John Wyndham’s 1957 sci-fi novel, The Midwich Cuckoos, tells the story of an English village which is visited by a mysterious extraterrestrial presence, and then plays host to a group of demonic children, who defend each other through telepathy and by controlling the minds of the villagers. In the months since the fateful House of Commons vote which introduced £9000 tuition fees and a voucher system of funding for English universities, one could be forgiven for thinking that management on our university campuses had experienced a similar kind of covert alien invasion.
Almost as soon the Commons votes were counted, the disfigurement of HEIs began to manifest itself. The meaningless “student experience” phrase peppered an endless procession of initiatives, directives and meeting agendas, and rapidly entered everyday usage as shorthand for, well, anything affecting students. Universities (metaphorically) and university managers (literally) affected a cheery, but actually rather creepy and stalkerish, mien, dreaming up ever more excessive and unnecessary ways to discover whether students were satisfied with their experience. It was as if the managers were, if not subject to alien invasion, then audience volunteers for some stage hypnotist. When David Willetts clicks his fingers…
Suddenly, those of us who see the changes to HE funding, not as “putting students at the heart of the system”, but as a Big Lie, designed to give students an astronomically expensive simulacrum of empowerment, to restore and entrench class inequality in access to HE, to discipline university workers and to drive a wedge between students and staff, have been made to feel like strangers in a strange land. The managerial Cuckoos seem to be in control, the zeal with which they enact all the worst implications of the Coalition’s plans as mysterious as the ease with which they recruit more Gauleiters to their strange freemasonry.
And this is all before the true impact of the funding cuts and fee increases hits us. In the face of the cult-like obedience to the Cuckoos’ commands, the bewildering pace of change and growing fears for job “security”, what is one to do?
It is surely vitally important for us to keep hold of our sense of our own agency. The December 2010 Commons vote on fees undoubtedly deflated the student-led movement against the increases, and there is no question that the wreckers of HE depend upon a fatal combination of fear, resignation and apathy among staff and students in order to drive their plans forward.
Most students are smart enough, even if they are not activists, to see the deception inherent in the “student experience” meme. We need to talk to them, and to resist the Cuckoos’ efforts to divide students and staff.
We need to challenge the Cuckoos’ agenda on its own terms. If they are so concerned about student experience, then let’s see them spend money on books for the library, rather than advertising campaigns and campus landscaping.
We need to organise. For many that might mean joining UCU, and becoming more active in the union if they are already a member. But it might also mean more informal means of organisation, taking a leaf out of the Occupy movement’s book and constituting ourselves – academic staff, non-academic staff, students – as a sovereign public (for more on this, see Dan Hind’s excellent new pamphlet, Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly and the Future of Liberty).
It might seem as though there’s nothing left to fight for, but the truth is that many important decisions remain. The future is unwritten. The Cuckoos will only be able to get their way if we let them.