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Fighting for Free Education: The National Demonstration Against Fees and Cuts.

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By Indigo Lilburn-Quick, BA History and Politics

On November 15th, many SOAS students joined the National Demonstration Against Fees and Cuts following the rise in tuition fees to £9,250 a year. Although the number of students that marched is unclear, with organisers claiming 10,000 and police giving an unofficial estimate of around 2,000, all those who attended were determined to make their voices heard.

SOAS protesters, many of whom are facing more than £60,000 of debt, assembled outside the main building before joining the main congregation in Mallet Street. The procession then moved through central London to the Houses of Parliament, where rallying speeches continued until 5pm. Marching along to the beats of the SOAS ