I’ve taken part in an Intelligence Squared podcast debate on the subject of tuition fees.
I couldn’t tell you what happened at Millbank yesterday- I wasn’t there. I and other UCLan students were due to catch our coach back to Preston at 3.30pm- in fact, many students had been coached down to London as part of their student unions. None of us had time to hang around in London burning things.
But what of those who did? The condemnation of those students, teenagers and random, trouble seeking strangers who took part in the hours of vandalism and destruction has been widespread. Yes, there were some who had turned up to make trouble, but we should be wary of demonising all the students who turned up to the protest. Attempting to demolish the Conservative Party’s headquarters was too much, but unfortunately, this is a sign of the times. The political parties who betrayed students were in need of a symbol of discontent, but this was a symbol too far.
Some factions of the mainstream media should be chastised for honing in on the violence of the protest. This kind of reporting obscures the original message of the demonstration, and blurs the very reasons why students were out on the streets. Initial coverage gave the impression that the protest began and ended at Millbank tower- failing to stress that 50,000 plus students marched peacefully.We walked, we danced, we chanted, and approved of each other’s banners and placards. Some people in the crowd formed a conga line that meandered closely to the barriers, only to be pushed aggressively back by police on the scene. This was the only incident of police brutality I witnessed at the event, and it didn’t look very fair to me. Thankfully, as the the day went on, media coverage increased in its balance.
On the morning of the 1oth, news channels were reporting that both students and lecturers planned to march on the streets of London. By 4pm, the same news outlets were reporting that student riots were in full force, with no mention of the peaceful protesters, or the lecturers who were marching beside them. Nothing was said of the parents that marched for their children or the elderly gentleman outside Westminster who held a placard that read ‘I’m fighting for my grandson’.
The most remarkable fact about yesterday’s demonstration was that, for many who marched, the tuition fee hikes won’t even affect us (with the exception of further education students who were there). We were there to protest about the injustices of the future. Yes, students are angry. We are angry because thousands of students voted Lib Dem, and we’ve been lied to. Disillusion and unrest are spreading fast. Those of us who campaign against tuition fees need to cut the violence and keep up the momentum.
As for those Conservative bloggers who are calling NUS president Aaron Porter to step down from his position- the very idea is ridiculous and counter productive. Neither Porter or the NUS could anticipate double the predicted numbers, or the violence and protests. Vicious criticism of the demo’s organisers reads like Tory propaganda.
Yesterday’s demo was the depiction of frustration and a regrettable explosion of discontent. It’s sad that as students, some of us have had to go to a ridiculous extreme just to be heard. This is what happens when you ignore and betray the people who you were elected to represent.
It’s looking likely that nothing will change. Thanks to the violence and riots, all students have been tarnished by the actions of a few. It’s time to understand their anger. I’m proud to have taken part in the largest student mobilisation of a generation. Yesterday was of the utmost importance- even if we’re ignored; at least we’ve demonstrated our discontent.
Recently, much has been made of disadvantaged students in the press. I’m not ashamed to say I’m one of them- currently, I receive the maximum maintence loan and grant payments from the student loans company. I received £60 combined from each parent on the very first day of uni, and made my own way from there.
I’m in the third year of my degree, and have landed myself a comfortable part time job in the student union, working 13 hours a week. Thanks to the student loans company, I could splash out on a new laptop, pay rent and buy textbooks at the start of term. Thanks to my job, I can do my food shopping. I’m more fortunate than some- I’ve friends with maxed out credit cards as well as the student loan, living off sales they’ve made on eBay.
Some argue that it’s possible for the average student to live comfortably off the maitenence grant and loan for three month stints at a time. There’s some truth in this- when I first moved to uni, the loan was the most money I’d ever been in possession of. Some of us went a bit mad. But now we’re in third year, we’ve all sobered up, and as we edge closer to the end of the student bubble, we’re starting to face up to the prospect of starting life below zero. By this, I’m referring to the debt that we accrue whilst at uni- the debts that’ll loom over our heads before and after we reach the £15,000 threshold to start making payments, as well as the student overdraft that we’ll spend our graduate summer paying off.
Last week, my university society took part in a debate with Conservative Futures. They argued that different fees for different courses will ‘increase flexibility’ for students. Positive talk of these plans are, put simply, incredulous. Quite the contrary – these plans will leave us disadvantaged types stuck. The idea of choosing a degree based on price rather than passion is elitist in the extreme. Forget social mobility. The level playing ground will be the bumpiest course yet.
I came to uni primarily because I’d had a taste of the minimum wage life, and I didn’t want to live it forever. I can only speak for myself when I talk of an overwhelming fear of working towards nothing- but I’m sure there’s some students who feel the same. We’re all too aware of the prospect of being spat out into a job market with no space for us.
This Wednesday, students will march in central London to protest about the proposed rise in tutition fees. We won’t just be marching for ourselves- the fee increase won’t affect us just yet, that’ll take place in 2012.
We’ll be marching because we’re angry that graduate unemployement is the highest it’s been for 17 years. We’ll be marching in indignation and disgust at the fact the the very same people who promise us that ‘we’re all in this together’ benefited quite nicely from their own free higher education – lest we forget, at least in England, tution fees were only introduced 12 years ago. We’ll be marching because when we do attempt to break into our fields of interest, there’s a high chance we’ll be exploited by companies who expect graduates to work for free (endearingly called interships) for any time spanning from six months to a year, with no guarantee of a job at the end of the tunnel. We’ll be marching for our younger sisters and brothers- for all teenagers, whose university aspirations are becoming less and less likely. We’ll be marching because the coalition’s ‘fair’ rhetoric isn’t washing with us.
In light of our new Conservative universities minister, Mr David Willets, branding university students ‘a burden on the taxpayer’, it was only a matter of time before the tuition fees debate reared its ugly head again. As soon as the Conservatives chose to form an alliance with the Liberal Democrats rather than forming a minority government, it was glaringly obvious that both political parties’ opposing stances on university tuition fees would not sit well with one another- so much so that, to avoid division in the new coalition, the Lib Dems have been allowed to chose to abstain from voting for against the issue in parliament. Convenient, once you consider the long standing Liberal Democrat stance on the abolition of higher education tuition fees.
On the campaign trail, both Nick Clegg and Vince Cable signed an NUS pledge vowing to vote against a rise in tuition fees if they were elected into parliament. It was this core value that drew a lot of previously apolitical students into politics, and gave us an incentive to go out and vote- a policy that directly affected us. In stark contrast, the Conservatives remained sketchy on their stance on tuition fees throughout the general election campaign. When asked, representatives from the party told student voters that they wouldn’t comment on whether they’d raise tuition fees until they’d examined the results of a review into the state of fees. Again, rather conveniently, those results will not be released until long after May 6th (it’s been reported that the results of the review will be available some time in the autumn). Willets spoke about the current loan system, commenting that it was ‘unsustainable’- and many students felt the sting of the overwhelmed system last academic year when thousands of us received late payments of our student loans. His remarks are the strongest indication yet of a rise in tuition fees.
The phrase Con/Dem Nation emerged as a trending topic on the social networking website, Twitter, after Britain’s new coalition government was slowly and painfully announced. Funny as the phrase was at the time, Cameron’s savage spending cuts have revealed the flippant phrase to ring uncomfortably true.