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.

Matt Dunham/AP
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.

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.

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.

But the virulence of British protests have taken many by surprise. “For sure, there are echoes of [France in] ‘68 here…. There is an excitement in the UK,” said French-born student Damien Routisseau as he joined a two-week old occupation inside University College London (UCL). Around him, the walls were festooned with banners, messages of solidarity from supporters like MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, and posters charting forthcoming protests and media activities.

Just back from visiting his girlfriend in Italy, where he attempted to introduce students involved in occupations in Bologna to the advantages of social networking tools like Twitter, Mr. Routisseau said that while continental European hotbeds of student radicalism might be able to muster larger number of participants for traditional rallies, it is their British counterparts who are the pioneers when it comes to "virtual" agitation.

Nearby, as others tap away on laptops, philosophy student Gabriel Balfe gave an example, telling how students in London were able to evade a dreaded police tactic known as "kettling," in which protesters are corralled for hours.

“When we found out five minutes in that the police were preparing to kettle, we were able to spread the message around instantly on Twitter, where there is a huge feedback loop allowing people to coordinate their movements,” he said.

Is it like the heydays of British protests? Maybe not.

Other observers, though, are skeptical of drawing parallels with past heydays of British student protest.

“What today’s protesters seem to be arguing is what their parents would also argue – which is that the middle classes do not want to be taxed more in the form of a graduate tax,” says David Fowler of Cambridge University, the author of a forthcoming book, "The Creative Campus: Student Cultures, Dons and the Global 1960s." “Their goals appear to be quite limited and in response to a government policy, whereas the movements of the 1960s had a much wider, creative focus. They were trying to alter the structure of the educational system and had a strong intellectual focus.”

Dr. Fowler argues that a truly radical student movement would seek to challenge the way in which Britain’s higher educational system has become skewed towards the upper middle classes.

Such a movement may yet emerge. While the current battle over tuition fees has been lost, more radical student forces at the center of the protests and occupations are threatening to overthrow the moderate leadership of the National Union of Students (NUS).

Rowan Rheingans, a sociology student involved in an occupation at Newcastle University in the north of England, says: “The NUS actually feels a irrelevant and basically have no role in these occupations at all”. “The sheer numbers of people involved means that the movement is quite chaotic and sometimes all we can do it link up on blogs. But if anything can come out of it in the immediate term then it will a new, progressive structure for student organising,” she adds, predicting a “shakeup” of the student leadership that would pave the way for an even more concerted and sustained campaign against government policy.

Figures published by the government in March showed that the proportion of people aged between 17 and 30 who were entering higher education in the autumn of 2008 had increased from 43 percent to 45 percent.

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