This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
Yesterday saw thousands of angry students take to the streets of central London in a protest against the government's cuts to higher education. Following a familiar theme, the students clashed with police, tried to storm a government building, and generally ran amok while trying to evade kettling and arrests.
The march, organized by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, demanded "free education and living grants, funded by progressive taxation," and followed similar demonstrations which have been held pretty much every November since 2010. In fact, the organizers claimed Wednesday's demo was the biggest since the one in 2010, which ended with students trashing the Tory headquarters.
While there was something very familiar about it, it wasn't a total re-hash of past demos. As I arrived at the march's starting point students were snapping selfies with shadow chancellor John McDonnell. There's no way this would have happened in 2010, when Labour regarded student demonstrations with the sort of awkward embarrassment a parent feels toward their sulky teenager.
Times have changed. Yesterday's protest received the personal support of both the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, who gave a speech.
A key complaint for the student protest movement's new cohort is that in the summer budget, George Osborne announced the scrapping of maintenance grants for university students. The complete cut of the £1.6 billion-a-year [$2.4 billion] subsidy, which is due to come into effect in fall 2016, will affect over half a million students. Currently, if your family earns under £25,000 [$38,000] a year, you qualify for the full £3,400-a-year grant [$5,000]. Under the new plan, students from poorer backgrounds will get nothing from the government, which will mean those poor kids who don't give up on their dreams of academia entirely taking on even more debt. According to the IFS, the poorest 40 percent UK students from 2016 will graduate with debts of up to £53,000 [$80,000] from a three year course, rather than a maximum of £40,500 [$61,700] currently.
As the "book bloc" formed up—demonstrators with shields made to look like books—The University of London Union building (ULU) provided an ominous backdrop to the beginning of the march. The student union itself was shut down by university managers in 2014 in what was widely perceived as an attempt to shut up any mouthy student campaigns against further marketization going on.
Several thousand gathered to hear speeches before setting off toward Westminster. Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell was waiting in the wings of the podium before his speech. I caught his attention very briefly and asked if Labour's support now meant free education had a fighting chance. "Thousands of young people have turned out [here today]. I think that there's a sense of betrayal in this generation by this government. I think now in the Labour party we need to take that into account in our policy making," he said.
"We're campaigning within the Labour party now on the basis of what Jeremy won the leadership election on, which is free education. We need to ensure that demonstrations like this make a point, and this is what they are doing."
I asked him if he genuinely thought free education was a winnable policy. "Yes I do. Definitely." he said. "We need a lot of young people supporting us in the campaign, joining the labour party as well to help us shift the policy position."
As the march set off toward central London, I mused on whether or not a lefty Labour party might be able to save higher education in the UK from brutal Tory cuts and marketization, but was distracted by all the Cameron pig-fucking placards around me:
Following the pig fucking theme, one of the day's chants was to the tune of "London Bridge Is Falling Down" and Went: "David Cameron fucked a pig, fucked a pig, fucked a pig, David Cameron fucked a pig, and us students."
Meanwhile, some people eschewed dodgy puns and made their points more directly.
As we came into Trafalgar Square, I caught up with one of the black bloc-dressed students. A 26-year-old, who didn't want to be named, said that he believed universities were being privatized much in the same way that the NHS and other public services were. "You run down public services and then you say, oh look these public services aren't working—we need to privatize them. The NHS is a classic example; but the Post Office; higher education is definitely an example too. It's quite clear that, if you look at something like Oliver Letwin's book Privatising the World, written in the 80s, they're trying to realize that plan."
Outside the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills, things started to heat up a bit. The "book bloc" clashed with police, trying to force their way into the building, and leaving fragments of polystyrene all over the pavement. At this point, half of the protestors ran away, presumably a bit scared at the prospect of being beaten up or arrested by the police.
Smoke bombs, bangers, paint bombs, and placards were thrown at the cops, who pushed the remaining crowd back and tried to kettle them, unsuccessfully: the crowd pushed through a police line and sprinted up the street toward Victoria station.
From here, the official march was over and the protest turned into several hours of running around Pimlico trying to evade the police. When they did catch up with the protestors, the cops dragged whoever they could grasp to the ground and arrested them.
The last rump of the protest ended up just off of Pall Mall, where more arrests were made and about a hundred people were kettled. I watched as police from the Territorial Support Group (TSG—riot cops) punched a guy in the head as he tried in vain to help out his arrested comrade who was on the floor.
Eventually those kettled were frog-marched by a massive police escort to Charing Cross train station where they were let go. Twelve protestors were arrested over the course of the day for public order offenses.
The organizers, NCAFC, condemned police actions as "unnecessary and aggressive." The above picture shows that in fact the cops were being their usual, chilled selves.
In 2010, the Tories and Lib Dems introduced £9,000 [$13,000] fees insisting—against a large body of popular opinion—that they were creating a better and fairer higher education system. That may have been spin, but in 2015, buoyed by an election victory in the summer, the Tories seemingly can't be bothered to even argue that they're making things better for students. When he announced the scrapping of the maintenance grant, George Osborne said that there was a "basic unfairness in asking taxpayers to fund grants for people who are likely to earn a lot more than them." His argument doesn't mention the fact that the majority of grant money goes to students from the poorest households, and that graduate earnings have been declining year on year for the past decade.
Students are planning further protests later in November. While the government is seemingly unconcerned that they're giving young people an even harder time, the student movement now has the backing of a Labour Party. That party has itself been radicalized by an influx of young members, and that relationship could be instrumental as demonstrations like yesterday's become increasingly relevant.
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