I don’t come from a rich family. My roots are working class. I am the first in my family to go to university. I was expected to follow in my father’s footsteps and enlist in the military. So after leaving school I performed a series of really crap jobs like working in a factory that made plastic bags and polyethylene film. But I always knew that I was never cut out for factory work or military service. I was an artist…or an academic.
I never really intended to become a postgraduate student but once I’d finished my BA, I found myself craving study and writing. I self-funded my Masters with some money that I’d inherited. After my Masters, I decided that I wanted to do a PhD but didn’t have the funds to afford the fees. I was offered a bursary for fees by the University of East London but doing a doctorate without funding and without the benefit of daddy’s trust fund makes the task extremely difficult. You can’t do a lot of the field work that you want to do and if you’ve been made redundant from a full-time job – as I have – you have no safety net. So acquiring funding in order to complete my project is crucial. The research bodies responsible for distributing funds to students like myself have been forced by this government to be even tighter with their funds thanks to the cuts in higher education funding. This has been compounded by the Tory-led government’s insistence that humanities and social science postgraduate students produce their knowledge within the narrow parameters of the ‘Big Society’. In other words, knowledge is now forced to genuflect before an ideological master.
Last month I was invited to attend an interview for Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funding. Before 2011, one had to apply directly to the AHRC for funding and applications were considered by the council. I’d have stood a better chance under the former system. Now, the money is given to a consortium of universities, who then decide who deserves the money. It’s the educational version of deserving and undeserving poor. So the constituent institutions that form the New London Graduate School get their Graduate School directors to form a panel who then question applicants about their proposals.
But it wasn’t an interview at all. It was more of a mugging; an intellectual kicking by a gang of academic thugs. The panel was a cheerless bunch, po-faced and unfriendly, they didn’t even offer me a drink of water (in spite of the fact that I appeared to be desperately thirsty). I found myself in the strange situation where I was suppose to pretend that I hadn’t started my PhD. I was also told that the interview would take 30 minutes and that 10 minutes would be dedicated to Q&A. That never happened. Instead, I was hauled over the coals relentlessly and my mind was “put to the question”. Confess! Confess! . One member of the panel, a rather large man from Middlesex University was the first to question me. His style was intimidating and abrasive; the academic version of Torquemada. He sat behind his tiny netbook and punched in data as I spluttered and stumbled. He set the tone for the rest of the ‘interview’.
So I wasn’t surprised when I received my rejection letter. I didn’t even read it in full. I merely scanned the letter for the all-too-familiar phrase “We are sorry but…”. They finished with the perfunctory “We wish you all the best with your project”. They needn’t have bothered. They should have adopted the attitude of a casting company and dispensed with the letter. At least in showbusiness, you know where you stand; they smile to your face and then ignore you. In academia, they repeatedly stab you in the heart and kick your head in at the same time, while rubbing salt into any open wounds.
The Tories will tell you that any study that isn’t within the narrow field of STEM subjects is frivolous. They scoff at subjects like Cultural Studies and Media Studies. They will also tell you that those who can’t afford postgraduate study should set their sights lower and forget their dreams, desires and ambitions. The universities, particularly the new universities, are now playing handmaid to David ‘Two Brains’ Willetts’s dream of a MacDonaldized vision of cheap, uniform, higher education institutions for the less well-off. The hidden discourse of Willetts’s grand vision is “Know your place”.
It is in the interests of my university to their utmost to retain me. Yet, I feel that they’re not really bothered if I withdraw or not. The university receives funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for each PhD student it enrols. It loses money when they withdraw. Can UEL afford to alienate its PhD students? Well, it appears that they can because I hear that hardship bursaries and outstanding student awards are to be discontinued.
Other countries look after PhD students, why not Britain? The answer? Because it is Britain.