UK’s Rebellion and Resurgence of Youth Activism

Matt McDermott, Columnist

With a new government often comes sharp changes in policy, and at present Britain is realizing full well these consequences. In the coalition government’s 2010 budget, the country is witnessing an austerity package the scale of which hasn’t been seen in nearly 30 years. And voters across all spectrums haven’t taken well to the proposed massive spending cuts, especially students. 

Anger amongst students lies in the coalition’s proposal to dramatically increase tuition fees over the next few years as the government transfers the cost of courses from the state to students. Universities in England will be allowed to charge students tuition up to 6,000 pounds a year, with a top tier of 9,000 pounds in the university to ensure access to low-income students. These policies would amount to a nearly 300 percent increase in fees, up from the current 3,290 pounds per year. Effectively, the rise would help minimize the massive 2.9 billion pound cut in higher education that will go into effect with the 2010 budget. By replacing state aid with tuition fees, many courses will rely almost entirely on student fees for support.

Labor, for their part, have referred to the fee hike as a “tragedy for a whole generation of young people,” while the National Union of Students (NUS) has called the increase an “outrage.”  But in recent weeks this war of words has taken to the street with a much more active voice.  

Since early October, there have been three nationwide students protests against the tuition fees. The first demonstration, sponsored by the NUS, was expected to draw 10,000-20,000 students to London to voice their frustrations. Instead, over 50,000 marched past Parliament and through the streets of the city. While overall a peaceful protest, a select group of activists broke from the demonstration to storm Conservative Headquarters in central London and create the spectacle that was carried on international news. At the time the NUS expressed their consternation and vowed to keep the protests civil. But since the first protest, two subsequent nationwide action days have been held. At each, thousands of students in cities across the UK took to the streets. In all, over 200 students have thus far been arrested, with widespread criticism of what many see as an overbearing police presence at each event. 

The sentiment at each of these rallies has been unified. With their chants of “No ifs, no buts, no education cuts,” students have argued that education is a fundamental right that should exist as an equal opportunity for all. One protester remarked to me, “I come from a family where if fees go up I’d have to drop out of university. My family would be unable to cope with the over 18,000 pounds in additional costs.” I heard the same from many alongside her. Unlike the United States, UK educational institutions currently provide little in need-based financial aid, a reason why course fees are currently so comparably low. And while these new fee increases require some improvements in financial assistance for lower class students, it’s reasonable to question the equitable nature of the rise.

Perhaps most surprising—considering Tories ran on the very foundation of eliminating the deficit—has been the collapse of support for the coalition government. For the first time in over three years, Labour has been regaining a notable lead in public polling, garnering 40 percent (a four point lead over Conservatives) in the latest ComRes poll this weekend. The startling turnaround for the Labour Party comes at the rapid downfall of the LibDems, who have fallen to their lowest point in over four years. 

Their collapse stems from their appeared snubbing of university students, who were their key base of support in the past election. While LibDems vowed to oppose a tuition fee increase during the election, their position changed dramatically once they joined the coalition government. It’s now expected that Nick Clegg will lead the LibDems in voting for the tuition fee increase, or at best abstaining altogether from the vote—in either case reneging their core campaign promise. In fact, most of the vocal protests over the last month have been an attack of Clegg and his failure to live up to campaign promises.

There is a direct correlation between the rise in protests and the national mood. In an poll released this week by YouGov, university students now strong support Labour, 42 percent versus 26 percent for Conservatives and 15 percent for Liberal Democrats. These numbers are shocking; in advance of the election, the same poll showed students backing LibDems by 45 percent, followed by Labour at only 24 percent. In essence LibDems have lost 30 points in the last few months amongst students, their core constituency. 85 percent of students are “sympathetic to the protests against the tuition fees,” and a rather high 27 percent are in favor of using violent action (akin to the direct action against the Conservative party headquarters in the first student protest).  If an election were to be called today, the UK Polling Report and other independent agencies predict Labour would regain an outright majority in Parliament.

For students though, their fight may come to an abrupt close. A vote in the House of Commons is expected this Thursday, and it seems Conservatives have more than enough votes for passage. The true fight may simmer until the next election is called.