The assault on our universities brought tens of thousands out on the streets of London in November. And resistance is set to intensify – which it needs to.
When the history books come to be written Nov 10 2010 will be a significant date, and not just because 50,000 students and lecturers marching through Central London was the biggest education demonstration in the capital – much bigger than events in the 1970s. The date will be significant because the rising anger felt about this unelected coalition government found a voice in the public domain.
10 November: students and lecturers take to the streets of London.|
It was a wonderful sunny day and one that united the whole of Britain, as despite devolution and different arrangements for fees in Wales and Scotland, students knew they all faced the same threat. So large contingents had left Edinburgh and Glasgow, Cardiff and Swansea at the crack of dawn. They also knew that tuition fees were not the only issue, with many banners referring to the cut in the teaching grant to institutions and in particular the government’s desire to cut all funding to the humanities and arts.
After the event the police claimed to have been surprised by the turnout as they only provided 225 officers to police the march. It is far more likely that there was a “demonstration within a demonstration”, as the police were making their own protest about the reduction in overtime (particularly as officers were already committed to a Fulham/Chelsea London derby match and a West Ham home match on the same day).
If this was not the case then the intelligence services need to return to primary school. Over 23,000 students had formally registered their intention to attend, on the NUS website. Of course the many thousands of London-based students who did not need coaches would not bother to do so.
Although they received little press coverage, this was also a joint lecturers and students march (UCU and NUS). It is impossible to estimate how many members of the demonstration were lecturers but the banner of virtually every UCU higher education branch was recorded and this is the largest demonstration of UCU members since the formation of the relatively new union.
Even the UCU and NUS were surprised by the number of further education and school students who managed to fund themselves and get to the march. Of course it is these students who will be most affected and therefore the surprise is not that they attended, rather that so many managed to get there.
Browne’s assault on the universities
The Browne Report (commissioned by Labour) was not just about fees, it was also about funding. And what did it say about public funding? In short, there isn’t any – except for “priority subjects”.
Universities initially assumed this would mean funding only for STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But as Workers goes to press, what counts as “priority subjects” may not even include all of the STEM subjects. Information and other technology may not be counted, and many courses with a computing science element will not be funded. This lack of clarity is in itself destabilising (and must be deliberate – anyone can draw up a list) as universities cannot take informed decisions.
Many subjects will be financed only by the income received through fees, based on the students’ choice of study. Some institutions such as the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester will lose their entire teaching grant.
What kind of society only funds subjects on the basis of the choices made by 17-year-olds, notoriously prone to whims of fashion? The Browne report is an abdication of any national decision to ensure our nation develops knowledge in areas that we collectively think are important, practical, or needed. It is a fundamental attack on the idea of planning for a future.
Fees at British universities are now much higher than in many European and North American universities, and public funding of higher education much lower. Instead of a gap year abroad, the new order is take your degree abroad – it’s cheaper. That’s also another way of ensuring the young do not put down roots in Britain; a rootless class is easier to control.
The other major threat in the Browne Report is the threat to the independence of universities. The report proposes a new single Higher Education Council to replace four existing bodies including the Quality Assurance Agency. Disguised as “simplifying bureaucracy”, it has created a super Quango which in one fell swoop gives the government direct control of admissions by not allowing any financial assistance to students who do not meet the government’s entry criteria.
The report wants the minimum tariff entry standard to be set every year by government shortly after the admissions (Ucas) deadline. So, should a university wish to admit a mature student for example, who has significant experience and/or qualification but not in line with the government criteria, that student will not receive any financial support.
One supposed benefit of the Browne Report (if being saddled with debt is a “benefit”) was a slight increase in the maximum maintenance loan/grant to £7,000. But there is no allowance for the high costs of being a student in London; the new maximum is nearly £1,000 lower than the current London maximum of £7,894.
This additional blow to student finance will make London less attractive. Again it cannot be an accident that the government is seeking to make the capital city a less attractive place to study for home students.
Although the press focused attention on events at the Tory HQ, the march had many different elements that managed to create a vice-like grip around Westminster from 11 am till well into the evening. On multiple occasions sections of the march sat down outside parliament, and on one of these sit-downs students all got out books and started a “read in” protest with copies of authors such as James Joyce, history textbooks and hefty anatomy books.
Some of these books were ridiculously large and must have been very heavy to carry. One lecturer was overheard to say, “Can you believe that’s [*****], he’s actually reading a book.”
The gridlock around parliament ensured that the voices of the demonstrators could be heard throughout Prime Ministers’ question time, taken appropriately enough by Deputy Prime Minister Clegg. Workers readers are not likely to have had any (except negative) expectations of Liberal Democrats and if you had not attended this march you may have no sense of how furious students are with Clegg.
Many student banners had direct quotes from Clegg about how he would oppose the rise in tuition fees. Each poster used exact quotes and with the date and place he had uttered these promises. Passing lecturers were impressed by the accuracy of the referencing.
Students had actually believed what the Liberal Democrats had promised and in true British tradition nothing angered them more than “being pissed around” by the Lib Dems. Many banners had coined a new word for being lied to and referred to being “clegged” – which does sound like a good Anglo-Saxon word.
The other focus of specific anger was the attack on the Educational Maintenance Allowance, originally a Labour government strategy to reduce the number of young people not in education, training or employment. (See box, “Enticed into education – now to be thrown out”.)
Enticed into education – now to be thrown out
Another focus of real anger on 10 November was the cutting of the EMA – Educational Maintenance Allowance – which has severely affected students in sixth forms and further education colleges.
On the Direct Gov. website a nice piece entitled “What is so good about EMA?” is still available.
It explains that the EMA is “cash in your hands to help you carry on learning. If you’re 16, 17 or 18 and have left, or are about to leave, compulsory education, then it could be for you.”
The website explains that up to £30 a week is on offer during term time – leaving you to get on with your studies. It is paid straight into the student’s bank account, not to parents or the college.
There follows a stream of sentences talking about the extra money you could earn with extra qualifications. But now there is a new notice added on: “EMA will close to new applicants in England from January 2011. Learner support funds will be available through schools, colleges and training providers to help students who most need it to continue in learning. If you currently get EMA you will continue to receive it for the rest of this academic year, but you will not receive it next academic year.”
Many of the angriest students on the march had started a two-year course at sixth form college or FE college on the basis of the EMA, including young people who have left care and have no parents to help out. (And how many parents will find this extra money?) Inevitably this will mean more young people on the unemployment register. However, the raising of the compulsory school leaving age to 18 in 2013 will serve to disguise the real level of young people not in work, education or training.
Eventually the march arrived at Tory HQ at Millbank, where it was always planned to go. (Another reason why no one believes that the police were surprised.) So on this lovely afternoon several protesters strolled through the turnstiles and made their way to the roof to display their banners. And as it was so straightforward, thousands followed and then when others were barred from entering, those on the inside “opened” the window to let those on the outside in.
Acting Detective Inspector Will Hodgson, who is leading the operation dealing with the aftermath of events at Millbank, told the Evening Standard on 16 November, “We are finding that many of these people are young students who do not seem to have been in trouble before,” and “when you interview these young people they are thoughtful and articulate”. He then went on to assert that they may have been provoked by “more anarchist groups”.
Rather than spending public money trawling through hours of footage taken by the police helicopter over Millbank, the Detective Inspector could find the source of the provocation near at hand in the palace of Westminster.