Four years on: how £9k fees have changed England's universities

Four years ago, in the face of the biggest student protests in decades, Westminster lifted the cap on tuition fees from £3k to £9k. What's happened to England's universities, and the movement which fought against the change?

John Smith
10 December 2014

On December 9th 2010, the face of higher education in Britain was changed forever. Just over a year after the establishment of the Browne Review – the technocratic mechanism by which both main parties sought to escape being pinned down on HE funding in the 2010 election – a Conservative-Liberal coalition tripled fees to £9000. When they did so, they had a parliamentary majority of just 21; had 11 more Liberal Democrats rebelled, the measure would have been blocked. Thirty thousand students occupied parliament square, burned benches to keep warm and stood vigil until the vote was read out on behalf many hundreds of thousands more, who had taken part in the biggest wave of student unrest in decades.

Today, four years after that vote, the same student movement that began in 2010 is dealing with the consequences. When we fought against the fee rise, the massive cuts to teaching grants and the abolition of Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), our public emphasis was on access to education and indebtedness. We were of course right: in 2014, postgraduate education is inaccessible to anyone without rich parents or vanishingly rare funding, while the funding model has overwhelmingly benefited posh universities, and many people have dropped out of further education and part-time study.

But what many of us said privately, and thought at our core, was that so much of the battle was over something much less tangible. For the privatisation of income streams meant structural privatisation, and the grinding defeat for the student movement was really just the final valediction for the senior management class that come to run our institutions. What would these managers do now that their institutions had shifted from the quasi-public to the quasi-private sector – not just to education or the curriculum, but to us, the dissenters?

In Warwick this week, you have your answer. Last Wednesday, during a fairly regular day of action called by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), a small group of students occupied the lobby of a building in the university. Without engaging in any discussions with the students over an alleged altercation with security, management called in the police, who dragged protesters around by their hair, brandished tasers and used CS gas on a number of participants. In a statement the next morning, the Warwick Vice Chancellor defended the police’s actions in their entirety.

Such scenes are quickly becoming remarkable only in terms of their regularity. In late 2013, the University of London had an occupation stormed by the Met Police, and 40 students were arrested on or around campus in subsequent days. In January 2014, the University of Birmingham had a campus demonstration kettled on a freezing rooftop for many hours, and 14 were arrested for the act of not giving their names and addresses on the way out of the kettle. Six Birmingham students have been suspended in the past year for protesting, two of them for 9 months. Suspensions and occasional arrests of campus activists – on picket lines, on protests or just standing around – have been made on a smaller scale across the country. The obtaining of injunctions to ban protest is now a routine and unremarkable tactic of managements.

For the generation left to deal with the legacy of the Coalition’s higher education policies, the student movement of 2010 casts a constant shadow. For those who were around during the time of the revolt, it is a grand moment of youth and agency which, in the hum-drum of daily politics and organising, it is difficult to imagine repeating. To those who weren’t around, it is a fabled – and often overblown – point of reference, which provides inspiration, frustration and inertia in equal measure. In many ways main task of NCAFC since 2010 has been to take apart the realities of 2010, cast them as the beginnings of the current movement rather than a mythical backdrop, and provide a meaningful formula for action.

These moments can never be repeated: they were the specific product of a specific moment, one in which the first moment of electoral optimism in the era of permanent recession suffered its final, inevitable collapse, when the Liberal Democrats – posing to the left of Labour and relying on young votes – lifted their masks. In many ways, although smaller, today’s movement is more promising than that of 2010: last month ten thousand marched on parliament to demand not the freezing or abolition of fees but for the wholesale liberatory transformation of education. Conversations are happening all over the country about ‘what free education means’, and local weekend marches – small for now, but bound to grow – are bringing wider communities into the campaign.

The student movement is fighting back. The day after Warwick’s occupation was brutalised, a thousand students marched across its campus and occupied a major building. They are still there, and the occupation is expanding. On Monday, the University of the West of England occupied, with Sheffield, Lancaster, Sussex and Universities UK – the central lobbying body for Vice Chancellors – all having been occupied in the last week.

Whatever the immediate failures of 2010, its effect has been to give expression to a widespread feeling of opposition to neo-liberalism in education. Student protest still matters, and it – and the anti-bureaucratic, ‘new left’ and direct action-focussed political tendencies which have sought expression through it – have undoubtedly shaped the anti-austerity politics of the past few years. Limited though these may be, they may yet prove to be one of the best hopes for the wider left.

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