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Return of the student army

United Kingdom

Anger at education cuts is still strong. Photo: Selena Sheridan, under a CC License.

Two years ago, on 10 November 2010, young people took to the London streets. Angry at the cuts to educational funding instigated by the British coalition government, 50,000 joined the ranks of the ‘Demolition’ march, which was organized by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union.

The planned hike in tuition fees to £9,000 ($14,379) a year, cuts to university funding and the scrapping of educational maintenance allowance (EMA) for those in Further Education had stoked their fury. The stinging betrayal of young voters by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg who, before he became deputy prime minister, had promised to oppose a fees rise, made matters worse.

Demolition came to a head outside the Conservative Party headquarters on Millbank as a small group broke away from the main march. Hundreds of people gathered outside the building, chanting and cheering, while others surged through the doors.

Most of the mainstream press reported variations on ‘an ugly turn to a peaceful demo,’ complete with ‘riot porn’ photographs. But Millbank was about more than smashed windows. People wanted to be heard at the door of the people who they felt were to blame – far more empowering than a polite march from A to B. After all, before the 2010 general election Clegg himself had warned of ‘Greek-style unrest’ over cuts. Why was anyone surprised?

Despite the subsequent distancing-move by the NUS, (then leader Aaron Porter dropped his previous ‘support’ for direct action like a hot potato after Millbank), November 2010 was the start of something.

The anti-cuts movement, which had been growing since the start of the academic year, continued over the following months with national protests, university occupations and class walkouts. Kettling became a routine police tactic at demonstrations and by November 2011 there was the threat of rubber bullets. As the months wore on, the numbers of people on the streets dwindled, partly weakened by the transient nature of the student population. The former is one of the biggest challenges for education campaigners – every year the movement needs to be regrown and strengthened.

But the economic assault on education and young people has not let up. For courses starting this autumn, there was an 8.9 per cent drop in applications – arguably due to a lack of graduate jobs as well as the crippling cost. A debt of tens of thousands of pounds is considered the norm. For the first time in 50 years, young people in Britain are expected to have a lower standard of living than their parents have had. The one million unemployed young people in Britain face cuts to housing benefit with the prime minster mooting cutting it completely for under 25 year olds.

On Wednesday 21 November British students will be back on the streets of London seeking to reinvigorate the movement. They have been building momentum for months and have much inspiration to draw from internationally: in Quebec, the student movement claimed a victory over fee rises after protests (including mobilizing thousands of parents) and strikes lasting months. In Chile, the movement for free, public, education is still going strong into its second year, and enjoys widespread public support with hundreds of thousands joined sustained, persistent and creative protest offering clear solutions to the government.

Back in Britain, current NUS president Liam Burns has reportedly said he is worried things will ‘turn violent’ but has clarified this with: ‘one of the things that I’ve always said about Millbank is that I don’t think the act of peacefully occupying a locus of power, when you consider the trebling of tuition fees, was in any way disproportionate.’ Could it be that everyone is back on board?

But the movement shouldn’t be dependent on Burns’ approval – it needs to be able to show that it’s OK for young people act on their opinions, that campaigning won’t ‘jeopardize’ their future. In fact it’s their future, and that of future generations, that they are fighting for.

You can find out more about the protest on 21 November 2012 from the NUS or the Education Activist Network.

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