On November 10, tens of thousands of students marched through London against education cuts and fee hikes. This was an indication of the revival of a militant student movement in Britain.
Clare Solomon, president of the University of London Union, told Green Left Weekly: “That demonstration was absolutely electric, especially when we occupied the Millbank Tory party headquarters.
“There were thousands and thousands of 14, 15 and 16-year-old students, dancing, singing, hugging. It really was like a carnival of the oppressed.”
The protests were against “the proposal to increase tuition fees from £3000 to anywhere up to £9000 and, at the same time, cut funding to education by up to 100%”, Solomon said.
“Arts and humanities are receiving 100% cuts to funding. Teaching budgets are being cut by 80% and research by 15%.
“This shows you what they want universities to be. They want research-intensive universities, because that attracts money to the university. This accentuates divisions between elite and more working-class universities.
“One of the things we are against is the ‘research assessment exercise’ — a sort of grading body PhD students have to comply with and apply to for funding. If your subject doesn’t have a quantifiable rate of return, then you don’t get funding.
“This sidelines less business-oriented subjects. It’s shaping research to the needs of capitalism.”
The May 2010 general elections resulted in the formation of a Conservative Party-Liberal Democrat coalition government. However, Solomon said the fee hikes were likely whichever party won the poll.
“It’s been known that fees were going to be increased for four to five years,” she said. “This is one reason why Labour Party students smashed the constitution of the National Union Students [NUS].
“They were obviously aware that students would want to rise up against fee hikes, so they’ve done all they can to try to prevent any democracy and radicalism within the NUS.”
However, she stressed that getting NUS support was essential for the success of the November 10 demonstration.
“It was built by the NUS (as well as all the activists on the ground) on the basis of us having won a motion at the conference last year. This was the first time for years that we managed to pass a motion for a national demonstration.
“So we had the backing of the NUS, the teachers union and UNISON [public sector trade union]. They were all supporting it and very actively building it. I was very impressed by the NUS at this stage.
“We had between 50,000 and 70,000 students on November 10, which was not expected. They really thought it was going to be about 10,000 to 15,000 — that’s what they told the police.
“Even we on the left were totally taken by surprise by the number and real range of students there.
“You can always tell when a movement has moved out further than the left when you see slogans on placards that are mildly offensive. There were a number of mildly sexist or homophobic placards.
“But that’s gone away — people have had one of the most rapid political educations.”
Much of the anger was directed at the junior coalition partner. “Last year the Liberal Democrats had as one of their election manifesto pledges reintroducing free education and they gained massive support from student voters on the basis of that promise. They did nationwide campus tours promising free education.
“It’s a classic tactic. When you’re not in power you can say what you like.
“But there were documents leaked showing that, even before the election, the Lib Dems had no intention of introducing free education. They’ve lost a lot of support since they reneged on their promise. Students were very angry about it.
“On November 10, the demonstration route went past the Lib Dem headquarters and the police put all their forces into protecting the Lib Dem headquarters.
“They took their eye off the fact that the Tory headquarters was also on the route. We didn’t even have to turn left or right!”
Notably, the movement has involved broader forces than just university students. “It wasn’t just university students. At the next protest, on November 24, about 70-80% weren’t university students.
“There’s a number of things high school and Further Education [FE] students are facing. They’re having their Education Maintenance Allowance [EMA] removed altogether.
“This is a means tested hardship fund of up to £30 a week. It is a lifeline for young students.
“At the moment, those eligible only get the EMA if they attend 100% of their classes. If they’re five minutes late, they don’t get it.
“So they already know now what it’s like to have a week without it. Cutting it altogether has infuriated them — it’s created a new layer of anti-system activists.
“I’ve been told by my son — an FE student — that in the three weeks since the EMA cut was passed, his sociology class dropped from 30 students to three.
“They’re also dropping out because they’re not able to afford to go to university any more, so what’s the point in doing A-levels?
“Now you’re going to have even more unemployed young people who are not able to get a job and find it difficult to claim benefits. It’s a bit of a ticking time bomb really.
“There have been a lot of people from much poorer backgrounds at the protests. There was a noticeable mix from all different cultural backgrounds.”
Media coverage of the student protests has focused on allegations of student violence.
“It’s the classic attack from the media that the demonstration was infiltrated by groups of organised anarchists,” Solomon said.
“But it wasn’t. There were anarchists on the march and I’m glad — if they’re not demonstrating, we’re doing something wrong!
“But it was really a case of being brutalised by the police. At one protest, participants were ‘kettled’ [surrounded by police, preventing anyone from leaving] for nine hours in the freezing cold with no food, water or toilet facilities, which made people angry.
“It made them need to, for a start, burn fires in order to keep themselves warm.
“There were young women — 14-year-olds — with crop tops and ballet pumps and ‘Fuck fees’ written on their belly. They’d clearly never been on a demonstration before and were absolutely freezing.”
Occupations have played an important role in the movement. “Last year, 50 universities and high schools were occupied. Occupations were crucial for building the ongoing demonstrations because the occupied sites were used as organising bases. They were used to hold public meetings, paint banners and so on.
“There is a solidarity that comes from people who’ve occupied together, the sense that you are part of something bigger.
“Occupations are crucial, but not the only thing. It’s also important to make sure we’re still pushing the trade unions and the NUS.
“There is the demonstration against all the government’s cuts on March 26, which was called by the Trade Union Congress. We’re looking forward to having a big education contingent on that demonstration with students and [education sector] workers.
“There are some that are a bit demoralised because the fee hike passed parliament [in December], but just because it’s passed doesn’t mean it can’t be overturned.
“We know that the CPE [first job contract] laws in France [that denied young workers job security] were overturned, even though they’d been passed by parliament. The poll tax in Britain [introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government] was abolished after sustained protest and non-payment campaigns.
“So we’re going to look at how to up the ante. There is a national student survey that helps create a system similar to hotel rankings. We can boycott that, which will have a significant effect on university managements as they won’t get their gold stars or whatever.
“We can also think about a mass non-payment campaign.”
Solomon said many student activists were veterans of the anti-war campaign. “They were the students that led the walkouts from high schools when they were 13, 14, 15. They’re now at university organising walkouts from universities and organising occupations.
“Two years ago, student occupations [in protest over Israel’s war on Gaza] put the tactic back on the political map. People who were involved in those have used the tactic in the education campaign.
“It’s important that we make the links. Why can’t they spend the money they’re spending on war and bailing out the banks (to the tune of £1.3 trillion) on education?
“We know that if they implemented measures to prevent tax avoidance, that would plug 80% of the budget deficit. The other 20% could be filled by military spending cuts — it’s quite a simple argument.
“I do get sick of the right saying: ‘What’s your alternative? You never come up with any other plan.’ We do.”