(Dec. 9) – Today, the House of Commons (the first (and only democratic) chamber of the UK Parliament) voted in support of two Bills that will see both significant rises in tuition fees for students wishing to undertake higher education and severe cuts to current levels of funding in education. Once implemented, universities will be entitled to charge students up to £9,000 a year. Whether they want to or not, this is something they will likely have to do in light of the impending cuts to current funding levels.
Sounds of relief from the Conservative-Liberal Democratic Coalition Government engulfed the House of Commons. 323 Ministers of Parliament voted in favour of the Bills and 302 against – giving the Government a majority of 21. In January 2004, when the Labour Government put forward a Bill increasing university tuition fees from £1,000 to £3,000 they also won, but narrowly – scraping through with a majority of five. Needless to say, therefore, today’s result is being celebrated as a success for the Coalition Government.
Media focus is on how Nick Clegg (leader of the Liberal Democrat Party and Deputy Prime Minister) was able to “reign in” his fellow party members who had wished to oppose the Bills. The reigning in has been reported essential to Nick Clegg’s political career – a personal victory saving him from political embarrassment. A simple reminder of his party’s pre-election manifesto (in which they promised to phase out tuition fees over six years, while setting up a national bursary scheme to support "strategic subjects" and students in financial hardship and to ring fence funding in the sciences (whilst saying nothing about decreasing funding in the humanities)) is, of course, the real embarrassment. Students from the Queen Mary’s College, University of London had bought a giant carrot on a stick – alluding to Nick Clegg’s u-turn. Leader of the opposition party, Ed Milliband commented on today being a sad day for democracy. Indeed, not only did the Liberal Democrats go back on an election pledge, but the party political “whip” system ensured that Ministers of Parliament that would otherwise have voted against the Bills, voted for it for fear of loosing their ability to represent their party at the next election.
In Parliamentary debates today, Nick Clegg asked students to consider the proposals in detail. He suggested that many of the protestors would be in a better position under the new proposals. This contention is ridiculous. The Institution of Fiscal Studies (IFS) noted that the Bill relating to funding, which will lead to the establishment of a National Scholarship fund (for least well off students), in fact provides a financial incentive for universities charging over £6,000 a year to turn away students from poorer backgrounds. Under reforms, the taxpayer would pay 12 months of fees for deprived students taking a degree course, while top universities charging more than £6,000 would pay for another free year. This is something they’re given no incentive to do. This is one of a number of "perverse incentives" the IFS has found in the more complex and less transparent scheme finally settled on by the Government.
The cuts disproportionately reduce funding for arts and humanities subjects. The sciences are deemed crucial for economic growth and necessary in the market and so saved. Colourful banners were on display at today’s protest. Many reading “Don’t Kill Culture”. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) Union attended the protest in solidarity with students and university staff. I attended the protest following an occupation of Birkbeck’s counsel room. The occupation, whilst only lasting for 24 hours, was incredibly inspirational. Solidarity was built amongst students and lecturers. We intend to continue to fight the austerity measures and look forward to building coalitions with other students and workers. http://openbirkbeck.wordpress.com/
The protest itself was not a positive experience. Once again, the police used the strategy of ‘kettling’ – blocking a group of protestors in an area whilst refusing to let others in. This created much confusion and fear. No one wants to be caught in an area for an unknown period of time on a, literally, freezing day. The strategy ensured protestors who were not caught within a kettle, disbanded out of fear of being trapped or formed smaller groups of protestors. These smaller groups were subject to similar kettling strategies leading to the further disbursement of protestors. The police have used this strategy before. They have used it effectively. I felt the frustration at not being able to march peacefully, and, whilst the majority of the protestors were peaceful in spite of aggressive strategies (at around 4pm the BBC suggested up to 98 per cent of the protestors were peaceful), a handful became increasingly violent. This, of course, attracted much negative media attention. There was an atmosphere of trepidation from the start with volunteers handing out details of ‘protest solicitors’ and a ‘protestors advice line’. There is justified fear of the police. Police and protestors were harmed today. We need to learn to respond in a way that is creative and does not resort to violence.