities along with budget cuts and the raising of fees to £9,000 create what Oxford history professor Robert Gildea called “a red carpet for the rich” describing the reforms as “reckless, incoherent and incompetent”.
Oxford academics in their vote, were confirming what a series of independent experts and the Public Accounts Committee had already made clear; that 80% cuts, trebling tuition fees and cuts to research facilities are unfair, unnecessary and unsustainable. Whilst success has been made insofar as the government has ‘indefinitely’ postponed the white paper; universities across the country, including some of the ‘top’ Russell group universities such as Manchester are experiencing job cuts, outsourcing and courses being slashed.
Oxford is lucky enough to be in a strong position to retain standards and independence from the government. Due to much of its revenue coming from wealthy donors and alumni as opposed to central government cuts to resources are having less of a devastating effect here than they are across other Higher Education Institutions.
However, as one of the most reputable higher education institutions in the country, Oxford must stick to the principles it so strongly committed to last year. Tutors and Lecturers were voting not as academics or individuals but as citizens concerned for the future of the Higher Education community. When Kate Tunstall closed last year’s debate with: “This is a big thing for Oxford to do; it’s also not just the right thing to do, but the good thing to do. Let’s take a deep breath and, in unison, in concert, hold a single, stirring note: the positive sound of the tradition and values we wish to defend”, staff and students were in accord.
Inviting Willets to speak disregards the united front the Oxford Students and Academics took. Permitting him a platform as part of a series of high profile lectures, sends a contradictory message to that of no confidence.
When we voted no confidence we showed a commitment to the values of a public higher education system and support with Higher Education Institutions across the county. A protest has been called with the support of EAN and St Anthony’s GCR. We must signal to prospective students, the higher education community and the government that we still have no confidence in David Willetts.
Emily Cousens, Oxford University student & Education Activist Network