Student fees and grants protest: Jeremy Corbyn gives support

John Morgan reports from today’s protest in London, which saw a flashpoint between protesters and police at BIS

November 4, 2015
Student protesters at BIS, 2015
Source: John Morgan

Today’s student demonstration started with a near-inaudible speech from the shadow chancellor, brought a statement from Jeremy Corbyn that he will commit Labour to a policy of scrapping fees, and saw some pushing and shoving outside the office of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

The organiser of the demo, the student Left group National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, said that it had received a statement from Corbyn that reads: “Congratulations on your demonstration today.

“I opposed the imposition of fees, and each increase, and I opposed the removal of maintenance grants – as did many others – and now we have an opportunity to change course, and to change Labour into a force that represents students’ desire for free and accessible education.”

He adds in the statement: “There are no student fees in Scotland, Germany and 12 other European countries; I want to bring all UK students into line with that sensible approach.”

That is significant, as despite Corbyn’s commitment in the Labour leadership campaign to scrap fees and reintroduce maintenance grants at a cost of £10 billion, Gordon Marsden, Labour’s shadow higher and further education minister, told Times Higher Education following his victory that the party’s higher education funding policy is under review and a decision would be taken only after “a deep process of thought – and an open process of thought – both with our own members and with outside organisations”.

Fees, like policy on Trident, could prove to be another major point of friction, where Corbyn is at odds with his shadow Cabinet.

The NCAFC said that the demo was held “in opposition to the abolition of maintenance grants for the poorest students, on top of years of fee rises and cuts, and increasing attacks on international students”.

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, spoke at a rally as the demo gathered in Malet Street in Bloomsbury.

Thanks to the dodgy megaphone he was speaking on, I couldn’t make out much of what he was saying.

But he’s reported to have said: “Your generation has been betrayed by this government in increases to tuition fees, in scrapping the education maintenance allowance and cuts in education.

“Education is a gift from one generation to another; it is not a commodity to be bought and sold.”

Given the magnitude of the government’s decision to scrap maintenance grants (it’s expected to deliver an annual saving of £2.5 billion a year eventually) and the fact that it was the first demo since Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership contest, I would have expected a bigger turnout.

The NCAFC said on Twitter that there were more than 10,000 protesters. It looked like fewer to me.

The march took in points including the Houses of Parliament, the Home Office and BIS.

Outside BIS, police who appeared to be from the Met’s Territorial Support Group rushed into the crowd suddenly, prompting lots of running among protesters and shouts of “avoid the kettle”. Having been trapped inside the Parliament Square kettle when reporting for THE in 2010, I can confirm that this is sensible advice.

A police line was set up outside BIS and I was glad to end up the right side of it, although it was never a kettle, according to the Met.

The Met has said in a statement that “a small group of protestors threw paint outside the Home Office and another group attempted to push their way” into BIS “but were prevented by police”.

The statement adds thata small number of smoke bombs and eggs were thrown at police outside BIS”, and that although a cordon was put in place “to prevent disorder” there was “no containment in place”.

Twelve arrests were made for public order offences, the Met says.

I left the demo as a rump of protesters disappeared into the depths of Pimlico, past some bemused builders and followed by very large numbers of police. There were reports of arrests after that.

I don’t know whether the NCAFC will achieve its aim in the demo of inspiring a new wave of student radicalism. But the statement that the demo brought from Corbyn may be significant for Labour.

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