The UK’s Student Movement at a Crossroads
What was supposed to be the biggest UK student march of 2012 ends as a chaotic washout, leaving the future uncertain for Britain’s student movement
The days of a free higher education, once the norm in the United Kingdom, are long gone. And the current government tripled the cost of university tuition shortly after it entered office in may 2010.
Students reacted with angry protests on a massive scale, feeling particularly betrayed by the junior partner in the governing coalition, the liberal democrat party, who ran their election campaign appealing to students on a manifesto to fight against higher tuition fees, but joined the governmentâ€™s austerity cuts once in office
Today, those protests continue.
The primary focus of this demonstration is the tripling of university tuition fees and the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance, both of which students say will significantly damage their future life chances.â€
Protest organisers told us that their presence was a reminder to those in power that students would hold them accountable.
Liam Burns, President, National Union of Students
â€œWe had a solemn promise from a number in parliament which meant that tution fees shouldnâ€™t increase, and yet they lied and u-turned. This demonstration, and why we have thousands of people here today, is to say that thatâ€™s not good enough. Today is about setting up a narrative that by 2015 politicians have to do something different with education and employment in this country.â€
Toni Pearce, Deputy President, National Union of Students
â€œThis is about making sure our voices are heard. And not just for the sake of students now, but for communities and societies that are in those educational institutions.â€
The government says its wider programme of public spending cuts must go ahead to reduce the countryâ€™s massive budget deficit. It says the rise in tuition fees is necessary to ensure Britainâ€™s universities remain world class, and studentâ€™s won’t have to pay their tuition fees until after they start work. But the thought of having a debt of tens of thousands of pounds upon graduation doesnâ€™t go down well, especially when previous generations have enjoyed a free higher education.
Kallum Taylor, York University Students Union
â€œItâ€™s about priorities, and I think theyâ€™ve gone for short term goals here. Education and health are vital to any country, and those seem to be the two things this governmentâ€™s attacking. You need a healthy nation, you need an educated nation. Those two things did not cause the recession, and those are the two that are being attacked, and itâ€™s not good enough.â€
But this is not just about education cuts, many are concerned about a lack of jobs and opportunities for their age group.
Kallum Taylor, York University Students Union
â€œThereâ€™s a massive youth unemployment problem in the UK right now. Theyâ€™re making people work for longer until later on in life, till theyâ€™re seventy. And thereâ€™s not enough jobs here for young people, so graduates who are fit enough and clever enough to get decent jobs havenâ€™t got those rewards for them after university. So people are basically saying: What are we paying for?â€
But ultimately, government cuts in education spending have gone ahead, and today Britain’s student movement is not what it used to be. This was due to be the largest student demo of 2012. But unlike previous years, when 50 thousand students marched on London in opposition to governmentâ€™s plans, this time just a few thousand turned up. Some students acknowledged that the failure to stop the cuts had dealt a major blow to their cause, and it would take time to rebuild momentum.
â€œIt is going to take longer this time to build a movement, but itâ€™s important we do it. If we build one, and if students link together with young workers, and the wider trade union movement, I think it is possible that we can defeat this government and defeat the agenda which they represent, and hopefully save education for later generations.â€
The rally made its way along the river Thames embankment, some holding Palestinians flags in solidarity with the people of Gaza.
And there was dissent within the ranks. Organisers shepherded the march away from parliament and into South London, on a route agreed with the police. But others insisted this was the place to make their stand, irrespective of what the authorities felt. The police however ensured that didnâ€™t happen, locking down Parliament Square.
Eventually, the march moved on to its final rally point in a muddy field in South London. Again, dissenting voices could be heard, angry that the student leadership had dragged them out of central London and essentially out of sight. They shouted that theyâ€™d been sold out to the establishment. And the rally prematurely ended when dissenters within the crowd stormed the stage, angry with the organisation of the march, the failure of the union to prevent education cuts, and its continued support for the Labour Party, which has approved of doubling, rather than trebling tuition fees.
â€œThere is a division within the NUS now, between those that think we can keep building our movement and think we can go from strength to strength, and those that want to keep us quiet and make sure we vote labour in 2015. And I think that what youâ€™ve seen today is that division really being played out. Thereâ€™s no direction being given by the leadership.â€
The NUS leadership say militant forms of union action won’t work in the UK, and that theyâ€™re pursuing 21st century forms of campaigning for 21st century problems, which have garnered some concessions from the government. They dismissed the disruption of their rally as a distraction.
But as the clear up begins, many are left wondering what lies ahead for Britainâ€™s student movement, once able to rally vast numbers across the country, now divided and weakened. Hassan Ghani, for the Real News Network, London.