Letter from London
November 22, 2010
Students take to the streets in massive protest
As some of you might know, after five truly wonderful and most remarkable years at The New School and in New York, I have recently embarked on a new exhilarating adventure pursuing my PhD at the European Institute of the London School of Economics. Not long after I arrived to the UK things started heating up in the university community. Last week, on November 10, an estimated 50,000 people took the streets of the city to display their anger over the government’s plan to triple tuition fees and erase state teaching grants in academia. The demonstration went out of control when a minor group of protesters turned violent and attacked the Tory headquarters; with the police unable to prevent the escalation of violence, it turned into a four hour standoff with the police. The rioting faction stormed into the building by smashing windows and got as far as the roof from which they waved anarchist flags and threw missiles. Despite the media’s overwhelming focus on the few rowdy participants, this was by far the largest politically motivated act of protest against governmental polices since the Iraq war. It is clear to both sides of the conflict (the government and the students) that what happened last week in the capital, a massive act of civic discontent in response to the state’s cutting back on education, was just an taste of what is yet to come.
The National Union of Students condemned the actions of the most radical group but underlined the peaceful demeanour of the majority of the protesters and the truly impressive turnout against the proposed measures that would drastically shift the burden of higher education to the students and their families. The cabinet of the conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is attempting to raise undergraduate tuition fees to up to ¬£6,000 a year (almost double what it is today), which in many cases would really mean an increase to ¬£9,000.
On a social level such striking and sudden elevation of college attendance costs will inevitably single out students from underprivileged backgrounds, unable to finance student loans and with scarce outside funding opportunities incapable of filling in the vacuum left by the state’s withdrawal.
When marching in the NUS lead protest I saw tens of thousands of infuriated students and their supporters, expressing their dismay not only towards the proposed surge in undergraduate tuition fees, but an overall dramatic shift in the government’s educational policy en masse. The march was a sign of protest against the eradication of the EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance), which to various degrees financially supports over 600,000 students in the United Kingdom. The other issues at stake were dire cuts in funding of fine arts and the Department of Education, and a decrease of about 10,000 available university spots for next year despite the rising application rates.
What was most especially visible and widely expressed by the participants of the protest was its civic aspect. What dominated the protests was discontent against a coalition cabinet with historically low legitimacy that is insisting on shifting the burden of fiscal austerity to the most vulnerable stratum of society, the young striving to find their place in this difficult economy. In the context of bank bailouts and other generous financial stimuli for the private sector, Cameron’s attempt to graft the budget deficit by burdening the education sector is seen as outrageous. However, what had been expected from the Conservative party comes as a tremendous surprise for the supporters of Liberal Democrats, who during the campaign proposed a complete eradication of college costs and now are backing their coalition partner in almost tripling the current fees.
The march was therefore a sign of disapproval not only for the neo-liberal policies of the Tory lead cabinet but also the turnaround of Nick Clegg and his Lib Dems, a striking betrayal of election promises given specifically to the young whose vote brought him to power for the first time in history. This is not, of course, a re-creation of the 1960s; these protests seem to transgress both class and political divisions, gathering a very diverse and colourful crowd. The march was very international (especially students from continental Europe), together with British youth, among which one could see anarchists, radical socialists, veiled Muslim girls, preppy Oxbridge students, and hipster-ish LSE and UCL London-based students. It is, however, no coincidence that the rally drew together students and academics from both fairly sustainably funded institutions and the ones most vulnerable to the fee surge. The university community is determined to curb the conservative attempts to so radically and overwhelmingly withdraw the state’s support for higher education on an unprecedented scale in the European Union.
Roch Dunin-WƒÖsowicz, London School of Economics, Democracy & Diversity Cape Town and Wroc≈Çaw alumnus