‘It’s extortionate’: Students who protested fees in 2010 on reducing fees in 2020

‘I striked at the time and I’d do so again now’

On the 9th December 2010, MPs voted in favour of raising the cap on tuition fees, sparking protests and riots in the capital. Protestors were kettled (surrounded by police and made to stay in one tight group, unable to move), some were even attacked by police officers, but they still managed to occupy Millbank, the Conservative party’s campaign headquarters, and cause some damage. The drama of the protests faded over time, with little committing to people’s memories beyond the fire extinguisher incident, and the fact that, in the end, they didn’t work.

Fees successfully rose to nine grand in 2012. Students who attempted to get into uni the year before the nine grand fees came into place, for the academic year 2011/2012, still describe it as “the hardest year in history to get into uni” because of the mad rush to avoid the hike in fees. Then the academic year of 2012/2013 came, students coughed up their nine grand, and everyone settled down a bit.

Discontentment simmered, but students were largely silent. Until now, in 2021, when the calls for lower fees have reached a new volume. Eleven years ago, the anger was over the “unfair” increase in fees. But how justified the fees increase would be, in terms of the quality of education, was unknown. Now, 11 years on and one pandemic later, we’re through the looking glass. The quality of higher education, which is now almost entirely online, is seen as so poor that a petition to bring fees back down to their £3k original rate reached 500,000 signatures on the parliament website this month. Current students are livid. But the fire that burned for the students who protested 11 years ago hasn’t been completed extinguished either, and many are still defending the rights of students in 2021, claiming that the fee increase wasn’t justified then and it certainly isn’t now.

Photo by Geoff Pugh/Shutterstock

“I protested in 2010 and got kettled,” one previous student told The Tab. “It was grim as fuck.” This graduate, who took part in the protests 10 years ago, now works in higher education and therefore doesn’t believe universities should be free, but still feels that the 11 years since the fee hike have seen a decrease in the quality of higher education, not an increase.

“The Lib Dems and the Tories worked to shift unis to forms of privatisation and commercialisation,” they said, “removing central government funding for huge swathes of subjects and courses, and materially diminishing the student experience and staff pay and conditions as part of the process. Staff have had real-world pay cuts every year for a decade, thousands and thousands of us are now on fixed-term, part-time and exploitative contracts. The money isn’t going to us.”

Another student, who was part of the first intake of students paying nine grand, agreed that the fee rise wasn’t reflected in the quality of education. “I was the first year of £9k and I was pretty bitter about it,” they told The Tab. “Overall I was not impressed with the ‘product’ and felt £9k was way too much (and I did engineering!). But I also think that I should be the bearer of that cost, not the tax payer. It’s a crappy inefficient system and unis waste so much money that forces the cost to be so high in the first place.”

Moreover, some students in 2010 thought the value of their education was already too low to justify £3,000 fees, let alone nine grand. “I was involved in protests in London and at my university,” one graduate said, “including the occupation of its ‘Senate Building’ for a period. There was no damage done, it was open, we got in and managed to have local councillors and university officials come to meet us to discuss things.

“I was obviously already in uni, under the old fee structure, and felt that the education I was getting for that was already verging on bad value, so was of course very against tripling it.”

Photo by Alex Macnaughton/Shutterstock (1266457a)

Another student who felt the £3,000 fees were unjustified at the time told The Tab: “I was at the protests. Based on my own experience, I think £3,000 a year is ridiculous given the quality of lecturers, the number of hours of tuition and what support you get – especially if you are someone experiencing difficulties a student doesn’t typically face.

“The support for those under extenuating circumstances was so poor. I remember asking a lecturer for additional help when I was struggling to even keep a roof over my head and couldn’t get into lectures because of the cost of travel. My lecturer’s advice was to just resit the year instead of offering support, or even signposting me to support! £9,000 a year is absolutely extortionate. Especially under the current situation.”

Another student lamented the gap between him and his sister, who is a few years older than him and was lucky enough to get £3k fees. He told The Tab: “At the time I thought it was mental to demand three times more money for essentially the same courses. Since then I’ve dropped out of uni with nearly £30k debt and nothing to show for it. I’ve only just landed a job that requires me to make repayments on Plan 2 [the repayment plan for those who paid £9,000 fees], so at this rate, I’ll be paying until I retire. On the other hand, my sister who is on Plan 1 [the repayment plan for £3,000 fees] is due to pay off her loan in the next few months. It breaks me to think that in three years I wouldn’t even have made a dent in my loan, let alone be close to paying it off.”

In terms of loan repayment, the jury is out – most previous protestors argued that students don’t end up paying their loans off anyway. (This is true – the government only expects around 25 per cent of grads to pay off their loans in full.) But in principle, every single person agreed the quality of a university education right now is not worth £9,250 a year. One student, who protested the very introduction of tuition fees under Tony Blair, simply put it: “I think it’s a fucking disgrace that’s harming our nation.”

Featured image by Ray Tang/Shutterstock

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