British students have descended again on the streets to claim the right to study, under assault as never before from the Conservative government. The protest, organized initially by members of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, eventually won the backing of many other student organizations in the wake of draconian cuts and unsustainable increases in tuition fees dictated by the Tories’ austerity agenda.
There was a skirmish and some arrests, but overall nothing compared to the far more violent clashes that took place at Millbank, in Westminster, in 2010.
The procession started from Bloomsbury, went through a series of symbolic city locales, including Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross and Westminster, and then focused in front of the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, the body responsible for the national university system — where there was the confrontation with the police — before breaking up near Scotland Yard.
Apart from the exorbitant increase (tripled since 2010) in tuition fees, the students were protesting against the abolition of subsidies for low-income students and visas for foreign students, introduced under the guise of controlling illegal immigration.
The prospects for a recent graduate in this country are dismal to say the least: On average, they leave university with £40,000 ($61,000) in debt. As interest compounds, they may still be paying back loans into retirement.
Taxes are by far the most expensive in Europe, about £9,000 a year, effectively denying higher education access to those who come from poor families already hard hit by cuts to subsidies and an outrageous real estate market, particularly in London.
The substantial difference between Wednesday’s protest and those in 2010 is that this time the students had support from Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in the Labour Party.
If, in 2010, Ed Miliband was barely able to mumble something in favor of the protest, so as not to scratch the solidarity of the party, McDonnell, the shadow finance minister, spoke to students before the start of the parade. “Your generation has been betrayed by this government with the tax increase, the elimination of scholarships and subsidies, and cuts to the entire education sector,” he told them.
He reiterated that education is not a commodity that is bought and sold; in fact it should be a gift that one generation transmits to the next. Exactly the opposite of what is happening in the U.K., where young people are greatly penalized.
Corbyn also sent a message of solidarity to the protesters before returning to attack David Cameron at the weekly “Prime Minister’s Questions” meeting.
Students are just one kind of victim of what seems more and more to be an assault by this government on the future of the country’s youth. With looming cuts to public health, there’s an ongoing standoff between Health Minister Jeremy Hunt and young doctors serving in hospitals, who already face long, exhausting hours and inadequate compensation.
The salient feature of these protests, however, is the political mobilization of the younger generations alongside the Labour movement, bridging a gap that had long kept them separate. This is only the beginning of a hot autumn of protest: The next student demonstration is already planned for Nov. 17.