7 Reflections on the National Demo for #FreeEducation

by Craig McVegas

21 November 2014

On Wednesday at least 10,000 university and further education (FE) students headed to London to raise the banner for free education. In contrast to the Trades Union Congress march a month ago, Wednesday’s demo was pacy and lively throughout. As called for by the Students Against Boredom and Banality (SABBs), Parliament Square was occupied before protesters parted ways – some heading for the rally outside parliament, others playing cat and mouse with the police around Westminster. Here are a few reflections on what David Graeber has called “a new student movement“:

1. This was bigger than expected.

This demo was billed as the largest since 2010. A high bar indeed – especially considering most undergraduate students in attendance had either never been on a national student demo before, or had made it along to the miserable ‘#Demo2012‘ as their first foray into street politics.

Although the organisers had outwardly been expecting 8-10,000 protesters, this was undoubtedly optimistic – not least because of the general recession of student radicalism over the last two years, and the dramatic 11th-hour withdrawal from the National Union of Students (NUS).

If there could have been any strong indicator that the tide is turning, Wednesday’s demonstration was surely it. Indeed, the last all-student demonstration to surpass the 10,000-mark was exactly three years and 11 months prior, when 20,000 students turned out for the symbolic Commons tuition fee vote.

2. The NUS was not missed.

Despite the alleged efforts of the NUS leadership to actively dissuade Student Unions from taking part, their warnings didn’t seem to have much traction with those determined to turn out for the cause. Speaking to #NovaraTV, Beth Redmond from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) said: “I think they’re scared and that’s why they’ve released a blog about free education, because we’re actually talking to students – we know what students want. I don’t think they care about students at all.”

Students reciprocated the night prior to the demonstration, when Ghost Commando Aaron Porter – the self-proclaimed ‘militant wing’ of the SABBs whose name refers to the NUS president 2010/11 – redecorated the NUS headquarters with paint and warm messages…

NUS vice president for FE, Joe Vinson, reassured the membership that he’ll be liaising with police to catch Ghost Commando Aaron Porter.

3. This is the 9k generation…

When 9k fees were introduced in 2012, I remember there being a concern among campus activist groups that new students might be more inclined to concentrate on demanding their ‘value for money’ rather than the abolition of fees and the reversal of cuts. It turns out there was little cause for concern in this department. Wednesday was massively comprised of students paying 9k fees, and they’re rebuilding a movement. Triple fees. Triple debt. Triple pissed off.

 4. …and they can’t be dismissed at ‘idealistic’.

When fees rose in 2010, it was portrayed as an unfortunate but necessary result of the financial crisis. As Graeber points out in the Guardian, higher education (HE) since the coalition has been blunder after blunder. He says, “in intellectual terms, the other side has simply lost the argument.” He’s absolutely right, and with the general election just six months away the student movement has everything to play for if it can get into the right gear. The recent news of Lower Saxony’s decision to scrap tuition fees (drawing a close to Germany’s tuition fee experiment) is high on students’ list of reference points and demonstrates that free education is not only possible, but can save the country money.

5. The Metropolitan police played a PR game.

Things got rough later in the day as 15 students were arrested, at least one of whom was hospitalised. No charges were brought and everyone was released later in the evening – indicating that the arrests were almost certainly used to try to intimidate protesters. Arrest footage clearly shows excessive force being used, however considering the Met’s (particularly brutal) record on student demonstrations, the police spent most of the day playing a PR game.
Though anticipated, there was no attempt at a ‘rolling kettle’ as we saw on a 2011 march that ended at London Met university. Instead, armoured units including the Territorial Support Group (TSG) held back in side streets for most of the day, letting ordinary borough constables and blue-bibbed ‘Police Liaison Officers’ play a mostly low-key ‘facilitatory’ role, bar their obligatory but brief and futile attempt to stop protesters getting into Parliament Square.

6. The demo was among the most mobile since 2011.

A section of the radical left always lets out a big old groan when an A-B march is announced. While predictable it’s often vindicated: the march passes politely down a pre-cleared street, patronisingly waved through by fluorescent stewards who tell you off for walking the wrong side of the traffic cones. At the end of it you decide not to bother with the rally and moan to your friends that ‘nothing happened really’.

From the outset, it felt clear this demonstration couldn’t just trudge from A-B if it was going to spark the free education flame. The mood was upbeat, and while there was a little initial hesitancy at the barriers to Parliament Square, people seemed to know that they would have to take the plunge (or rather the awkward scramble) for the demo to be regarded as a success. Chants of “Who’s streets? Our streets!” accompanied the ensuing game of cat-and-mouse with the police, which was effective in hassling politically relevant and symbolic targets including the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Tory campaign HQ and the Department for Work and Pensions.

7. The Greens will be watching carefully.

If this campaign takes off nationally, part of its strength will be that it’ll grow alongside the media hype around the general election. With the rise of Ukip and the continued exsanguination of the Lib Dems, we really can’t rule out a multi-party coalition.

As we know, the Greens have had a surge in both membership and the opinion polls. The chance of translating that into seats is currently slim, but my guess is they’ll make a concerted effort to galvanise the student vote in university towns in an attempt to essentially become to students in 2015 what the Lib Dems were in early 2010. The Greens are currently the only well-known party to support free education along the lines articulated by students on Wednesday; indeed Caroline Lucas, leader Natalie Bennett, and deputy leaders Shahrar Ali and Amelia Womack were all in attendence. Watch this space.

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