An estimated 10,000 university and college students marched on Westminster on Wednesday in a protest against funding cuts and higher tuition fees, which many fear will result in the privatisation of Higher Education.
The protest came as a response to the government recent White Paper on Higher Education, which proposes a dramatic cut in government funding for higher education.
The demonstration was organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) and was supported by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU). The route took the students through Westminster and past the Occupy London camp at St Paul’s to end on London Wall in the City of London.
The Coalition’s White Paper on Higher Education, titled ‘Students at the heart of the system’, was published in June of this year. It sets out the government’s strategy for swift and far reaching reforms to the higher education sector. The document builds on the Browne Review which recommended removing the cap on student fees, resulting in the government’s decision to raise the cap on fees to £9,000 last year.
The White Paper is based on the notion of students as consumers, who will choose the best ‘value for money’ courses in a market place where universities will be competing to attract students, and looking for private sector funding to fill the gaps.
In last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review the Coalition government annouced a 40 per cent cut to the higher education teaching budget over four years, leaving a budget available only to fund teaching for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. This means that for the arts and social sciences the total cost for funding has been transferred on to the student as consumer, who at most universities will be paying close to £9,000 per year in tuition fees.
Critics say the proposals are an attack on the idea of a public university, establishes a level playing field for private providers at the cost of irreversable damage to the sector, particularly the arts and human sciences. A response to the White Paper by the University and College Union (UCU) read: “The White Paper is set to throw the higher education sector into disarray and threatens the undoing of decades of progress; only strengthening the immense systemic biases in society. The consensus of higher education as a public service, its nature and role in society will be totally recast by the White Paper.”
Goldsmiths University staff had already made a stand against the proposals, with nine signing an alternative to the White Paper, “In Defence of Public Higher Education”, published on September 27. The document was signed by hundreds of academics accross the country.
James Haywood, Goldsmiths Students Union President, told EastLondonLines: “This is not just about universities, this is about defending public services as a whole. One of the things we learned last year is that this is about the wider society, we got a lot of support from the public in the fight against fees last year, and we’re looking to build on that.”
The march was held exactly one year after the 50,000 strong demonstration against the tripling of fees and the scrapping of the EMA grant that led to the trashing of the Conservative Party’s headquaters at Millbank, Westminster. And the demonstration in December last year, on the day Parliament voted in favour of raising tuition fees to £9,000, when disturbances broke out after police kettled thousands of students in Parliament Square for hours.
Organisers of today’s march said the Metropolitan Police’s warning to use baton rounds if trouble were to break out was a move to discourage students to exercise their right to protest. On the day, 4000 police officers were on the beat, searching entire buses before students could even join the march. Wednesday also saw a number of undercover snatch squads operate within the march. A number of 24 arrests were made.
A national day of action has been announced by the NCAFC for November 23.