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Marching for ‘Free education’

United Kingdom

Students marching for a free education bill, in London, 19 November 2014. © Tom King

On 19 November, as many as 8,000 students from across Britain gathered on Malet Street in Bloomsbury, London, to join a noisy march to Parliament Square demanding an end to tuition fees.

The ‘Free Education’ demonstration marks an upturn in student activity ahead of the general election next year, and follows the waves of protests in 2010 and 2011, triggered by the trebling of tuition fees to £9,000 ($14,000) a year.

Now, students are not seeking to prevent any future fee hikes, but to do away with the regime of fees, loans and debt altogether. Put simply, says Beth Redmond, one of the demo’s organizers, the current system is ‘bullshit’.

For the first time in a decade, the National Union of Students (NUS) agrees. Until its spring conference, the union had pushed a ‘graduate tax’ as a replacement for tuition fees, but this year, delegates opted instead to campaign for higher education to be funded through general taxation.

The current fees policy has created an enormous black hole in government budgets, as students are increasingly unable to pay back their mortgage-sized debts. An argument based on balancing the books might appeal to austerity-minded politicians, but there are far more pressing reasons to scrap tuition fees.

A degree price-tag exceeding the annual household of many working-class teenagers makes the prospect of getting a university education unappealing at best, and unimaginable for others. At the same time, meagre maintenance grants mean that those who do make it live in poverty.

The pressure of debt focuses students’ minds on ‘CV building’ rather than academic enrichment. Fees are just the first step in transforming educational institutions into businesses with customers, rather than students, in a system that is marketized and market-focused.

‘Not only is a publicly funded education system achievable, it’s also necessary,’ says Megan Dunn, NUS Vice-President of Higher Education.

‘Forcing debt onto students as a way of funding universities is an experiment that has failed not just students, but our country. Politicians need to recognize that we will only achieve a sustainable higher-education funding system if we abandon the discredited regime of sky-high fees and debts altogether.’

However, to the disappointment of organizers, NUS pulled its support for the protest at the beginning of the month, saying that the march would pose an ‘unacceptable level of risk to our members’.

In hindsight, the national union’s position now looks cautious in the extreme. Compared to the police violence seen in the autumn of 2010, the scuffles this time were mild and barely a handful of people were arrested.

Students at the demonstration carried banners mocking the NUS’s perceived timidity and Redmond said students’ anger was understandable.

‘NUS efforts to undermine us is pushing them further into irrelevance. The small number of injuries came from the Met[ropolitan] Police themselves, which is what the organizers predicted originally,’ she said.

The march took students from the cluster of university campuses in Bloomsbury, through central London, passing surprised tourists at Trafalgar Square. As the procession rounded on Whitehall, with Parliament now in sight, the crowd erupted into chants of ‘Tory scum, here we come!’

Passing the gates of Downing Street, demonstrators hissed and booed, and the shout ‘David Cameron, fuck you! We deserve a future too!’ blared from megaphones.

Somewhere amid the ‘black bloc’ of masked, balaclava-wearing anarchists, a red smoke bomb was let off and minutes later a small group had charged at the barriers fencing off the green at the centre of Parliament Square and torn them down.

A throng of people flooded in, dancing and chanting with a samba band, while the remaining demonstrators marched on to the rally, as planned. As student activists and politicians addressed the assembled crowd, a few dozen broke away to converge on the offices of the Department for Business, Industry and Skills, which is responsible for universities, and paint was thrown at its glass façade.

It was among this minority of breakaways that arrests took place in running scuffles with the police.

Ignoring NUS warnings, coach-loads of students had come to London, some having travelled overnight, to join the march. Rory, a student at Aberdeen University, had made an 11-hour journey, despite already receiving free education funded by the Scottish government.

‘Despite the fact that I don’t pay tuition fees, I wanted to show my solidarity with all those students who do,’ he said. ‘I know how brilliant free education in Scotland is and how successful it’s been... the idea that no-one should pay tuition for higher education does work.’

‘Tuition fees are a barrier to education and have stopped me from applying to any English universities. We need to oppose them because they create capitalist workers who become obsessed with how much money they make,’ he continued.

The march was just the start of the action planned in the fight to abolish tuition fees. ‘The sheer numbers and the energy we saw from students all over the country on today’s march was just incredible, and we need to keep channelling that energy into a movement,’ said Redmond.

Organizers are already busy planning for a ‘day of action’ on 3 December, when students will be encouraged to walk out of classes, hold local protests, and occupy their campuses. It’s clear that a standalone A-to-B procession won’t be enough to change government policy, and that some kind of escalation measure will be necessary.

With less than six months to go until polling day, students seem determined to turn up the heat on politicians, not just to moderate the current fees system, but to look at radically different ways of funding universities.

This week’s demonstration has forced free education onto the agenda and planted it at the heart of the debate on higher-education policy.

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