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UK taken aback by fervor and staying power of student protests

The pressure from weeks of street protests by UK students over university tuition hikes has rattled the government coalition and revealed a movement with a sophisticated command of social-media organizing.

By Correspondent / December 9, 2010

Protesters and police officers on horseback clash during a protest against an increase in tuition fees on the edge of Parliament Square in London, Thursday, Dec. 9.

Matt Dunham/AP

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London

Bitterly contested measures to triple Britain's university tuition fees were almost certain to pass into law Thursday, causing the most serious split yet in Britain’s governing coalition and prompting some to compare vociferous student protests with the Paris "événements" of 1968 that rocked the French political establishment to its core.

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The pressure from weeks of street agitation by students – sometimes descending into clashes with police – are unlikely to block the legislation. But the chants of tens of thousands of angry students echoed through Britain’s streets Thursday, and placed the leader of its junior partner, the Liberal Democrats, in the firing line after he abandoned a pre-election pledge not to increase fees.

“I would feel ashamed if I didn't deal with the way that the world is, not simply dream of the way the world I would like it to be," said Mr. Clegg, defending his stance just hours before Thursday’s vote, which will see the cap on publicly subsidized undergraduate tuition rise from $4,800 to $14,500 by 2012 – almost double the current average of $7,605 for US state universities.

“In the circumstances in which we face, where there isn't very much money around, where many millions of other people are being asked to make sacrifices, where many young people in the future want to go to university - we have to find the solution for all of that,” added the deputy prime minister, who has gone from election pin-up for a new generation of voters to an arch villain in just a matter of months.

Aside from the political implications, however, the powerful recent waves of mass street protests and occupations of university premises have been a revelation to many, revealing a movement that has been largely devoid of any centralized leadership and coordinated through a sophisticated use of the Internet.

Demonstrations around Europe

In London, violent scenes unfolded outside Parliament Thursday as protesters forced their way into the square in front of the seat of British democracy. Thin lines of riot police struggled to contain them.

Elsewhere across Europe, students have already been in the vanguard of the increasingly militant challenge to the new era of austerity.Italian students, who for months have been protesting university reforms and budget cuts, clashed violently with police Tuesday outside La Scala, as the conductor Daniel Barenboim also took advantage of the Milan opera house's gala first night to protest against cuts in Italy's culture budget.

A student protest against a rise in registration fees in Ireland last month also saw highly unusual clashes with police. In Greece, students continue to provide a backbone to the popular backlash against the Greek government's IMF-linked cutbacks while, true to form, French youths turned out in huge numbers in October to oppose controversial pension reform plans.

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