November 19th: Free Education Demonstration
November the 19th saw the UK’s biggest student demonstration since 2010, with thousands of students from across the country making the trek down to London to march in favour of free education. With the first wave of students to have been hit with the £9000 per year fees approaching what will be for most of them their final year at university and the recent revelation that three-quarters of us will never be able to pay it back, the sense of sincerity and a need for justice was palpable.
Some 10,000 students attended the demo, smashing the idea that students are listless and apathetic towards politics and creating a united front to reject governmental cuts. A multitude of different individuals and organisations in attendance, from Green Party MP Caroline Lucas to pro-Palestine groups to university societies of every kind. While not everybody present was necessarily an asset – the SWP insisted on attendance despite widespread hostility across the left towards them as a result of their poor handling of rape accusations within their own party – the large turnout certainly made it hard for even the most stubborn politician to accuse students of not being politically engaged.
NCAFC (National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts) were the organisers of the event, deftly handling the last-minute problems encountered due to the NUS withdrawing their support for the demo just days before it happened. The decision to pull out was based on their ‘significant concerns regarding an unacceptable level of risk’, stating that ‘there are inadequate measures in place to mitigate against significant risks in line with our advice posing an unacceptable level of risk’. Accessibility is a key factor in ensuring that a demonstration reflects the fullest demographic that it possibly can, but in withdrawing their support the NUS did very little to address these issues. Many coaches from various universities were subsequently cancelled, leaving willing students with the choice of either funding their own travel to London or independently organising a coach. Publicly shifting the blame of their lack of support onto NCAFC undermined the feeling of unity and solidarity that NCAFC had successfully created, and was a move more reminiscent of the administrative bodies that the demonstration stood against than of an organisation with the interests of students at heart.
The march ran from Russell Square, to Trafalgar Square and Whitehall, and then on to Parliament. Officially this was the full extent of the route, but like all good demonstrations, Wednesday’s march took a few detours. The black bloc tore down the gates around Parliament Square, a move that was criticised by other protestors but was ultimately helpful in securing a space that was difficult for police to surround. Demonstrators went off-piste and headed to Tory party headquarters, where at least one protestor was subsequently arrested. Eleven total arrests were made, but this in itself was something the organisers were prepared for, with legal aid on hand and phone numbers of lawyers with protest arrest experience distributed both before and during the demo. The relationship between the public and the police has often been wrought with strife, but in recent years we have seen incidents of brutality and corruption crumble any remaining trust left.
Having been too young and too scared to attend the demos in 2010, Wednesday was the first national demonstration that I had been involved in, and it was refreshing to see so many people actively striking back against the cuts and debt that have defined my education so far. Looking at the news articles that covered the events today, it is hard to believe that journalists attended the same protest as I did. Sensationalist reports of widespread violence and baiting of the police accompany articles on left-wing as well as right-wing newspapers, helping nurture a feeling of hostility towards the protestors that simply does not reflect the actuality of the event. Non-peaceful protestors will always be of more media interest than those that are peaceful, but the deliberate characterisation of some demonstrators as vandals is an insult to us all. While some people might be more given to certain methods of strategy than others, it is neither fair nor accurate to portray any of the protestors as mindless vandals. Media coverage has a lot to answer for when it comes to public opinion regarding protestors, and Thursday’s headlines are only one example of this.
While the demonstration may be over, the overall campaign is far from its finish line. The NFCAC conference will be held in Manchester on the 12th-14th of December, with all who are interested in attending welcome to join the discussion on what is next for the student movement. In January the Movement for Justice will organise a national mobilisation against detention, ‘giving the loudest possible voice to current and former detainees and those living under constant threat of detention. Across the country, movements are alive and thriving with actions of every conceivable kind being organised. Education is one of the great keys to an equal society, and it is important for us as students to both recognise the benefits and failings of the system we have entered into. Debt seems like an abstract concept to those of us who see overdrafts as free money, but it is important to bear in mind that it is a tangible reality that will shape our financial situations in our years after university. Engaging with student politics is a way to understand the wider impacts of fees and cuts whilst still understanding it as directly relevant to your own life, and it would be good to see the movement swell in numbers even further in the months and years to come. The combination of students standing up for their rights, industrial action and broader shows of dissent create a context of rebellion that cannot be ignored, setting the political framework not just for the 2015 elections, but the future of Britain as a whole.