Biggest Student Protest on Thursday, as Parliament Votes on Tuition Fees


On Thursday, students, schoolchildren, university staff, concerned members of the public, and, hopefully, trade unionists (including members of the NUT) will lobby Parliament as MPs vote on the coalition government’s ruinous plans to slash university funding and to double or triple students’ fees, as well as plans to abolish the Education Maintenance Allowance, which provides crucial financial support to sixth-formers and other students from poor backgrounds.

Mass walkouts and protests are planned for Wednesday, and on Thursday, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts is encouraging protestors to gather at ULU at 12 noon, to march to Parliament. The main NUS/UCU protest begins at 3 pm by the Thames. As the UCU website explains, “Lobbyists will join protestors on Victoria Embankment for a rally from 3pm (see here for directions). After it gets dark, the protestors will hold up 9,000 Glo-sticks in a ‘candlelit’ vigil with the stunning Thames backdrop to symbolise the potential new annual level fee bill students could be hit with.”

I have written about the protests previously, in my articles 50,000 Students Revolt: A Sign of Much Greater Anger to Come in Neo-Con Britain, Did You Miss This? 100 Percent Funding Cuts to Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Courses at UK Universities and Cameron’s Britain: “Kettling” Children for Protesting Against Savage Cuts to University Funding, and I encourage everyone who cares about higher education to take the afternoon off to support the protest.

As I have explained, these savage cuts, under cover of the “economic crisis,” are nothing less than an ideological assault on government funding for universities, transferring the entire cost of arts, humanities, and social sciences courses onto students, making Britain’s universities the most expensive publicly-funded universities in the world, and denying the importance of government funding for higher education as something that benefits society as a whole. They are also a dangerous experiment, risking a flight of talent abroad, a severe drop in applications from young people without rich parents, and, very possibly, the closure of numerous departments — and entire institutions — that have formed part of the British intellectual landscape for many years.

As the vote approaches, the Liberal Democrats — who promised to oppose any rise in tuition fees, and who are bearing the brunts of students’ anger — are in chaos. As the Observer reported on Sunday, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, is “bracing himself for a ‘train wreck’ which could see his MPs splitting four ways.”

After days of very public vacillations, in which business secretary Vince Cable “announced on Friday that he would vote yes on the increase in fees, then said [on Saturday] that he could abstain,” Clegg “clarified the leadership’s intentions in [the] Independent on Sunday when he confirmed senior ministers would support the rise.” As the Observer explained, senior ministers “will vote in favour of the increase on the grounds that Cable and Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem chief secretary to the treasury, fashioned the policy.”

However, other “ministers and some backbenchers will exercise their right under the coalition agreement to abstain,” and, crucially, “A significant group of backbenchers will vote against the rise. This is expected to include [Tim] Farron, [the party’s newly elected president, who refused to broker a deal with senior ministers over the weekend], Greg Mulholland, John Leech and the former leaders Sir Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy.”

As the Observer also explained, another option is that some of this group will “vote in favour of abandoning the vote if there is enough support to table an amendment to the government motion on Thursday.” An Early Day Motion, submitted by Mulholland (but, to date, signed only by Leech and the Green MP Caroline Lucas) “could be turned into an amendment” if MPs accept Mulholland’s argument: “that the proposed motion should not be moved, as the Government has failed to convince many people that its proposals will be fair and sustainable.

Mulholland’s EDM further “urges the Government to withdraw its proposed motion immediately and instead to undertake more public consultation on the issue of funding of higher education, including consultation with those future graduates and their families who did not contribute to the consultation over the Browne review [the review by the former BP CEO on which the government’s reforms are based]; and further considers that the Government should come forward with a full White Paper on reform in 2011 and should allow time in this process for consultation and for alternative proposals to be properly considered to ensure a fair and sustainable solution for higher education funding.”

