Education: the route to a better future

This is another column I wrote for Aberdeen University’s student paper, The Gaudie, about the Fees Must Fall campaign in South Africa and how education must be the foundation of a better future for all.

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#FeesMustFall image from Connect, the Citizen

I grew up in Zimbabwe just as it was freshly liberated from decades of white-minority rule. And the new government focused on education as the new country’s route to success. That road to success hasn’t been an easy one, but it left me with a commitment to education as the best way for a society to achieve.

I’m currently visiting my family in South Africa, where education is the issue of the day. Students have launched a Fees Must Fall campaign, going on strike over the government’s fees policy. Over the past year this has put higher education at the heart of the debate about where South Africa’s future lies.

In the recent municipal elections the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, lost control of  city government in Pretoria (Tshwane), Johannesburg (Egoli) and – most symbolically – Nelson Mandela Bay. The new city governments seem likely to be an alliance of the liberal Democratic Alliance, who want to privatise services, and the ultra-left Economic Freedom Fighters who want to return land and property to the majority. It seems an unlikely marriage. And one most likely built on convenience or opportunism.

The reason the ANC have lost control is their failure to definitively choose an approach that transforms the lives of people sufficiently quickly. Far too many people still don’t have decent housing – or indoor toilets. Meanwhile the towering heights of the South African economy are owned by a tiny, monied, class. A class underpinned by the work and education of the many and the extraction of natural resources owned by all.

So University fees have become a key issue in this debate – with many claiming that University should be the lowest priority for a country with serious housing, health and infrastructure issues. It is a disgrace that South Africa has areas of the worst housing anywhere in the world.

But to argue that these are higher priorities than education is to miss the point. While the huge mining concerns are making massive profits it’s that money that should be used to transform the country. Paying for houses, hospitals and decent public transport can be done with the nation’s wealth, while also allowing people to benefit from open access to University and technical education.

So while Scotland and South Africa are different in many ways, the issues are very similar. If we want decent education we need to make the argument that it is more important than the eye-watering profits of the big companies. In Scotland, as in South Africa, Fees Must Fall!

A welcome to the new academic year

As Rector of the University of Aberdeen, I write a column in the student newspaper, the Gaudie. Given the recent discussions (!) about immigration and education, I thought I’d post my piece from a couple of weeks ago here.

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Image taken during industrial action supported by AUSA and the student body earlier in 2016

Welcome (back) to Aberdeen, and to this wonderful community of learning, living, playing, and laughing. As Rector, it makes me very happy to see you start or return to your studies at the start of a new academic year. I welcome you all, wherever you come from in the world: regardless of what is happening in the media and in UK politics, I want to assure you that you are welcome here.

And I am pleased, too, to be writing this column, reinstating the Rector’s Rambles; my take on issues, events or other ponderings that I hope will be of interest to you, and will challenge you to think a little bit differently about the world.

The position of Rector is an interesting one; one that tells you a great deal about this institution and and Scottish Higher Education more generally. Rectors are directly elected by you, the students, every three years, and they chair the University’s governing body, the Court. They are a clear statement of and commitment to “the democratic intellect”: that universities exist to serve not just themselves, their students, or their staff, but the wider public good, to improve and support our society and make our world better for all.

At the start of the year, we might all take a moment to pause to consider the important role education plays in Aberdeen, in Scotland, and the wider world, fostering the intellectual life of this great city and of the nation. Education is not just for the very rich who can afford it, but for all who can benefit from it. Education is about so much more than obtaining knowledge and skills to become cogs in the machine of the labour market. It is about expanding our minds, our horizons. It is about pushing the boundaries of the possible to create a better future for our people, our communities, our world.

It is most definitely NOT about the market, or about treating students as customers. If we look back to Ancient Greece, which, amongst others, created the foundations of thousands of years of Western thought, we see that education was about the power of curiousness, enquiry, experimentation, not the power of the market or the power of citizens as customers.

Given the political and economic context of Scotland, the UK, Europe – and Aberdeen – today, we have to come together and work together to ensure we do not lose sight of the purpose and value of education, of ourselves as citizens, of this great institution.

I look forward to meeting many of you over the coming year, seeing your minds and hearts grow as you learn, teach, work and play, and working with you to create the changes our world so desperately needs.

