British students take to the streets against cuts

November 12, 2010

In what Sky News described as one of the largest demonstrations to hit London streets in decades, tens of thousands of students, teachers, staff members and their supporters rallied on November 10 in opposition to the new Conservative-led government’s plan for tuition increases and cutbacks at Britain’s colleges.

Organised by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU), the demonstration drew students from across the country for a march through central London, during which students occupied the Conservative Party headquarters.

Under the new tuition regime proposed by the coalition government of the Conservative (Tory) and Liberal Democratic (Lib Dem) parties, student fees, which until recently were subsidised entirely by the government, would rise to more than $14,500. This is almost triple their current level of about $5300.

Meanwhile, university teaching budgets are being cut by 40%.

Although the tuition hike was proposed by the current government, it comes about after the release of a study commissioned by the Labour government that lost power after the May general election. The study, known as the Browne Review, recommended the steep rise in tuition fees.

Protesters were keen to voice their sense of betrayal at the hands of the Lib Dems. Desperate to distinguish themselves from the Tories during the election campaign, the Lib Dems made appeals to students a central part of its strategy.

The party went so far as to require every candidate to sign a pledge opposing any and all increases in tuition if elected to office. Now, the Lib Dems are partners in the Tories’ budget-cutting regime.

The fee hike comes in the wake of the government’s announcement in October of to cut more than $130 billion overall. Many protesters connected the fee rise to the broader attack on working-class living standards embodied in the slashing of social welfare programs.

Frances O’Grady, deputy general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, told the rally: “This is about turning our colleges and universities from places of learning and opportunity into finishing schools for the rich.”

O’Grady dismissed claims that the cuts are necessary because of the budget deficit, pointing out the banks, having been bailed out with public money, “have been let off scot free”.

Feeder marches from campuses across London led into the main demonstration, and the march route made its way past the British Parliament and Conservative Party headquarters, before winding up at a rally outside the Tate museum.

At about 2pm, hundreds of protesters from the march forced their way into Tory headquarters and occupied the building. Protesters held it into the early evening before they were removed by police. Thirty-two people were arrested.

The occupation was portrayed as marginal and violent in media accounts. These sentiments were echoed by NUS president Aaron Porter, who condemned the breakaway action as “despicable”.

But author and university lecturer Nina Power wrote in the November 10 Guardian that the spontaneous action was really “a genuine expression of frustration against the few who seem determined to make the future a miserable, small-minded and debt-filled place for the many”.

Ashok Kumar, the full-time vice president of the London School of Economics Students’ Union, explained the reasons for the demonstrators’ anger: “Organising for the demonstration was relatively easy among students and lecturers because of the brutality of the cuts and the tripling of fees.

“In little more than a decade, we’ve seen free education turn into more than 30,000 pounds of debt ...

“I’m proud that so many of us took our anger out on the Tory Party campaign headquarters. The brutality of the police will not be reported on CNN or MSNBC in America, just as it wasn't reported in Seattle [during the anti-World Trade Organisation protests in 1999], but many ... students around the country are more confident after today that we will be a wrench in the Con-Dem machine …

“Today was only the beginning. The 46,000 students who attended today’s march and the 4,000 students who occupied the Tory Party HQ will now go back to their universities and begin building for the walkouts, strikes and occupations planned for November 24.”

It will take a sustained struggle to turn back the hack-and-slash policies of the coalition government, but the November 10 demonstration showed the determination of students and their supporters to draw the line.

[Reprinted from]

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