Britain: Students challenge fee rise, cuts

February 12, 2011
British students protest tuition fee rises, November 24. Photo: Matthew Lloyd

When the British Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government announced it would raise the maximum yearly tuition fee universities could charge students to £9000, thousands of students took to the streets of London in a series of protests.

Highlights included occupying the Conservative Party headquarters in London and frightening Prince Charles.

The tuition rise came after the release on October 12 of the Browne Review, a report into education funding chaired by former BP chief executive John Browne.

The report recommended abolishing the cap on tuition fees.

An October 12 article said that in the lead up to the May 2010 elections, Liberal Democrat leader — and now deputy prime minister — Nick Clegg told the National Union of Students (NUS) annual conference: “Life is just too unfair for too many young people today.”

Clegg, who in office has backed the tuition rise, called post-university debt a “dead weight around the necks” of young people.

“I think that the plans that both the Conservatives and Labor parties are cooking up to raise the cap on tuition fees is wrong,” he said. “We will resist, vote against, campaign against any lifting of that cap.”

The NUS called a protest on November 10 against the rise in tuition fees and the government’s scrapping of the Educational Maintenance Allowance.

More than 50,000 students took part in the march through London.

The December 31 British Guardian called the protests “the largest student demonstration for a generation”.

A section of the demonstration occupied Conservative Party headquarters.

Demonstrations and occupations continued around Britain. Students at Sussex University in Brighton began a sit-in on November 15. This action was replicated in universities around Britain in the following weeks.

Another mass demonstration was held in London on November 24. London Metropolitan Police used a method of crowd control on the protesters known as “kettling”, the February 2 Guardian said.

This involves police officers forming a cordon while moving in on demonstrators to confine them to a space, often for hours, without access to food, water or toilets.

Kettling was strongly condemned after its use at the 2009 anti-G20 protests in London. Video footage published by the Guardian showed newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson, who was not a protester, being caught in the kettle.

He was assaulted by a police officer and later died from his injuries.

Despite this, kettling remains a tactic often used by London police to control crowds at demonstrations — and students objecting to the tuition hike were subjected to it on November 24.

On November 30, demonstrations were held in 15 cities across Britain. In London, police responded by arresting 153 protesters, mainly for “breach of the peace”.

On December 9, the government defied the rising protests to pass its proposed tuition hike in parliament.

As the vote took place, students again mobilised across the country. In London, thousands protested outside parliament — which was protected by 2800 police, said on December 10.

Clashes between police and protesters were reported. After the demonstration, 20-year-old protester Alfie Meadows was hospitalised requiring treatment for “bleeding to the brain”. His mother told the BBC he had been hit in the head by a police truncheon.

A video posted on Youtube also showed police officers pulled a protester, Jody McIntyre, from his wheelchair.

During the December 9 protests, Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, tried to drive through the student demonstration — only to have their car surrounded.

One young protester expressed the anger of many over the tuition rise when he told the BBC: “We’re from the slums of London. How can we afford £9000 to go to university?”

The protests have continued into 2011. On January 29, thousands of people took to the streets of London once more to protest against government education cuts, the Morning Star said the next day. The article said protesters then joined a rally in solidarity with the uprising in Egypt.

The Morning Star said on February 10 that, under pressure, Clegg had indicated some restrictions on universities charging the full £9000.

Clegg said any universities wanting to charge more than £6000 a year would have to strike an agreement with the Office of Fair Access, to ensure poorer students had access to the most prestigious universities.

However, University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt said: “All the government has done is tinker with a failed system and this cannot mask its systematic removal of access to education.”

The struggle is clearly going to continue. The student movement is part of widespread protests from many sectors against the £81 billion in spending cuts announced by the government in October.

A key date for all sectors opposed to the extreme cuts imposed by the government is the National Day of Action called by the Trade Union Congress. Students can be expected to be out in force.

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