Maggie calls for Donald Trump to lose his Scottish honorary degree

Maggie Chapman has called on Robert Gordon University to tear up Donald Trump’s honorary degree over his repeated racist diatribes against on Muslims. Trump’s most recent islamophobic outburst came yesterday, when he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”.

Maggie is Rector of Robert Gordon’s neighbouring Aberdeen University. She said both institutions – and the city as a whole – would be damaged by continued association with the far-right Presidential candidate. Robert Gordon University presented Trump with an honorary Doctor of Business Administration degree in 2010.

Maggie said:

“Donald Trump’s disgustingly racist campaign shows he is an utterly unacceptable ambassador for our gloriously global city and its international universities.

“His fascistic proposals to make Muslims wear identifying badges and, now, to ban all Muslims from entering the country are the policies of far-right extremism.

“While we hope that he will not get the chance to implement them, pronouncements like these from politicians and media drive islamophobic aggression, exposing Muslims to more and more discrimination, harassment and violence.

“Continuing to honour Donald Trump risks sending a signal to current and potential students, staff and partners that they are not respected, and that they are not safe.

“Robert Gordon University would never give an honorary degree to a leader of the BNP or the National Front. Donald Trump is no less a racist extremist, and is just as unfit to hold that honour.

“I urge Robert Gordon University to revoke Donald Trump’s honorary doctorate immediately.”

An online petition calling for Trump’s degree to be withdrawn is set to easily pass its target of 5,000 signatures.

Why we should stand in solidarity with students

In many ways, 1998 seems a long time ago.  It was before 9/11 and the war in Iraq.  It was before any of us had heard about Al Qaeda, nevermind the War on Terror.  It was before Hurricane Katrina, and before the sequencing of the human genome.  Quite an unassuming year, in fact.  Yes, it was the year of the Omagh bombing, and the opening of the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge.

More significantly for many in the UK, however, it was the beginning of a very slippery slope.

Tuition fees were first introduced in the UK by the Labour Government under Tony Blair, and students who began their undergraduate degrees with me that October had to fork out up to £1,250 for the privilege.  And this was means tested, whether or not parents/family were prepared to offer support.  University applications decreased for the first time in a while that year, and UCAS data show that it was the poorer students who were put off most.

In 2006, students in England and Wales had Top-Up fees imposed on them, also by the Labour Government, taking the price of a degree to over £3,000 per year.  Unsurprisingly, university applications took a dip that year too.  In Scotland, the case was slightly different, with a graduate endowment being imposed instead of up-front fees.  This was scrapped by the SNP in 2007.

The proposed trebling of tuition fees from 2012 will have a catastrophic effect on education, young people’s lives, and the economy.  How many young people, aged 17, come from families that can afford £9,000 a year for a degree, on top of the ever increasing accommodation and other living costs?  What does it say about the current coalition Government that they have decided not to invest in education, but instead have chosen to price the majority out of this public good?

As a lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University, I know what it means for people to be the first in their family to come to a university, to become independent thinkers and learners, and to graduate in spite of difficult circumstances.  If Scotland had tuition fees, most of my students would not be at university at all.  Scotland has always valued education differently to the rest of the UK, and thankfully so.  So we must very definitely and defiantly stand up with our colleagues in England and Wales, and fight against the proposals that will see generations of young people deprived of the right to broaden their minds, simply because Mummy and Daddy couldn’t afford to send them to Eton.

I am angry about the proposals of this coalition government to treble fees, especially when this means breaking a promise to abolish fees.  But I am angrier at those who opened the floodgates 12 years ago.  The party of the people?  I think not.  We said then that the increasing of fees would be inevitable after they were introduced … and sadly, we were right.  Labour laid the foundations for what we see now: a government determined to attack the poor and the young in order to make the rich richer.  Why is it ok for the wealthiest 1000 people to increase their wealth by £77 billion last year (that’s more than one third of our £167 billion deficit!), but not ok to fund Higher Education?  Student fees, and the public services cuts that are being introduced alongside them, are not necessary.  They are a choice made on behalf of the rich against the poor and most vulnerable.  I will not take this sitting down.

Neither should you!