As the dust settles II: what lies below the surface of the student protest?

As decision day for Higher Education draws near, it is crucial that the message of the student movement is heard and understood. Yet the intentions of the protesters are being drastically distorted by the media.
Simon McMahon
4 December 2010
Image courtesy of Political Scrapbook

The day for deciding the future of Higher Education reform is fast approaching: on the 9th December ministers will vote. There has been fierce opposition, yet the arguments being made by student protestors are perceived by some as confused, contradictory and incoherent. At this time it is therefore necessary to take stock of the developments so far and look for clarity between the public image of the student protest and its message.

Following the national demonstration on the 10th November I commented on how the media had inaccurately interpreted the motives and meaning of the protest movement, overlooking the protestors arguments against the government’s proposals and reasons for taking this to the streets. On Tuesday 30th November the students returned not only to the streets of London  but also to the headlines of the national press. Since then, the student protest movement has received a significant amount of press coverage and kept fees and cuts high on the debate agenda.

Following the latest demonstration in central London, the headlines stated: Police arrested 153 people during clashes in London and More than 150 people were arrested during the protest against tuition fees. According to the press, the demonstration was made up of school children skipping classes and left the planned route, causing unpredictable disruption. The Evening Standard also reported how staff of the Trafalgar Square Tesco feared for their lives in the face of the protestors, one even stating that “it was so scary, we thought maybe we were going to die”. These reports fit in with the pattern seen since 10th November. The student protests have been most commonly described as chaos, violence, and anarchy, carried out by criminals and young children skipping classes and looking to start trouble.  

Yet an alternative perspective of 30th November is that students were due to meet at Trafalgar Square at 11am, preparing to march on Parliament at midday. But from midday onwards the only presence was that of the police blocking Whitehall and restricting access to Parliament Square. An alternative route had been planned by the students, and this changed throughout the day as the march attempted to avoid directly meeting with the police. The result was more confusing than that planned, but less confrontational.

As noted here on OurKingdom by Niki Seth Smith, the media can be relied upon to draw on the usual assortment of 'types', stereotypes that enable dismissal of the student movement and its arguments as ‘hippy’, anarchic, or childish. Whilst the media play this game, student groups across the country are occupying their universities and carrying out teach-ins, seminars and workshops, from the Jeremy Bentham Room of UCL to the Bodleian Library of Oxford University, via the University of Nottingham, SOAS, and now King’s College London.

At the heart of the student protest is not simply a clash over government policy, but the question of who has a voice in the public arena and what tools are open to them to get their argument across. There is quite a difference between a supposedly life-threatening rampage through the streets of London and university occupations and teach-ins. Protest, occupation and direct-action are not the same as vandalism: one is a politically-motivated expression of discontent enjoying wider support; the other is the uncontrolled, illegal causing of damage. Both are different from violence against persons which the demonstrators abhor. Yet press coverage and public debate has confused these boundaries. Which is the right interpretation? And more importantly, which voice is seen as the more legitimate?

To judge the legitimacy of the student protest simply by its image would be to ignore the motives of the protestors and the wider significance of their actions. Firstly, they are protesting against the prospect of rising fees and decreasing funds in Higher Education. This issue is specific to the student’s situation, and protesting against them could be seen, at least in part, as driven by self-interest. Then there is criticism of the marketisation of the university system, which is seen as part of the coalition government’s ideological attack on public services. However, there is also the question of political disaffection and economic injustice. The student protest is in part a reaction to a longer process starting with Thatcher and passing through New Labour, the expenses scandal and the financial crisis. Politicians are increasingly perceived as separate from citizens, as are the rich from the poor. The protest is not simply against Nick Clegg’s promise-breaking or the Torys’ elitism, but the political system as a whole, and it is not limited to the students. As noted by Anthony Barnett, the reaction of many has been: ‘At last somebody is protesting’.

In his excellent analysis of the events at Millbank a few weeks ago, Guy Aitchison commented that it is too early to predict what influence the protests will have. So far, large sections of the media, the police force and the political classes have sought to de-legitimise and dismiss the students. But as the protesters’ disaffections go beyond Higher Education reform, dismissal of them is tantamount to avoiding debate on a wider series of social and political issues. To rephrase David Cameron’s patronising message in the Evening Standard, before dismissing the students the critics themselves need to ‘get their facts straight’.


The above image is courtesy of Political Scrapbook

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