As the dust settles: the significance of the national student demo

On Wednesday the 10th of November, the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU) brought together students and academic staff from across England and Wales to march on Westminster. The following morning, the news reporting of the event has however painted a very specific picture of violence, aggression and destruction.

Yet this reflects only a small part of the day’s activities and was carried out by a minority of the marchers. A distinction should be made between the peaceful protest of the march and the aggression seen on Millbank. Around 50,000 demonstrators gathered at Horse Guard’s Avenue played music, sang chants and waved flags. This has been called the largest protest in a generation. All along Whitehall the marchers stayed within the barriers and cooperated with police, whilst stewards controlled the flow of people in a safe and orderly manner.

This was essentially different in tone and message to the actions that have been more widely referred to in the press, and distinction between the two is vital to preserve the meaning behind the demonstration itself. But why did so many choose to march and why should politicians listen to them?

Firstly, they marched against raising the cost of Higher Education. Student fees of £9,000 per year are feared/expected,  to be paid only once the student is in employment with a salary of over £21,000 per year. The Browne Report suggested that students would be paying more to get more, whereas in reality it looks like paying more to get the same. The government has declared this to be a fair and progressive approach as those with higher earnings as a result of having degrees will pay more for their education. The NUS and UCU see it as a question of social justice as potential students will be discouraged from attending university and taking on large debts if they feel they cannot afford the costs.

Secondly, they marched against funding cuts to Higher Education. Whilst the cost of attending university will rise, the amount of central government funding for Higher Education institutions will fall dramatically, with cuts suggested of between 40 and 80%. Rising tuition fees alone will not make up for this drop in funding and the demonstrators feared for the standard of their education and that of following generations. With the government’s concern in other areas about protecting ‘frontline’ public services, it is surprising that nobody has talked about the damage these cuts will cause to the frontline of Higher Education, made up of tutors, teachers, lecturers and professors who will be under pressure to educate more students in worse conditions.

Thirdly, they marched against the reinterpretation of Higher Education institutions as businesses. The proposed reforms follow an ideological trend to see the market as master, whilst choosing to ignore its imperfections. Criticism of this approach its implications for universities have been widely discussed elsewhere. They state that all non-marketable knowledge and learning will be sidelined,  degrees that do not offer ‘value for money’ will be removed and thus reduce student choice rather than increasing it, universities will not be able to respond quickly enough to changes in job market conditions, the value of a degree will fluctuate over time, and so on.

This definite step away from Higher Education as a social good through which students discover and grow heralds a conception of the University as a marketplace for buying a degree that will enable its owner to get a job. But the fact that students gathered in Westminster from different places, classes, races and ethnicities for one shared political reason yesterday is surely an illustration of how universities are not just shops, but places for sharing experiences, broadening horizons, and finding common interests.

Fourthly, the march voiced its concerns about the political process. The Liberal Democrats, with Nick Clegg in particular, were the primary target. On placards marchers communicated their shame at having voted Lib-Dem and anger at the breaking of this party’s promises. For many, the lack of consultation with the providers and users of Higher Education during the reform process has also made a mockery of the Conservative’s Big Society motto.

The coalition agreement has blurred the Lib-Con boundaries, as well as seriously distorting any lines of accountability.  This was illustrated by the comments of Jeremy Brown MP of the Liberal Democrats, on Question Time, who presented the coalition agreement  as justification for a change in Lib-Dem policy on Higher Education whilst washing his hands of its implications. Neither the Lib-Dems nor the Tories are responsible: it is the fault of the coalition agreement! This raises questions, voiced at the march yesterday, of who is responsible and how the British public can hold them accountable. At a time when political engagement and trust in public leaders have been falling , the perception that promises are being broken and that society is without a voice cannot but worsen the situation.

The concern noted here is not limited to the marchers of the NUS and UCU, but is shared by many across Britain. It was also at the heart of the violent protesters on Millbank. For this reason, although this group should be distinguished from the majority of the march, their actions should not be dismissed as simple hooliganism, wanton violence or thoughtless provocation. The target was chosen and the meaning was political.

The anti-system ideology of these groups and individuals fuses troskyist and anarchist confrontational ideals with disassociation from a political class that is perceived as unresponsive, unaccountable, unfair and increasingly undemocratic. They exemplify a more radical representation of the wider public’s concerns of broken promises and a lack of accountability. This is a message that should be taken into account by the present political leadership as its implications go beyond the issue of Higher Education funding.

About the author

Simon McMahon is a PhD candidate in European Studies at King's College, interested in British, Spanish and Italian politics and society