Lib Dem deputy targeted as student protests continue

November 25, 2010

Students protesting against plans for higher tuition fees and the abolition of the Education Maintenance Grant have barricaded themselves in the constituency office of the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats as demonstrations continue across the country.

The occupation of the office of Simon Hughes, MP for Southwark and Bermondsey, on 25 November was led by students from the London School of Economics, London South Bank University and the University of the Arts London.

They said they planned to stay put until Mr Hughes honoured his pre-election pledge to vote against a hike in fees. A parliamentary vote on the issue is due to take place before Christmas.

Charlotte Gerada, general secretary of the LSE Students’ Union, said: “We campaigned for [Lib Dem MPs]. We’ve written letters, met with MPs, marched and demonstrated [in opposition to higher fees], but the Lib Dems have still refused to keep their promise.”

The occupation is part of a wave of student action across the country.

The universities of Strathclyde, Oxford, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Essex, Cardiff, Bristol, Plymouth, Leeds, Manchester, Sussex, Dundee, Newcastle and Roehampton, as well as the University of the West of England, the University of East London, London South Bank, Goldsmiths, University of London, Royal Holloway, University of London, the School of Oriental and African Studies, University College London and the LSE have all been disrupted by student occupations.

The universities of Warwick, Birmingham, Sheffield, Brighton and Manchester Metropolitan were all host to occupations earlier in the week.

Many protesters began the occupation of their institutions on 24 November as part of “Day X” – a continued protest against government cuts. School pupils, sixth formers and university students marched across the country to demonstrate against the plans.

Dispatches from the front line: members of the University College London occupation write

Inside the University College London occupation, the atmosphere is surprisingly relaxed. By candlelight, young faces enjoy a well-earned cup of tea with their supper of ham sandwiches, prepared by the kitchen team. Suddenly, a threat is issued via the internet and we all rise, prepared for contest. Members of the University of Oxford occupation have challenged us to a dance-off. It’s an unorthodox approach to University Challenge, but we take it seriously: a new working group for choreography is set up to go alongside those working on security, maintenance, media and demands. The night, we hope, will be ours.

Weightier issues brought us here. Between 200 and 300 UCL students staged a sit-in of the Jeremy Bentham Room starting at 12.30pm yesterday, and voted to occupy it indefinitely in protest at both local and national attempts to restructure our higher education system. What brought us here? How did it get to this? We are told that the raising of tuition fees to £9,000 per annum, the marketisation of higher education and the commodification of knowledge and learning are necessary, given the current economic climate. Yet as the Higher Education Policy Institute has pointed out, such a reform will actually increase public expenditure across the next two parliaments. It is ideology, not necessity, that ultimately drives the coalition’s proposals.

Students had no meaningful participation in the Browne Review, which was chaired by a former chief executive of a multinational company, BP. And students’ only democratic option for opposing tuition fees – a vote for the Liberal Democrats – backfired, when the Lib Dems proved their commitment to “putting trust back into politics” by both supporting, and making the case for, a tripling of those fees. In this context, direct action has acquired a new legitimacy; a fact apparent in the huge numbers of students ignoring the sanitisation of the NUS and taking to their streets, and campuses, in protest.

Nick Clegg’s recent request that students should listen and look before they march and shout, in addition to the suggestion by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, that students do not understand the proposal being made, has elicited this response. The level of organisation involved in these nationwide occupations puts paid to patronising overtures from the Cabinet. It is because we have listened and looked that we are shouting and marching.

University College London management did their best to intimidate students who took part in the day of action on Wednesday, posting private security at every doorway and checking ID at all entrances. In fact, these actions served only served to galvanise students convinced their university had stopped being a space concerned primarily with the rights and interests of its students and staff.

Of course there are ad hoc banners and woolly jumpers, the standard signifiers of a student occupation. With an affluent student population, UCL is vulnerable to media reports that this is a middle-class protest. However, there is a deep sense within the occupation that we are not here to partake in a student rite of passage, but because we understand the savage impact of these cuts. Footage of schoolchildren from all walks of life taking to the streets to express their disgust demonstrates to this government that we are part of a big society – but a society with very different values to the ones the Browne Report presents.

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