The 7 May “We Are London Met” conference, attended by more than 100 students, staff and other activists, was a reminder of how much is at stake in the struggle for the future of higher education. London Metropolitan University, which has the highest proportion of working-class students of any U.K. university, is planning to cut 70% of its courses, with the Faculty of Humanities, Arts, Languages and Education (HALE) under especially severe threat.
At the opening session, Jeremy Corbyn pointed out that the generation of politicians presently driving through the rise in tuition fees enjoyed a free university education. For many years, education did not entail a huge burden of debt and—as other speakers pointed out—this meant that students were free to develop the kind of intellectual skills that would equip them to understand exploitation rather than simply submit to it. Two former lecturers, Richard Kirkwood and Mary Davis, both spoke powerfully about the ethos of London Met (and, before that, the Polytechnic of North London) that is now under attack: education as a development of critical intelligence rather than mere training for work.
A current Performing Arts student movingly described how much she has benefited from a course which has by national standards an exceptionally large practical component—and then, visibly upset, recounted her shock at finding out that the course is being cut, with no guarantee that she and all the other present students will even be allowed to finish their degrees at London Met rather than some other institution. Students are being left in complete limbo. (One of the demands of the London Met students occupying a building adjacent to the conference venue is simply that Vice-Chancellor Malcolm Gillies meet with them to explain what is going to happen.)
Another speaker reported that London Met’s BA in Caribbean Studies faces the axe, a reminder of the racist dimension of the education cuts. This is the only undergraduate course of its kind in the country and one of the initiatives to emerge from the conference, proposed by Mark Bergfeld and Dan Hancox, is a campaign to defend Caribbean Studies. Additionally, a member of Islington Hands off Our Public Services (IHOOPS) proposed a demonstration, which deserves wide support.
After the conference, participants demonstrated outside the occupied Graduate Centre and debated in a lively fashion with Professor Gillies’ burly bouncers.