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11 November 2010

Winning over the reluctant

The NUS's march made a lot of noise, but was it listened to?

By Duncan Robinson

I stood outside Westminster and watched 50,000 chanting bodies walk past. This was the mob in action, a generation making its voice heard: “We’re young! We’re poor! We won’t pay any more!” Powerful stuff.

But not everyone saw it that way.

“They’re only here because it’s a day out,” said a voice to the right of me. “Universities bussed them all down. Beats going to lectures, I suppose.” He then flicked away his cigarette, turned and walked into the Houses of Parliament.

“No one’s going to listen to them because students don’t contribute anything,” said another office worker on his lunch break. I listened to numerous conversations along these lines as I watched the demonstration go by. The comments were, with few exceptions, negative and cynical.

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Two weeks ago, I stood watching 40 people occupy a Vodafone store over claims that Vodafone should have paid £4.75bn more tax than it did for a takeover deal in 2000.The store had to close in the middle of the day. What was the reaction to this civil disturbance?

Wholly positive. Passersby were outraged that while cuts were being planned, a company was allegedly being let off a severe tax bill – a claim that HMRC and Vodafone both, however, deny.

“I pay my taxes, why shouldn’t they pay theirs?” blurted one angry senior citizen, one of the many who expressed outrage at the claims of the protestors.

A company allegedly not paying their fair share of taxes riled passersby up; cutting university funding, however, seemed to cheer passersby up, judging by their gleeful, cruel remarks about coalition cuts to the future of the marchers.

This disjuncture is why the NUS needs to change their game. The NUS has failed to win the public debate that higher education funding is a universal concern. Everyone is affected by tax avoidance, but not everyone pays fees.

Marchers won’t convince cynical bystanders that university cuts will affect them too. As far as they’re concerned it’s just another day out for work-shy, tax-dodging, probably hungover students. Students have changed since the Young Ones, but the stereotype hasn’t.

This is hardly fair. Students no longer get grants and they already pay considerable fees. Most have jobs during term time and nearly all work during the holidays. But this doesn’t matter. People think that students get a fair deal. Thus, any complaints are just the inevitable whinging of young ‘uns who don’t know they’re born.

Cutting university funding, however, will affect everyone in the long run – not just students, or those with university-age kids. And this is where the battle will be won. People need to be made to care about higher education. Sadly a lot of people don’t. Marching and smashing up Millbank might offer brief satisfaction and vent frustration, but it convinces no one who didn’t already agree – and turns off some who used to. Students are angry. They have every right to be. But it’s not enough to just make yourself heard; you have to be listened to.