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Do These British Students Have the Answer to Free Higher Education?

Campaign organiser Deborah Hermanns told me it's all about perseverance.

by Tom Breakwell
28 October 2014, 6:00am

Deborah Hermanns (holding the microphone) with other activists from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts at the "Britain Needs a Pay Rise" march in London on the 18th of October

British students have had a tough time of it recently, doing a plenty of shouting to voice their discontent. But while many of these protests may have ended in arrests, punch-ups and the destruction of Tory property, very little has actually changed.

However, students are assembling this week with a very optimistic aim: completely free higher education. Organised by the Student Assembly Against Austerity and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, students throughout the UK will be rallying on campuses, demanding that the government abolishes tuition fees altogether. These protests are all intended as a build up to the main event: The National Demonstration for Free Education, a nationwide protest on the 19th of November.

But will the students be heard? And if they are, will anyone in power actually care? I called Deborah Hermanns, an organiser for the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, to talk about the protests and find out the game plan for ensuring fee-free higher education for future generations of British students.

Students in London protesting against the presence of police on their campuses at the end of last year (Photo by Oscar Webb) 

VICE: Hi Deborah. So your view is that higher education in the UK is becoming a commodity?
Deborah Hermanns: Yeah, British universities are on the road to becoming "Americanised". They are heading towards the American system, which views education as a type of commodity rather than as a public good that greatly benefits society. Tuition fees are the obvious symptom, but you can also see it in the way that members of staff are treated. Universities used to have this status as almost self-governing communities, run internally by staff and students. But that’s not really the case any more – universities are now run by managers and vice-chancellors. They're also highly dependent on corporations, which pump a lot of money into universities these days.

What are the kind of issues you're campaigning for this week? Is it purely for free education, or does it go beyond that?
We’re currently having two weeks of action under the title of "Free Education" in the run-up to a national demonstration on the 19th of November, but we're also campaigning around a number of national demands that we established back in January during a student activist meeting in Birmingham. These demands include the democratisation of universities, ethical investment and students' right to dissent. While it's about fees, it’s also about issues such as living grants and student support – for example, for disabled students. At Birmingham University, for example, people are campaigning for better housing and the right to protest, along with the right to free education.

What's the level of support been like from students? Do you think people are more apathetic than they used to be?
More and more these days you're encouraged not to be political. At university, people focus on filling out their CVs and, immediately after that, you have to get a job. With universities seen as a step on the career path, you're actively discouraged from engaging politically, as it's not good for your CV and it's not going to get you a job.

However, I think students are as political as ever; they just lack the means to express it. Yesterday I went door knocking at UCL, and a lot of those students are angry. Angry at housing, tuition fees and a lot more. When you tell them about the protests going on, they're clearly interested. So there's willingness, but there's a lack of initiative – arguably because people are so often told that it won’t make a difference.

A protester smashing up Millbank during the 2010 student protests in London (Photo by Henry Langston)

Yeah, I suppose there were widespread protests following Nick Clegg's failure to prevent a raise in tuition fees, but they kind of petered out. What's different about your campaign? 
We're pragmatic: we know that one demonstration isn't going to cut tuition fees. But you have to start somewhere. The point of this fortnight of action – and the national “free education” demonstration on the 19th of November – is to inspire people, get them politically active and build a long-term bottom up movement for education. There's a genuine problem in how some student unions are looking to engage with students. A lot of them are focusing on register to vote campaigns, but that completely misses the point. Students get involved in politics when there are causes they care about and when they feel like they can actually have an impact. They don’t get involved in politics because they're told to register to vote.

A lot of people gave the fight for free education up after the 2010 defeat. But, in many ways, what we're doing now is modelled on what has occurred in countries like Canada, Chile or Germany over the past few years. In Bavaria, when tuition fees were introduced, students started having "free education" demonstrations almost weekly, and that spread, causing more activism. Eventually the political establishment felt it was a vote winner to scrap tuition fees. What we're trying to do this week, and at the national demonstration, is to kick-start a pro-active movement for "free education".

How realistic do you feel the demand is?
I genuinely do think we can achieve it. I think it’s achievable in five to six years with the support of a proper long-term movement like the one in Germany or Chile. The money is there to create free education. If the political elite had the guts to tax the rich more and tackle corporate tax avoidance, then it would be possible. In Bavaria, a very conservative government changed their opinion because of the public putting pressure on the establishment. It’s about applying pressure and letting people know it’s possible.

A powder-painted wall at King's College London

What's the alternative? Voting in the Greens for their free education policy?
Yeah, the Green Party has a free education policy. Funnily enough, UKIP also have one, but it’s very archaic – they want to head back to a system which favours the elite and cuts out disadvantaged students. Essentially, they want a form of higher education that serves Eton students, not working class people.

For the Tories, it doesn’t fit their political agenda. If people start getting a decent higher education, they will start questioning the establishment: it’s in their interests to deny people access to it. And Labour talk about bringing [the fees cap] down to £6,000, which is just pathetic. With Labour it’s more a case of them not having the guts to do it, and thinking – stupidly – that it would make them unpopular. In fact, polling always shows that higher taxes on the rich are a popular policy, as is abolishing tuition fees.

Which universities are getting involved this week?
There are events going on at UCL, Birmingham, Sussex, Cambridge, Manchester, Falmouth, Warwick and areas in Scotland – and loads more. It’s very widespread. We’ve been travelling around London powder painting walls to raise awareness for the demonstration. There are also more events yet to come in London specifically.

Cool. And if people want to get involved, how should they go about doing so?
This Saturday there'll be a London-wide meeting for school and college students to come together and get organised around free education and the national demonstration. The meeting is at the College of Communication from 11AM. For current students at university, I'd recommend getting involved with local activist groups, and finding out if your student union is putting on a coach to the demonstration. Also, just drop us an email on and we'll help you out with any questions and get you in contact with the relevant people on your campus.

Great, thanks Deborah.

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Vice Blog
Tom Breakwell
Free Education
National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts
Deborah Hermanns
Student Assembly Against Austerity