This strikes me as an admirable motion, and interested readers should approach their MPs immediately to ask them to support it. With 57 Liberal Democrat MPs holding the balance of power (there are 305 Tory MPs, 253 Labour and 25 others likely to vote), it is particularly important to put pressure on other Lib Dem ministers and on any undecided backbenchers. Ministers can be found here, here, here and here, and a full list of MPs is here. They can be contacted via WriteToThem, or by phoning the House of Commons directly (or inserting your postcode and contacting them or phoning them through their websites) before Thursday.

Readers may also be interested in the following letter to MPs, drafted by the NUS, which can also be emailed to MPs via WriteToThem (or the other methods described above) or via the NUS website:

Dear [insert MP’s name here]

I am writing to you today to raise my grave concerns about the Government’s plans to bring a motion to Parliament to increase the level of the cap on student tuition fees on Thursday 9 December 2010. I would ask you to vote against this measure in the interests of students and their families.

The Government is, in effect, proposing a vote to triple fees before Christmas, a vote to make them ‘progressive’ after Christmas, and a vote on legislation to deliver value for money for those fees much further down the line. This process lacks proper scrutiny or democratic accountability and should be resisted by MPs and Lords of all parties.

I am deeply concerned that these proposals seek a near tripling of the cap on tuition fees to replace an 80 per cent cut in teaching funding for universities, including the removal of all public funding for subjects such as history, economics, english and politics. Suggestions that these proposals will improve quality and the student experience are not backed up by any guarantees or protections and these proposals would put our future and the world-class reputation of our universities at risk.

The proposals take an extremely risky approach to funding the higher education sector, with a rapid move to an unconstrained market of universities in which students pick up the bill for almost the whole cost of teaching. They ignore the probability that with much higher fee levels, prospective students — especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds — will change their behaviour and make judgements primarily on prices, costs, and debt.

The argument that these proposals are necessary or that there is no alternative is simply not accurate. There are a number of fully-costed models which I believe to be fairer, and more sustainable. But, fundamentally, it is clear that the depth and severity of what is being proposed is not in the least bit necessary.

There will be two votes on Thursday — one to raise the basic fee cap to £6,000, the other to allow for an additional higher fee cap at £9,000. Whatever your feelings about a rise in fees — which I must stress I oppose — there is no justification whatsoever for such an extreme rise in the fee cap as £9,000.

As every other OECD country is investing in its higher education, we stand alone with Romania in cutting back and failing to fund the high level skills we need for our future economy and society. The funding universities receive is not ‘dead weight’ but is a good, strong and stable investment that brings huge economic, as well as social and cultural, returns.

The argument that the proposals to increase the fee cap to £9,000 will actually save money and pay down the immediate public deficit is also in doubt. There is a great cost to the Government, who will have to borrow additional money to provide students with higher loans.

Indeed, The Higher Education Policy Institute’s verdict is that the proposals will increase public expenditure through this parliament and into the next. And the Office for Budget Responsibility’s updated November forecast shows that the impact of the Government’s plans to increase fees to £9,000 would add £13 billion to public sector net debt by 2015-16, even after the massive education funding cuts have been taken into account. As such, the argument that these measures are a necessary response to the need to reduce public spending simply does not add up.

The case has not been made to increase the tuition fee cap to £9,000 and it has not been made clear what students and their families would receive in return for huge increases in fees — and no protection mechanisms or access requirements have been properly proposed or discussed.

These proposals would force students and their families to pay more for less and I ask you to oppose them. As the vote is so soon, I would greatly appreciate it if you could let me know as soon as possible how you intend to vote.

Yours Sincerely

[insert name and address]

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

3 Responses

  1. Larry says...

    It’s Greece on the Thames. Pull people off the government teat and they start to scream and yell.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Christine Casner wrote:

    hope this goes well for all my friends across the pond….keeping you in my thoughts!
    chris 🙂

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Well, thanks, Christine, and no thanks, Larry. I’ve included your comment as I don’t censor comments unless they’re personally insulting to myself and others, but I fail to comprehend why government funding for university education is such a source of vitriol, when bankers and corporations are openly laughing at the amount of money they’re allowed to make by crooked means, or to keep through wholesale tax evasion — amounts that could easily be used to support education.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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