Today, an estimated 2,000 people gathered in Bloomsbury, London’s university heartland, in order to march through the West End and the City. They were opposing the government’s proposed higher education White Paper, which introduces a number of radical changes to the current educational model in England. The most significant of these changes is the chance for private institutions to compete with public universities, which has led students, academics and educationalists to believe that by making the university system an open commercial market, access will be limited by means. This is especially significant as the university fees cap increases from £3,375 to £9,000 for the next academic year, and the EMA (Educational Maintenance Allowance) has already been scrapped to be replaced by the not-so-generous 16-19 bursary scheme.
The police, the government and the mainstream press labelled today’s event and November 30th’s planned public sector strike as ‘protests’, but in reality they are demonstrations: the subjects of dissent have not yet passed into law. The higher education White Paper is currently just a guideline and the pension reform proposals are still being negotiated with the unions, and so to label these events as protests is premature and, perhaps, manipulative.
Foreign Secretary, William Hague recently commented, when speaking of the Occupation at St Paul’s Cathedral, that he sympathised with the people there but ‘taking to the streets is not the answer’. But for the vast amounts of people whose views are no longer represented by parliament, there is no alternative, despite the fact that two of the three most popular political parties in England have liberal or moderately left-leaning agendas. The Liberal Democrats’ influence and indeed their political character has become increasingly irrelevant under the cosh of Conservative party policy. The Labour Party, under the flaky command of Ed Miliband, has not opposed the cuts and fee increases outright, but instead has offered compromises. The messages emanating from the placards and loud-hailers of today’s demonstrators however were decidedly uncompromising: ‘No Public Sector Cuts’, ‘Stop the White Paper’, ‘Bring Back the EMA’.
The demonstration today was, on the whole, a quiet affair. The police estimated that around 2,000 people were a part of the march, but on the ground there seemed far fewer, and by the time the demonstration reached Moorgate, its final destination, there were roughly 500-600 remaining. The route was not ambitious, it began at ULU (the University of London Union), made its way down to Trafalgar Square, along the Strand and Fleet Street, up past St Paul’s and through the city to Moorgate. According to the organisers, Anticuts, the route, which entered the City, symbolised the movement of public education towards a privatised model – but one suspects that the police-agreed route was a compromise, avoiding the policy makers’ headquarters at Whitehall and Millbank, which were scenes of violence last year.
Inevitably, there will be comparisons to the violent student protests of 2010, where 54 people were arrested, buildings were occupied and shop front windows were smashed. Then, only a couple of hundred police officers were originally present to shepherd the march; today police numbers were increased by almost 900% and outnumbered demonstrators for large parts of the march.
The police presence wasn’t the only notable change from last year; latest statements from the Metropolitan Police say there were only 24 arrests and isolated outbursts of violence, perhaps because of the increase in police personnel but predominantly because of the change in the organisers’ philosophy. Just like the occupations in the world’s banking districts, the organisers of today’s demonstration have much clearer messages and specific demands, ‘stop the cuts’ mottoes have been replaced by precise petitions to highlight the effects of the government proposals and to volunteer solutions. Also like the occupations, and unlike last year, there is a growing sense of unity amongst the disparate groups involved in today’s demonstrations, as well as those planned for the near future. The public sector strike on November 30th assembles representatives from numerous unions, lobbyists and activist groups on issues as far reaching as NHS cuts, student fee increases, public pension cuts and the higher education White Paper.
Although today’s demonstration was relatively small in comparison to last year’s protests, support for the cause is not thinning. The NUS (the National Union of Students), who actively rallied students to attend the marches, took a backseat this year, ‘approving’ the event but not actively organising and encouraging its members to support it. Without this critical help from England’s largest national student body the demonstration remained local: last year there were more demonstrators in Brighton than there were in London today; that in a city with a population 16 times smaller than the capital’s.
At the occupation tent-village at St Paul’s today, an artificial street sign hung on a pillar of a building in St Paul’s Church Yard. It read ‘Tahrir Square, EC4M’ – while the optimism is surely embellished, the occupation, demonstration and protest have become the culture of our politically-sentient age. There is an increasingly frequent recurrence of a theme, in which the failure of politicians to pay attention to the will of the people is met with vociferous and very public opposition.
Photography by Aeron O’Connor.