Students involved in a local campus sit-in and protests are engaged in passionate debate about alternatives to the govenment's higher education policies - which revolve around removing 80 per cent of public funding for the university teaching grant and all public funding for arts, humanities and social science courses.
At the University of Exeter, what one lecturer calls "a brave, passionate and critically engaged group of students" have been discussing the reasons and consequences of these policies, as well as the search for fresh approaches.
The Exeter students are challenging the cuts and tuition fee hikes passed by a narrow majority in the House of Commons yesterday (9 December 2010) with reference to controls on capital flows and the accumulation of personal debt, tax and tax avoidance policies, changes in spending priorities, and reinstating the value of public goods.
They see their sit-in not just as a symbolic protest, but as an opportunity to seriously challenge the assumptions and policies of elected politicians taking decisions that impact the lives of millions.
In an article published on the website of the beliefs and values think-tank Ekklesia, Dr John Heathershaw, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Exeter, comments: "These students are what university should be about: the free and open discussion of alternative ideas. It is these alternatives, be they scientific or cultural, political or economic, that drive society forward."
He adds: "It is the inclusion of all of society – from wealthy to poor, from global to local – that provides this rich environment for the exchange of views of all kinds, from all corners."
But according to the National Union of Students, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and other parliamentarians have been avoiding or refusing to discuss their policies with student constituents.
In the run up the the Commons vote, Mr Clegg's office reportedly told one such group in his Sheffield Hallam constituency that he was "too busy" to meet with them (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13751).
Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow commented: "Instead of walking away from serious discussion with those at the sharp end of their policies, as many seem to have been doing, politicians and policy makers need to listen and learn from the wider concerns and perspectives being raised by students at Exeter and elsewhere."
"The notion that 'there is no alternative' to recessionary policies and a narrow approach to higher education based on massive funding reductions and fee increases suggests a dangerous poverty of thought and ambition," he suggested.
In his article, Dr Heathershaw says: "It is difficult not to conclude that university occupations across the land take place in the twilight of the public university.
"In reality, we have been less public and less universal for years. The 9 December 2010 vote in parliament is one more nail in the coffin of both the idea and practice of the university as a public good."
Read the full article, 'The twilight of the public university? Inside Exeter’s occupation', here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13749