Words: Amy Adams and Oliver Balaam.
Universities minister David Willetts was met with strong opposition by students when he visited UEA to give a lecture on philosophy and government. A protest, organised by undergraduate Cal Corkery and approved by the Union of UEA Students (UUEAS), gathered outside the lecture theatres half an hour before the event began. Corkery, along with UUEAS officers Meg Evans, Matt Myles, Tash Ross, and postgraduate officer and president of the GSA John Taylor, met with Willetts prior to the event to ask questions directly.
Speaking to Concrete after the event, communications officer Matt Myles said: “It was good. We didn’t expect to change his mind but we did expect to get our points across, which I think we did really well. We informed him of the motion of no confidence and we challenged him on A B margins and bidding systems as well as research frameworks.”
Corkery added: “We obviously understood that we weren’t going to get any concessions or major slip ups from him but we put across the views of UEA students pretty well, which is all we set out to do.”
Willetts was lecturing as part of a series entitled Philosopher-Kings?: How philosophy informs real politics today, and spoke about the “logic of the welfare state”. He compared the welfare state to a hunter-gatherer tribe, with working age citizens providing for the old and the young as well as themselves in order to repay their elders for their upbringing and to pay for care after retirement. In this way he argued that the welfare state mimics natural human order in a broader sense.
While Willetts’ lecture stuck to the themes of the series, certain members of the audience appeared dissatisfied by his lack of focus on recent higher education reforms. These were addressed briefly within the lecture as one aspect of his larger argument: “Students do not pay fees upfront. Unlike many countries we provide loan service on terms that are far better than commercial … In general, going to university does boost your earnings, and so it is reasonable to expect graduates to pay back out of their earnings. If they’re in low paid jobs they do not pay back. It’s a good example of the smoothing of incomes and spending over the life cycle, which is just what government can and should do.”
Willetts also highlighted the announcement of a £250m investment from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), including £19m for The Genome Analysis Centre in Norwich.
UEA lecturer Dr Alex Brown responded to the talk by highlighting the non-economic contributions which can be made to society, and the importance of arts and humanities.
During the question and answer session which followed, Willetts defended cuts as members of the audience questioned the coalition’s education policies. These criticisms included accusations regarding the music school closure earlier this year. However, Willetts defended the reforms, arguing that the costs will be spread over the “life cycle” of the graduates who will pay less per month over a longer period. He was also criticised for holding shares in a science and technology firm while holding the role of minister for universities and science. He stated that these were publicly listed and entirely legal.
The Union appeared pleased with the day’s events. Speaking to Concrete, Myles said: “I think the protest was a good turnout. I’m happy with how many people turned up to show support for policies that the Union democratically voted in, particularly free education and no confidence in David Willets.”
Corkery said: “I think it’s good that students are showing that they’re still angry about tuition fees and about the other higher education reforms. The NUS conference this year called another national protest this autumn so hopefully this can be the start of things kind of building up again.”