UK protests with a French accent

Students to take to streets to campaign against funding cuts and rising fees. John Morgan reports

November 11, 2010

Growing solidarity between current and future generations of students forged in opposition to the hike in tuition fees in England could herald a new protest movement, according to the president of the National Union of Students.

In London on 10 November, the NUS and the University and College Union held a joint demonstration against cuts to the higher and further education budgets and rises in tuition fees.

Aaron Porter, the NUS president, said that students would mount grass-roots campaigns against Liberal Democrat MPs judged to have broken their word on fees.

He added that vice-chancellors who lobbied to raise the fee cap should take responsibility for government cuts to higher education funding.

The NUS has proposed that higher education be funded through a graduate tax at a rate varied according to earnings. Mr Porter said the NUS' political strategy involved policy development and lobbying, as well as "working with students to take direct action and take to the streets where necessary".

The latter course "might be contrary to what's been happening for the past 10 to 15 years" in the NUS, he added.

But is it realistic to believe that British students - with little tradition of mass protest - can wield the political influence enjoyed by their peers in nations such as France?

Speaking before the protest, titled Fund our Future: Stop Education Cuts, Mr Porter predicted that it would be the "the largest education demo certainly in 10 years, perhaps in 20 years. Maybe that's a sign that the student body in the UK is reinvigorated and heading in the direction of those students in France."

Asked whether current students could be expected to protest over tuition-fee rises that will only affect future students, Mr Porter said: "There is incredible solidarity between students and between generations. This generation of students feel hard done by. They are graduating with record levels of debt. They feel the cuts coming and redundancies continuing. They know that for those who follow them, it will be even worse."

With all Lib Dem MPs having signed a pre-election NUS pledge to oppose any rise in fees, Mr Porter said the union would step up the pressure in the constituencies of Lib Dems who "look like they are about to go back on their pledge".

This would involve attempts to recall the MPs from the House of Commons, he added, as well as "students going door to door in the local community, creating support on this issue and others".

Mr Porter said he was "utterly disappointed that many vice-chancellors have spent too much time lobbying for the cap to be lifted and not enough making the case for state investment in higher education".

These vice-chancellors "must take a great deal of responsibility for the cuts we've seen", he argued.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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