The Political Case for Caring Inside the Academy

by Aliya Yule

Academic institutions are not built for caring. My university is built for a class of men with money and time to spend reading, writing, and thinking. It is built from the profits of slavery, with statues celebrating famous colonialists adorning almost every building. With the creeping marketisation of education there is even less room or acknowledgment of the caring work we do and need to survive. As students are treated as consumers, and education becomes a commodity to be traded, students are taught to compete rather than collaborate, and caring for each other becomes even less acknowledged and valued, in a society where caring work is already unvalued and unappreciated.

But students are fighting back. We want caring to be at the heart of our education systems.  From campaigning against racist Prevent counter-terrorism legislation, to working for a decolonised education, students of colour are fighting to be heard, for the discrimination and criminalisation we face to be recognised, and for the care needed to survive in institutions not built for us to be acknowledged. The climate of suspicion promoted by Prevent has a disproportionate effect on students of colour, especially if we are Muslim. We are often already under pressure and scrutiny in an elite environment; being of colour and working class is extra pressure; being under suspicion as harbouring ‘terrorist’ sympathies is intolerable. When our lecturers, tutors and welfare staff – the very people who are supposed to care about our emotional and academic development – are pitted against us, we will fight back.

It is not a coincidence that so many of the non-academic staff – those serving and cooking our meals, and cleaning our rooms – are predominantly migrant women, working two or three different jobs, with barely enough time to see their own children. The division between theoretical feminism and the realities of women’s lives was never so stark than in the week I was studying ‘liberal feminism in political theory’. It was the same week one of the college cleaners, a Nepalese woman, told us that many of her family had been made homeless or killed by an earthquake, and that she couldn’t afford to see them, or have any way of finding out if any of them were okay. The feminist theories we were being taught did nothing to address these tragic injustices. Academia trains us to distance ourselves, to ‘research’ the conditions and pains of others rather than to learn from them and act with them.

As a former Women’s Campaign Officer, I saw firsthand how the lack of caring within academic institutions hurts students, particularly women. My university – and others around the country — provide totally inadequate support for students who have suffered sexual violence, at a time when one in seven women students experience it at university. The vast majority of these assaults go unreported: we don’t know who to turn to when time and time again we have been told we are lying or we are ignored. I was once helping to report a series of sexual assaults to the man in charge of discipline at my college, when, in the midst of a heated conversation about the police, he told me: ‘You must remember, women often lie about this sort of thing.’

Under austerity, this lack of caring is having a more and more damaging effect on students, and in particular, on our mental health. In the UK, one in five students consider themselves to have a mental health problem, and of these nearly half cited financial difficulties as one of the main causes of mental distress. One in ten students have considered suicide. As tuition fees increase, maintenance grants are cut for the most vulnerable students, Disabled Students Allowance is slashed further, and housing becomes even more unaffordable, the financial and emotional crisis will get worse – especially as counseling services are underfunded and under resourced.

In response, women on campuses up and down the country have set up online groups to help each other. In the Facebook group Oxford Women Self Care, women get together to support each other, share experiences of sexual abuse and trauma, seek help in accessing services, expose the inadequacies of the mental health teams, and get reassurance when we are feeling low.

But in these groups, we cannot forget that doing this caring work is a political fight: it is a fight against market forces which have hidden and devalued caring work, it is a fight against capitalist austerity which makes caring work so much harder and at the same time more needed, and a fight against the oppression and domination that we face. To ignore this is to conceal all the organising work that grassroots women do around these issues, to obscure the injustices that we face and their roots, and to abstract ourselves from reality in the same way so much of academic feminism does.

3595167_origThe forthcoming conference Caring, Survival and Justice vs. The Tyranny of the Market’ is a moment for women, whether we identify as feminist or not, whether we are students or not, for people in industrial and non-industrial countries, for waged and unwaged workers, to come together against oppression and exploitation in all forms, and to work together to demand that what is essential to every society and to happiness. This is what we mean by building a caring society.

Join us on the 14-15th November

WAC Arts, Hampstead Town Hall Centre, 213 Haverstock Hill,

London, NW3 4QP

Call 020 7482 2496, and visit: gwsconf15.weebly.com

 

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Aliya Yule is a former student union vice president and women’s campaign officer. Find her on Twitter @aliyayule

 

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