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16 November 2017

“This time they need us to win”: how student fees protests have changed since 2010

In 2010, MPs felt they could ignore students. They may not feel the same way in 2017. 

By Jason Murugesu

As the demonstration is in full swing through London’s fashionable West End, one passer-by walking down the streets with his toddler shouts to no-one in particular: “Bloody generation who wants something for nothing.”

Earlier that Wednesday, on a grey autumnal day in central London, off a side street by the majestic British Museum, about 700 students had gathered, clad in thick coats. 

They had all huddled together for the annual Free Education protests. These events have been a mainstay in the student activist’s calendar since the massive tuition fee protests in 2010. Back then, when the word “millennial” was still associated with apocalypse-watchers, the fury of students took the Coalition government by surprise. With fires burning in Parliament Square, MPs voted to raise tuition fees to £9,000 a year. 

At first, the consequences seemed minimal. But in 2015, the Liberal Democrats – swept into the Coalition on a promise of ending student fees – lost most of their seats, including former liberal stronghold university towns like Cambridge. Two years later, a Labour party promising an end to tuition fees captured even more student-heavy constituencies, from Canterbury to Sheffield Hallam. 

At the march six years after that fateful autumn, drums play in various beats every few minutes as students strain to hear a speech by one of the demonstration’s organisers. As the protest begins the move, they begin to chant “Theresa May has to go” followed by: “Tories, Tories, Tories, Out, Out, Out”. 

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Now, after a snap election that robbed the Tories of majority rule and left the Lib Dems still out cold, intergenerational inequality is a buzzword round Westminster. Labour, though, is doing the most to capitalise on it. 

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn used a speech at the Association of Colleges Conference to outline a plan to introduce a “National Education Service”, in a similar vein to the NHS. Labour will promise free education from “cradle to grave”. He used the same slogan when he endorsed the free education demonstration earlier last week. 

Mark Crawford, one of the organisers of the demonstration, and a students union sabbatical officer at UCL, tells me that “We now have a Labour party that is fundamentally interested in redistributing wealth in this country- It’s about funding free education with taxation on the rich.”

While the 2010 demonstrations focused mainly on the tuition fees themselves, today’s students frame their demands in terms of the wider problems of their generation. “Chopping fees would be a good start,” Crawford said, before adding his next aim: “Living rents, so everyone can afford to study without having to work part-time jobs.”

Joe Cotton, a sociology masters student at Cambridge University, is hanging at the back of the procession. He says what annoys him the most is that “education is viewed as an investment now instead of a social good” and says the blame lies with the Conservative government: “they are ruining our education system”.

Cotton was at the major student protests in 2010, as a 17 year old. He notes that “The last election saw a massive rise in student activism. Young people are a lot more motivated now, a lot more politically engaged. I really hope it’s a long term sustainable thing, because if it is – the Tories are trouble.”

As the protest continues through central London, banners are unfurled which can only be read from above. Actors in their dressing rooms above West End theatres salute the protests, while office-goers, and people staying in expensive hotels stare from their windows and take pictures. 

Students keep beating their drums, throw brightly coloured smoke canisters, continuing to chant. It feels like a carnival. Protestors seem to be making a point of smiling at onlookers. Tourists with their children, stop to take videos. 

The protest goes past the cinema, Picturehouse Central, where someone makes a speech in solidarity with the Picturehouse workers who are fighting for the London living wage. 

People chant “students and workers unite and fight”. As I leave Cotton, he adds: “I just want the world to be a fairer place.”

Zoe Salanitro, a student at the University of Birmingham, is handing out newsletters specifically created for the demonstration to members of the public. She is jovial and upbeat. She says she’s had “loads of great reactions” and adds that the demo “has been super vibrant. So much energy. Everyone is here to win”. 

She says she remembers watching the 2010 protests on TV as a school student and being “transfixed”.

The protest is on its way to Parliament Hill, and though Salanitro notes that Corbyn could always renege on his pledge once in power, as the Liberal Democrats did, she argues that “the point of demonstrations is to make sure it remains on the agenda, to make sure they [Labour] need us to win. All of these people will go out and campaign for them at election time”.

She continues: “Nick Clegg didn’t have a movement behind him. Ed Miliband didn’t have a movement behind him. Corbyn does and I think that’s the difference.”

Is this, then, the difference between 2010 and 2017? The reactions from the public seem to reflect the students’ optimism. They see a common cause.

The man with the toddler is now the exception. 

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