‘They say cut back; we say fight back’: this was the slogan echoing all over United Kingdom for the last three months, where the right-wing Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government hiked the home tuition fees for undergraduate students from £3000 to around £9000. This rise was the result of funding cuts imposed over different sectors, including education, in compensation for the 'recession disasters' happened to the country's economy. The UK government initially thought that they had retrieved economic stability but later realized that the country is actually in deep economic shambles. Many European countries have declared some 'stimulation packages' to recover from the crisis which made their treasuries empty. Mostly, the private sector was the beneficiary of these recovery steps which lead to a deficit budget situation. Reinforcement of the private sector made the public sector become lean and the government is forced to declare ‘austerity measures’ to meet the situation - mainly cuts in public sector jobs and funding. This is a normal strategy to fight back recession under a neoliberal regime and the government always uses this strategy by bringing back the cuts. There is no wonder that people become angry since they are paying for a crisis which someone else is responsible for!
Prior to the general elections in May 2010, the Labour government commissioned a study into higher education funding in England entitled the Browne Review. At the time, Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, pledged that he would vote against any proposed increase in tuition fees if elected to Parliament. Following a hung parliament, he made an agreement with the Conservative Party to form a coalition government. The Browne Review was subsequently published in October 2010, and contained the suggestion that the government should, at once, remove the existing cap of £3,290 on tuition fees for UK/EU students. The government rejected this proposal, instead choosing to keep a cap but increased the tuition fees to £9,000. David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science, stated that the measures were "a very progressive package" and "at the end of this we will have a better university system than we have at the moment.” Nick Clegg also changed his position on the issue once in government, supporting the rise in tuition fees, and on the day of protests, in Parliament, defended his change of position on fees and supported the proposals for an increase.
The Con-Dem government has embarked the most far reaching attack on education, England has seen since the creation of the welfare state. The Tories want to turn the clock back to the time when receiving a university education was the preserve of the rich. Despite their pre-election pledge to abolish tuition fees, the Liberal Democrats were also 'happy to help' the Tories.
The student community become restless in this deceiving decision by the Government and was not ready to remain silent. There was a nationwide call for protest against this malfeasance. The initial event, which was jointly organized by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU), on 10th November, 2010 was the largest student protest in the UK since the Labour government first proposed the Teaching and Higher Education Act in 1998. Arriving from all over England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, approximately 52,000 protesters attended the demonstration on the streets of central London. Largely student-led, the protests were held in opposition to planned spending cuts in education and an increase of the cap on tuition fees by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government.
Political groups that sent contingents to take part included the Labour Party, Plaid Cymru, the Green Party, Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party, Revolution, Young Communist League, Revolutionary Communist Group and Communist Students. A few MPs also joined the demonstration, among them Labour MP John McDonnell, who stated "this is the biggest workers' and students' demonstration in decades. It just shows what can be done when people get angry. We must build on this". Representatives of the National Pensioners Convention also took part in the march.
At the end of the protest march, a rally took place and the demonstrators were addressed by Sally Hunt, the University and College Union general secretary. Hunt said that making the Public University system in the UK "the most expensive in the world" isn't fair, that discouraging young people from going to college wasn't progressive, and that whatever the increase in tuitions are called they are in reality, ‘debts’. The rally was also addressed by the NUS and the Trade Union Congress leaders. Many academics have rallied to the side of the students. Many teachers and lecturers are actively supporting the students. Andy Martin, a Cambridge lecturer who participated in the sit-in at his university told: “My students have had a political awakening. And I'm with them." The police atrocities were really educating the students as to the real nature of the state, which Lenin described as “armed bodies of men in defense of private property.” The focal point of the first demonstration involved a number of protesters occupying the Millbank Tower in Westminster that houses the headquarters of the Conservative Party, and led to clashes with police during which 14 were injured and 50 arrested.
There were also two smaller peaceful protests in Manchester and Cambridge as the protest sparked further action in the following days. On 11th November, a group of student protesters occupied a building at the University of Manchester for three hours, demanding to see the accounts that discussed how government spending cuts would affect students. In a similar vein, on 23rd November, 2010, anti-education cuts protesters had assembled outside the offices of The Guardian newspaper, where Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was giving his Hugo Young lecture, in which they sentenced and executed an effigy of Clegg by hanging and shouting the slogan "Nick Clegg, shame on you, shame on you for turning blue".
