Students Resistance to Fee Hikes in Britain
On November 10 this year, more than 50,000 students from all over Britain converged in the streets of London protesting the new proposals for massive cuts in higher education, which will spiral the cost of a college and university degree. The current coalition government in the United Kingdom, comprising strange bedfellows in the form of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, is pushing for a formula – known as Lord Browne's proposals – which will reduce spending on higher education from the current £7.1 billion to £4.2 billion – a huge 40 per cent cut by 2014-15. The cap on tuition fees will be lifted and universities will charge up to £9,000 per year for tuition alone; of course universities with an established brand, such as Oxford and Cambridge, will be free to extort whatever they deem fit. The budgets will be ‘rationalised’ by withdrawing all teaching funding from the arts, humanities and social science subjects. But science research is not safe either—its budget is proposed to be cut by £1 billion and one in ten universities will no longer receive any public funds whatsoever. Institutions will be forced to reduce costs by sacking staff and cutting the quality of education and some will close as public institutions altogether. Budgets for all but "priority" subjects will be chopped mercilessly. Already, the University of Middlesex has seen the closure of its history and philosophy departments, and the sociology course at the University of Birmingham and Politics at Liverpool John Moores have fallen to fund cuts. These proposals will turn British public universities the most expensive in all of Europe, and it is estimated that students will leave university with a staggering student finance debt of £30,000-£50,000 which they will be burdened with for decades!
Already transformed into a commodity by the previous New Labour regime, the privatization and marketization of education will be complete with these proposals, making affordable education a relic of history. So-called "transferable skills" will assume priority over critical learning and pedagogy, curricula will be determined by businesses, and those students who can afford to will select from an assortment of service providers in the new free market of education.
This attempt by the new coalition, lampooned as CON-DEM, to erect a high wall around the institutions of higher education was responded by a huge barricade of students (and lecturers). Earlier this year, students at Sussex University occupied administration buildings in protest against course closures and job cuts; students at King’s College, London, went on a strike; at Middlesex University philosophy students occupied Trent Park campus for 21 days; the day the Browne review was announced students at London South Bank University brought traffic to a halt, and hundreds at Leeds protested. This was only a sign of the increasing anxiety and despair among students, as also of what was to come on November 10, when the students poured out in a wave carrying placards, raising slogans, singing, blocking traffic, lighting bonfires and sending out fireworks in the air. The students’ imagination was on robust display at the demonstration. A brown cardboard by Arts students read, “This sign would have been more imaginative but you’ve cut arts funding.” Over 5,000 gathered at the Millbank Tower, central office of the Conservative Party, occupying it for hours. When some 50 students got to the roof—there was thunderous cheers from the protesters below. (See back cover for photographs)
While the alternate media networks showed that an overwhelming majority of the demonstrators were first-timers, moved by the ferocity of the attack on their right to education, the mainstream media went into an overdrive, hyping the few broken windows at Millbank Tower and some skirmishes with baton-wielding police as ‘eruption of violence’, ‘infantile’ and the work of mindless anarchists. Denunciations were quick to come in and David Cameron warned that ‘rioters’ would be hunted down and prosecuted with the ‘full force of law’. (Fifty-eight students have been arrested so far). None of this however has managed to discredit the students’ movement – seen increasingly as the catalyst of the anti-cuts resistance. A large number of the readers of the most Right-wing newspaper, Daily Mail, endorsed the protests while 54 per cent of Daily Star readers said that the students were justified in rioting!
But its not simply education which is facing slashing of funds, the entire edifice of British welfarism is collapsing – pensioners, immigrants, the poor, dismissed as ‘lazy’, ‘work shy’ and ‘freeloaders’ reminiscent of Victorian terminology, are to be hit hard. The students' protests have galvanized trade unions to mobilize and plan strike actions. The student protests are signs that the mass resistance against austerity measures that is sweeping Europe (especially France and Greece) is now beginning in the UK.