Not content with previously raising tuition fees and scrapping the Education Maintenance Allowance, the Conservative Government announced in the budget this year that from next September, grants for students from low-income households will be abolished and replaced with further loans of up to nearly £9,000 a year.
This will mean that the poorest students may finish three-year courses with a more than £50,000 debt burden at the start of their working lives.
Despite assurances from the Dept of Business, Skills and Innovation that they are “committed to ensuring that everyone with the potential to benefit from higher education has the opportunity, despite their background”, the fear expressed by students marching yesterday is that the huge debts will disproportionately affect the poorest and deter them from taking up higher education.
The new Labour leadership is vociferously opposed to the scheme, and Jeremy Corbyn reminds us that “we all benefit from education, collectively as a society, not just as individuals”. His Chancellor, John McDonnell was one of the first speakers to address the 2,000-strong crowd in Malet Street at the start of the march yesterday, offering solidarity, highlighting that education is not a commodity to be bought and sold, and condemning the Tory betrayal of current students and future generations. Other speakers included a junior doctor, a ‘no borders’ activist, campaigners against the Govt racial profiling “Prevent” programme, and education activists.
The march was organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), which is a grassroots movement that grew out of frustration with inaction of the official student body, the National Union of Students, who offered their “support” to yesterday’s protest.
As students set off at 1.30 yesterday afternoon, a short but heavy rainstorm did little to dampen spirits. Nor did the oppressive police presence, which included officers stationed at every corner in the vicinity of the University, dozens of TSG officers (normally deployed against football violence and riots), a police helicopter, lots of blue-bibbed ‘Police Liaison Officers’, who are inextricably linked with intelligence gathering, as well as several undercover officers amongst the crowd. The National Domestic Extremist Unit was also monitoring the protest, with several of their senior officers in attendance.
As the march approached Whitehall, the sun came out, and it was clear that numbers had increased to several thousand, booing and shouting as they passed Downing Street. It was great to see so many different banners at a protest, with far fewer adverts for Socialist newspapers – the usual sight so often – instead replaced by inventive slogans and art, and many variations on a pig theme.
The heavy police presence continued with horses deployed at Westminster Bridge, and dogs at the Home Office.
This finally provoked a reaction from a small ‘black bloc’ presence in the crowd, who threw a few paint bombs (eggs injected with water-based paints) at officers outside the Home Office, along with a couple of smoke flares.
Nearby, I saw Green leader, Natalie Bennett, giving interviews and offering her support then making her way to the Department of Business, Skills and Innovation in Victoria Street.
This building was very heavily protected by police, both inside and outside. There was an attempt by some students dressed in matching black overalls and using large foam shields painted as book covers (the “Book Bloc”) to push through the police lines and occupy the building, but this was viciously fought back, and scuffles erupted, more paint bombs and flares were thrown, and the lamestream press, looking for confrontation, got their shots.
Police also briefly imposed cordons (some called this a kettle, the police called it a ‘containment’), and officers started telling people to “leave the area if you’re not involved”, thus trying to split and disperse the demonstration, rather than facilitate it for the vast majority of students who wanted to make their voices heard.
The police tactics did however succeed in disrupting the protest, and planned speeches didn’t happen. Some of the Book Bloc did manage to break through police lines, and then among scuffles there were some arrests, while a breakaway march began round the back streets of Victoria, making their way slowly back round towards Parliament and Downing Street and then retracing their route back towards Malet Street.
Public reaction to the chants of “Free Education” were generally very good, with lots of waves and thumbs up.
Police however, were not content to let the protest march peacefully back to Malet Street, and, in a huge operation surrounded and contained groups near Trafalgar Square, pushed them towards Charing Cross, and then threatened arrest using dispersal powers unless they left the area.
In all there were 12 arrests for a variety of suspected Public Order offences, and prisoners were held overnight at West End station.
Many students complained yesterday that when a peaceful march is so heavily policed with TSG, horse, and dogs, it is hard to see how it is going to remain peaceful.
It would not be the first time that heavy police tactics have been used to dissuade students from protesting against government plans.
To find out about future events, see the NCAFC website.