Were Yesterday’s Protests Pointless?

JUAN ZOBER DE FRANCISCO observes the frustration, passion and confusion at yesterday’s student protests.

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Whether you agree with the protests or not, I’m sure you can agree with this one, simple sentence: “Access to education should never be based on the ability to pay.” In my opinion this is what united the people who were out on the streets and in front of Senate House yesterday.

Protests can and have worked. But there is a worrying consensus that Cambridge’s anger is divided. Some of the anger is from students who believe that violence against a building is nothing compared to the structural violence created by the coalition government against future generations, who will suffer as a result of these changes. Yet more students, however, are angry because they feel misrepresented; they feel that the students who were outside Senate House yesterday do not provide a just representation for the majority of the student body, and that furthermore their actions were counter-productive. Still others just don’t give a shit and are sick of hearing about it, but we’ll leave them for now.

Photo: Masons

It is not for me to comment on who is right – all I can do is express my opinion and attempt to substantiate it as best as possible. I believe we must demonstrate that we are united by a concern for the future of education (particularly education in this country).

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said yesterday: “Examine our proposals before taking to the streets.” This implies we’re rebels without a cause. I think this argument was best symbolised by a 14-year-old shouting, “Hitler, shame on you; you’re a fucking Tory too!” while bunking off class. Some of the protesters yesterday were school children with no real grasp of the situation; but it is inevitable that there will always be people who protest for the sake of protesting, without any real clue as to why they’re there.

Some of us, however, have read the Browne Review. It makes some fair points – for example, it says: “The student finance system is complex and confusing – it must be simplified.” (Ch 5, p. 35) Fair enough, Lord Browne, fair enough.

But there are problems. It also states, for example, that the current fees cap is “not a sustainable position for the future.” Why? Because of “the start of public spending reductions, which will accelerate over the next spending review period.” (Ch 2, p. 22) Here lies a disagreement in reference points between those who support the Browne Review and those who don’t.

One side says, “Cut fast. Cut deep. Cut fair.” The other retorts with, “They say CUT BACK, we say FIGHT BACK!”.

Even if you disagree with the “Communists” behind the arguments opposing cuts, there is an economic argument to say that cuts could have adverse effects to higher education for Britain. As the Browne Review itself puts it, “Higher education helps to produce economic growth, which in turn contributes to national prosperity.” (Ch 1, p. 14) Cuts in higher education could slow economic growth – as the review itself states.

But, leaving that debate aside, Nick Clegg’s pledge “to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”, (25th Feb, 2010 at Trinity Hall, Cambridge) is what seems to have struck the strongest nerve amongst students in Cambridge today. Students who voted for the Liberal Democrats feel betrayed. This is what led students to criticise him and his party (the most memorable chant being “Nick Clegg, your mom bends over as easily as you did!”). In politics, you have to compromise. But Clegg compromised too easily and too soon, and his political aspirations will suffer because of it.

The government’s solution shifts the emphasis towards a marketized education and places the long-term burden on funding for education with universities. My experience as KCSU President and as Governing Body Representative leads me to believe that, should this occur, it will lead to the University jacking up tuition fees to the highest level possible. I worry that this creates problems that haven’t yet adequately been dealt with. If you don’t believe me because you’re a Tory, read this, it’s from one of your favourite think tanks.

As Cambridge students, what are we left with? Some believe that all we have now is a divided student body and an idiot who stole a police hat, thus setting off tensions that led to two students being arrested and police hitting students.

But to leave it at that is to miss the point. We shouldn’t be discouraged by the fact that we disagree with one another on the methods – instead we should focus on the fact that what unites us is a common belief in something worth fighting for.

But, hey, what do I know? I’m just a party guy, right?