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The making of “I melt the glass with my forehead”

I have written at length about the current state of Higher Education in the UK and in particular on the trebling of tuition fees in English universities. However, in Spring of last year, Joanna Callaghan (an AHRC-funded filmmaker and Senior Lecturer in Media, Art and Design at Bedfordshire University) and I felt that another kind of response was also needed to the situation we find ourselves in, one in which academics might also offer a gesture similar to those made by the generation of students who have so intelligently and imaginatively opposed the Coalition’s policy on fees. In order to do justice to the cause of the student protestors, and the idea of the university we believe in, we felt a creative response was also needed. This is why we made “I melt the glass with my forehead”: a film about £9,000 tuition fees, how we got them, and what to do about it.

[Watch the full movie onlinehere.]

The title of the film is explained early on. It comes from a talk given by Dan Hancox of The Guardian at an event I organised for Universities Week last year: ‘The Humanities and Money’ at The London Capital Club, 16 June 2011.

Hancox tells of the moment when he came across the phrase, ‘I melt the glass with my forehead’, chalked on the pavement in Trafalgar Square during the demonstration of March 26th. He went home and googled it to find that it came from Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1915 work A Cloud in Trousers. For Hancox the citation of the lyricism of Russian Futurism summed up the psychic transformation that this generation had gone through and the creative energy it has called upon to articulate its cause. It is difficult to dismiss such erudition as the action of feral youth. I do not believe that the student mobilisation over fees was a moment of revolutionary antagonism (that is someone else’s dream). Rather, it has been and continues to be an eloquent plea for justice, for inter-generational justice in particular and for a defence of both the public good of universities and the right of everyone to attend them.

I have written such things before; I could and probably will write a book about it. However, making a film is a different thing and this is also a different kind of film. Deliberate choices have been made here. We did not want to produce the familiar documentary in which a ‘celebrity academic’ visits other eminent professors to gather authoritative opinions. Nor did we want to use a masterly voice-over to explain and give shape to the fragments we had assembled. Rather, Joanna Callaghan’s skilful editing allows the story to tell itself and for the representative voices to speak for themselves. From their responses emerges a kind of creative responsibility. A film that, we hope, responsibly tells the story of tuition fees and their complex history while doing justice to those who kindly agreed to participate in the making of the film.

What emerged during the making of this film is that while £9,000 tuition fees may have a history it is not at all certain that they have a future. The decision to increase the cap on fees had long been in the making, not only in the pre-election work of the Browne Review but also in the reforms of 2004, 1998, and 1990. Successive governments have travelled down the road of simultaneously expanding the numbers of undergraduate students attending university while subtly and incrementally shifting the burden of funding that expanding system onto the shoulders of young graduates. This has eventually lead us to the position we find ourselves in today with amongst the most expensive university fees in the developed world and a generation who with good cause feel that they are paying for the sins of their elders. In itself this situation would be politically unsustainable, but it is also fiscally unsustainable, as the political compromise within the Coalition has failed to answer any of the drivers for tuition fee reform. The new fees and loan system will do nothing to reduce the national budget deficit (in fact it will increase it), it will not put any more money into universities (in fact it will decrease it for many), it has not resulted in a ‘true market’ of student choice (both student numbers and fee levels are capped) and it has failed to distinguish between different universities (Oxford and Middlesex, for example, charge the same). There will have to be further reform after the election of 2015.

Ed Miliband, should he survive that long as leader, has already proposed to reduce the cap to £6,000 (a win-win policy that plays well with the Shires and reduces the fiscal cost of loans). However, it is not clear if this ‘pre-election proposal’ will be a manifesto commitment. Miliband’s favoured graduate tax remains an outside possibility for Labour. The Liberal Democrats may enter the election with the rather quixotic proposal to abolish all tuition fees, a promise which many will take to be not worth the paper it’s written on. David Willetts has played his cards and a future Conservative administration would wish to push further their agenda of increasing privatisation and marketisation. They may even wish to encourage the ‘elite’ to break from public funding and to remove the cap on fees entirely. However, any future minister for universities will now be wary of the double bind of any need for primary legislation that would bring students back to Westminster Square and the strictures of the treasury who will always want to keep a glass ceiling on the cost of the fees and loans system. None of these policies are particularly inspiring.

Whether one believes that, given all the other competing demands on the taxpayer, it is simply not possible to fund a mass system of higher education without a graduate contribution, or, one thinks that the case for funding our publically owned universities properly through taxation has simply not been made yet, one thing is certain. If the UK’s diverse and excellent university sector is to survive and students are to continue to attend it in the numbers that they have in the past, then a creative solution will have to be found to the fiscal and political pressures that £9,000 tuition fees fail so miserably to address. It will require an act of imagination every bit as inspiring as the students’ scrawled chalk citation of Mayakovsky. I wonder if our politicians are ready to meet that challenge.

Martin McQuillan is Dean of Arts and Social Sciences at Kingston University London.