Leaders from monarchs to presidents to prime ministers have all feared the latent power of the masses. There are two ways in which states deal with the masses: the first is to provide diversions, as the Romans did, offer them panem et circenses – bread and circuses. The second way is to oppress them and smash them when they stir from their slumber. This is the method that was chosen by the Emperor Justinian when he perceived the Nika Riots in 532 to be a threat to his regime. He sent his trusted general, Belisarius and the eunuch Narses to the Hippodrome to confront the mob which included some senators. Narses’s job was to divert the attention of the mob producing a bag of gold pieces while Belisarius charged in and massacred the lot of them. Admittedly Justinian thought of leaving Constantinople but his wife, the Empress Theodora persuaded him to stay with these words,
“Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress”.
The third way is hardly mentioned and generally avoided by right wing parties: education.
Universal education was introduced in Britain in the middle of the 19th century for the purpose of preparing young people for the world of work. The extant public schools were founded with the intention of providing education for the poor of their area. The educational emphasis of the public school was based on classical models of pedagogy. The pupils who went to such schools were expected to go in to the clergy or the civil service. The working class were expected to stay in their place; the chance of upward mobility was remote and therefore the education they received was basic: reading, writing and arithmetic.
And so it remained until the 20th century when the Education Act of 1944 opened the doors of the country’s universities to the working classes. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, working class admissions to universities rose by 25%.
Those working class people who went to universities between the 1950’s and 1980’s will tell you what an experience it was. Many will also tell you that for the first time, they were exposed to new ideas, some of those ideas would form the core of their political beliefs. Indeed many activists in the 1960’s were students who came from working class backgrounds. This no doubt alarmed the Conservatives who were concerned that the newly educated working classes now had the tools to take apart their arguments and press for greater social equality. Those students could also go on to educate others in ways that ran counter to the dominant ideology.
By the 1980’s, the Thatcher government embarked on a war against the working class. To curb them, she would first attack their institutions: the trade unions, seek to limit their access to higher education and try and buy them off with the dream of home and share-ownership. She would also identify the National Union of Students as a hotbed of student activism; another form of resistance to her rule. Thatcher wanted membership of the NUS to be voluntary rather than automatic upon enrolment. The Conservatives openly attacked the NUS and used its Federation of Conservative Students (FCS) as a sort of column to counter them. The FCS was not affiliated to the NUS and received funding from the Freedom Assocation. Its members could often be seen wearing T-Shirts with the words “Hang Mandela” and many of its members were also members of The Monday Club.
I went to a polytechnic in the mid-1980’s. Polytechnics were introduced by Wilson’s Labour government in the 1960’s with the aim of providing vocational courses at tertiary level and thus put higher technical qualifications on a par with academic ones. I went to Newcastle upon Tyne Poly because I realized that I could not afford to throw more money away on audition fees to the various drama schools that I’d applied to. I figured that having a degree would be better than having a diploma from some drama school and I might even learn more at a poly than a drama school. I also thought (wrongly) that both my working class background and my American education would preclude me from going to a university. So Poly it was.
Towards the end of my undergraduate years, Thatcher announced wide-ranging ‘reforms’ to higher education one of which ended the maintenance grant that was paid to students and the other proposed that polytechnics could become universities that had the power to award heir own degrees. Enacted after her departure from office, The Further and Higher Education Act (1992) also meant that FE colleges were taken out of local authority control and were formed as individual corporations. These college-corporations would reduce adult education in order to get more ‘bums on seats which means more funding as a result (each enrolled student is equal to a unit of funding). The introduction of student loans had the effect of reducing numbers of working class entrants to university. The numbers further declined when Blair introduced tuition fees in 1998 and top up fees in 2004. This ended Labour’s commitment to a system of higher education that was open to all. This also ended any ideas of upward social mobility that working class people had.
The Blair government also went one step further: they placed universities under the aegis of the Department for Business Enterprise and Skills. This was a clear signal from the Blair government that it wanted to transform universities from places of learning to factories that produced workers for largely service sector-oriented jobs, as well as those in the financial sector.
Given the coalition government’s penchant for slashing anything that requires public funding, higher education is, in future, likely to be accessible only to those who have the money to pay for it. For all their talk of ‘fairness’ it is clear that this is nothing more than empty rhetoric. The government can introduce and presumably find the money to fund the so-called free schools but they are reluctant to provide access to higher education to those from poorer backgrounds. The free schools, incidentally, are likely to be run by private companies rather than pushy parents.
It is clear that the Tories have been opposed to the working classes gaining access to higher education. For them, education beyond the formative years must be paid for. They regard educated working class people as dangerous and subversive. This is the reason why the Bible was written in Latin until the 16th century and interpreted only by those who had knowledge of that language. Slaves in the US were forbidden to read and write and anyone caught instructing a slave could face harsh penalties. The reasons why were glaringly obvious.
For all their talk of freedom, the government seem intent on granting freedoms to their own class and denying it to those below them.