Defend Higher Education

In light of today’s speech by Vince Cable, and several ominous articles in the press and on-line, it seems the UK’s science community is beginning to formulate a response. Jennifer Rohn at nature wants to organise a march on London. There’s a facebook group to coordinate the campaign, and a twitter hashtag (#scienceisvital). It’s a cause I fully support and it’s not hard to see where the anger comes from. These cuts are existential for many departments and researchers. People who have worked long hours, often without proper holidays, for years, in positions paying far less than their friends who left for finance, friends whose companies governments found billions to bail out, are now threatened with closures and lay-offs. Many will have to go abroad, to countries where they value research and, despite higher debt-to-GDP ratios are increasing funding not cutting it. There are thousands of scientists out there those livelihoods and futures are threatened; that they are prepared to do something about it is heartening.

We have to remember, though, that these cuts to science funding, and other academic research, aren’t happening in isolation. They’re part of an agenda intent on rolling back the state for ideological and not sound economic reasons. And just as cutting science funding now will have a deleterious effect on the economy in the future, so too will the coalition’s other cuts. Our debt is not so high that drastic cuts must be applied now or face ruin. Even the IMF say we can probably afford to borrow another 50% of GDP without long term consequences, while the bulk of the increase in deficit recently is caused not by spending too much but a falling tax take. Cutting back on investment and research will only make that worse.

If scientists and academics really want to stop the cuts about to befall their departments a unilateral march without clear political goals, which fails to stretch beyond a relatively small on-line community will not be enough. I say that not to denigrate their efforts. They are to be applauded. I’ll sign their petitions, I’ll make every effort to attend their protests but I fear it will be too little. Fortunately, we already have national organisations with branches across the country and the sector and staff who already know how to lobby governments and organise protests. They’re called trade unions and it’s time those of us who haven’t joined paid their dues and those who have to get more involved.

It’s a sad truth, at my university at least, that academics and scientists in particular have been far too reticent to commit their time or effort to building a better, stronger union. Most postgrads in my department probably couldn’t tell you who our union is, or know that they can join. For a short time I, as a first year PhD student was the only representative of a science department on our local branch committee. The college of science and engineering at Edinburgh has around 2000 staff. Of course, it’s not all the staff’s fault, the union needs to do much more to communicate, it needs to be more open and engaging with its members. But those reforms can come in time. Right now we face a more immediate threat and it’s time we did something about it.

UCU and NUS actually already have plans for a national demonstration on Wednesday 10th November under the banner Fund out Future: Stop Education Cuts.