Harry Wise, student at SOAS, reports on the demonstration
Thousands of students from all across the UK marched in Central London on Wednesday to protest against the government’s higher education policy. Anger was palpably visible on the streets as students demonstrated against the higher tuition fees, the axing of maintenance grants, and other policies which have taken place over the last five years under Coalition and Conservative governments.
John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, was the highest-profile speaker against the current government’s higher education policy. He exclaimed that the current generation of students “has been betrayed by this government with the increase in tuition fees, the scrapping of Education Maintenance Allowance, and now the attack on Maintenance Grants and education generally.” McDonnell also spoke about the importance of education for the different generations. “Education is a gift from one generation to another,” he exclaimed. “It is not a product, a commodity to be bought and sold. For generations now, one generation has handed the baton onto the next, to try to ensure that the next generation has a better quality of life than the last. This government is betraying you and future generations.”
Although, there was a fight which took place outside the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills between the anarchist Black Bloc group and police officers, the overwhelming majority of protestors marched peacefully from Holborn through the City of Westminster and back to show their solidarity. Many students had come from Scotland to express solidarity with English students. Daniel, a Politics student from Scotland said that “If I had to pay tuition fees in Scotland, I could not afford to go to university, nor could my sister, nor could many, many working class people.” For him, education is a human right that shouldn’t be accessed by only the wealthy. “You should not have to pay for your human rights. You should not have to pay for your freedom of speech. A home should be a human right. You should not have to pay for your education…free education means everybody from a council estate in Glasgow to a mansion in the south of England have the right to a good and proper education.”
Despite the light drizzle and gloomy Autumn weather, the mood was one of optimism for the student demonstrators. While many tourists were on their way to one of the great West End theatres, probably to watch Nicole Kidman play a scientist who is a victim of institutional misogyny in new play Photograph 51, protestors were walking gracefully past them exhibiting their anger at the institutional attack on their education.
Jonathan Sheridan, a SOAS International Relations student, knows many people who have been put off going to university as a result of the expense; “Time and time again, I see my friends who I went to high school with, who wanted to be doctors, engineers, scientists, who just couldn’t get to the university, because of the cost, and to see someone’s dreams shattered like that is abhorrent.” Just like Daniel, education was a human right to Jonathan, a right which should be available to all, and it was the most common and popular sentiment expressed that afternoon in London.
From next year, maintenance grants are being replaced by maintenance loans. This was a focal point of the protest. The loans themselves will be repaid under the same terms as tuition fee loans once a graduate earns over £21,000 a year. The government expects to save £2.5bn by 2020-21 as a result. And though the maximum value of the maintenance loan is going up to £8,200, graduates will still have to pay the whole loan back.
One protestor, an LSE student called Adam, was particularly angered by the scrapping of maintenance grants; “I wouldn’t be here otherwise (without the grant). I am lucky to get an opportunity to study at LSE…With what he (George Osborne) is doing now, I wouldn’t come to LSE. A student two or three years below me isn’t going to be able to afford university.” The irony was clearly lost on the people in government, most of whom went to university for free.
Students these days face more trouble than previous generations. High fees, exorbitant for the many, the scrapping of education maintenance allowance, the conversion of maintenance grants to loans and the precarious employment market have made life for millions of young people more difficult in the 21st century. The march last Wednesday showed that education is too valuable to put a price on. Making life harder for millions of people through a multi-pronged attack on higher education is not going to lead to a more progressive and socially mobile society. It’s going to entrench privilege, not reduce it.
Free education, says UNESCO “promotes individual freedom and empowerment and yields important development benefits…education is a powerful tool by which economically and socially marginalized adults and children can lift themselves out of poverty and participate fully as citizens.” Without easy access to education, how is freedom and empowerment going to be affected? It doesn’t take a political scientist to answer that question. Education is most certainly a human right.