A second significant demonstration took place in London on 24th November, 2010 which again led to clashes with police, this time outside Whitehall, after police kittled a large crowd. The forum, National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) organized a mass national walk-out of education and protest on 24th November. As part of this, demonstrations were held in London and other locations across the United Kingdom. The protesters included not only university students, but also school children who had walked out of lessons to join the demonstration. On the very same day of 24th November, 12 premier universities in UK including Oxford, Cambridge and London witnessed student sit-ins and ‘occupation’ of many university buildings. Oxford’s Bodleian Library was closed for two days due to student occupation on 24-25th November. Previously, UK Business Secretary, Vince Cable had to cancel his visit to Oxford on 28th October, 2010 for a seminar in the wake of massive student protest demonstrations in Oxford. Further protests in central London took place on 30th November, a day that saw cold temperatures and snow in the city and there were also further protests across the United Kingdom including in Cardiff, Cambridge, Oxford, Colchester, Newcastle, Bath, Leeds, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Belfast, Brighton, Manchester, Scunthorpe and Bristol. About 1,500 students, including school children, took part in the protest in the city of Brighton.
On 9th December, the day of the scheduled vote on education reform in the Houses of Parliament, two separate protests were organized in central London; one being led by the National Union of Students (NUS), the other jointly by the University of London Union (ULU) and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), participated by around 40,000 people. ULU members handed out green hats with the words "Tax the banks, not the students" on them, whilst a rally was held in at mid-day, where such speakers like the president of ULU, addressed the crowd. During this demo, in one incident, a car carrying Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, was attacked on London’s Regent Street.
If the student protests escalate further, while combining with the protests by Trade Unions, then Britain could be entering a period of profound political upheaval. Already, in several protest demonstrations, a unity of students and Trade Unions are being noticed. In student demonstrations also, popular slogans like ‘No Ifs, No Buts, No Public Sector Cuts’ are also heard, thus putting the agenda of Public sector cuts in the forefront without just highlighting the tuition fees issue. Students and a section of academics are aware of the risk of losing the country's most wonderful and enviable assets. If this Tory-Liberal plan is carried out, it will effectively deny access to higher education to children from a working class background, and many kids from middle class families will think twice before going to university. In fact, the magnitude of protest demonstrations in UK only reflects the fact that a section of middle-class has also hit the streets along with the working classes. In the context of this massive public sector cuts, universities will revert to what they always were in the past: a privileged reserve of the children of the rich.
This is just one example of the way in which the ruling class in UK is hell-bent on putting the clock back. This is not the product of caprice. It is born of an imperative necessity. It is not just that the bourgeoisie cannot afford to concede any new reforms. It cannot tolerate the maintenance of those concessions that were forced from them by the pressure of the working class. Actually, the government can collect £120 billion worth of tax that is dodged and evaded by the super rich every year. Canceling trident nuclear weapon replacement would provide more than enough money to provide free and decent education for all.
Recent strikes by workers on London’s underground railways and by firefighters nationally have begun to bite, and have been very solidly supported. All around the country, cuts in local government finances are generating the creation of anti-cuts committees to protect social services. Big cuts in the living standards of the poorest and most vulnerable are all part of a general package of attacks on the working classes. The dilemma can be expressed as follows: the bourgeoisie cannot afford to maintain the present level of living standards, but the working class cannot afford any further attacks on living standards. What is at stake here is the defence of the semi-civilized standards that were conquered inch by inch through working class struggle. The destruction of these conditions of life would thrust the whole of society back to the wretched state of poverty and ignorance of the past.
The Tories and their LibDem friends wish to turn UK Universities into market-oriented businesses run by vice-chancellors to behave like the CEOs of big companies. No wonder, the job of reviewing tuition fees in higher education has been given to the ex-boss of British Petroleum! It is a clear case of creeping corporatism. The corporate take-over of UK higher education would mean that it would be funded neither by the state nor by Big Business, but by the students themselves, who would be saddled with intolerable debt for the rest of their lives, and the profits generated by such commercialization of education would be siphoned away by the corporates. On the other hand, the vast debts of the banks have to be paid by the state with money taken from the budgets of the health service, education, housing and social security. In effect, the rich would be subsidized by the poor.
The BBC’s senior political correspondent commented: “The government may have won the vote but outside parliament they have lost the argument and they have lost control of the streets of London.”
The author is a Member of Senate, University of Sussex, United Kingdom.