Leader: Cool heads must keep heat down

The kettling tactic meant to keep a lid on student protest may have done the opposite. Is academic anger next to reach a boil?

January 20, 2011

On Saturday 29 January, students in the UK will again take to the streets to protest against government cuts to higher education. Young people everywhere are angry: Italy, Greece and California have all witnessed demonstrations against massive reductions in public funding to universities. And rising tuition fees are just one reason for the anger: students also see their futures being eroded by growing unemployment, unaffordable housing and pensions that will never provide for a comfortable retirement. All this they lay at the door of "mistakes of the baby-boomer generation", says Bert Vandenkendelaere, chair of the European Students' Union. Indeed, this effect has been well documented by one of the politicians responsible for higher education cuts in the UK, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, in his book, The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future - And Why They Should Give It Back.

It is to their credit that young people are so passionate about their education and their futures, as well as those of others who will come after them. And although they may be the most vocal about their frustrations and fears, their worries are shared by many in the middle classes, according to Clive Bloom, who identifies "a feeling of injustice and moral outrage that has gone far beyond the Guardian readers of Islington and Crouch End". It seems that the UK's governing coalition has united not only Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians; many voters on both the Left and the Right feel uneasy and betrayed.

At the most recent protests on 9 December, police used the crowd-control tactic of "kettling" to contain the predominantly good-natured demonstration by young people, who met the ranks of police with chants of "This is not a riot". No one was allowed to leave the kettle, not even a Times Higher Education reporter whom the riot police kept penned in despite repeated requests in person by the editor on the other side of the eerily quiet and deserted Westminster Bridge.

Kettling has already led the human rights group Liberty to sue the Metropolitan Police over claims that officers falsely imprisoned and assaulted school children during demonstrations on 24 November. But some believe that there is even more to this controversial tactic than just robust policing. Did it allow the government to turn a legitimate protest into a debate about public order? A professor of law at Queen Mary, University of London, is in no doubt, as he relates in our cover story. After being corralled in Parliament Square, Alastair Hudson sought shelter by the Supreme Court, which, with no one allowed to leave the area, had "literally become a toilet. It seemed to have become a metaphor for the human rights abuses that were going on around me."

Students have every right to feel angry, but so do academics; both will be affected by the government's new arrangements for higher education. But in pushing up expectations, the changes will drive a wedge between the two. It is the teachers who will feel trapped as students, facing bigger tuition fees and debts, make ever more demands on them and their time. With morale at rock-bottom, lecturers may start to feel "kettled" themselves, stuck in an underfunded environment with no obvious way out. To prevent a dangerous pressure-cooker atmosphere, it would be well for all parties to seek to take some of the heat out of the situation.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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