Academia seems like an oppressive place at the moment.
Astronomical tuition fees exclude many from university studies, or impose decades of debt. Working conditions for staff are increasingly abysmal, permanent jobs are an endangered species. The profit-making neoliberal framework behind these changes has lead to the stealth privatisation of UK universities, impoverished contracts and pay for academics over the last 14 years.
But in the last few weeks a few more astonishing events surrounding our learned institutions have sprung into the news.
Universities UK (“the definitive voice for universities in the UK”) endorsed segregation at events organised under the auspices of what are still, as yet, public universities in the UK.
How ironic that this endorsement of segregation should occur shortly before people flocked to South Africa to honour Nelson Mandela, whose lifetime was spent standing against segregation. Public institutions serve the greater good of the general population, and represent a nation’s values. Why is gender apartheid acceptable but ethnic apartheid abhorrent?
Universities UK claim to be providing legal guidelines which will help universities avoid ‘unlawfully excluding people from events’. But, in a secular public setting, why would the religious preferences of the few be favoured over the human rights of the many?
Partly in response to this endorsement of segregation in their place of learning, students have taken to the streets. Their protests covered many valid issues including:
Sky-rocketing fees and lifetime debt; Solidarity with academic staff striking about pay cuts; The threatened closure of the University of London Union;
The student protests were quashed in aggressive clashes with the police, and The University of London obtained an injunction banning student protests…
Segregation, followed by a ban on protest. Academia in the UK seems to have taken a giant leap backwards for humankind of late.
These events are symptoms of an academia that is lost. The feeling of powerlessness is endemic among those who exist in universities and academic institutions today. Students and academics are subjected to decisions, policies, but also ‘guidelines’ and other insidious forms of policy, emerging from the faceless institutional Goliath that is the academic administration.
These administrations and bureaucracies now form the central crux of academic institutions. The bloated administrations set up to support the institutions forget their purpose, which is, by the way, to support the endeavours of higher education and knowledge production. Unfortunately we see it time and time again: administrations and bureaucracies become self-fulfilling prophecies, they become their own raison d’être, self-serving and protectionist.
Institutional bureaucracies are also anonymous entities into which power and decision-making diffuses like vapour. No one appears to be responsible for decisions and their consequences. Extraordinarily violent policies about contracts, pay, fees, can be delivered with a cutting innocence by oblivious lower administrative staff. The students and the staff operating within academia have no say within these gargantuan administrative machines, and when they try to confront them, are at a loss: who or what to hold accountable and how?
The danger of large administrations swamping the institutions they are supposed to serve, exists in every system. Safety nets to protect individuals within the institutions must be laid down and upheld.
These are democratic entities, such as unions; and basic human rights, like the right to protest and the right to equality. They are already in place, and must be upheld.
Polly Toynbee’s Guardian article about gender segregation: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/26/british-universities-gender-segregation-secular
Recent student protests: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/06/university-of-strife-john-harris?CMP=twt_gu
Channel 4’s coverage of gender segregation and the protests: http://www.channel4.com/news/universities-uk-uuk-gender-segregation-demo-protest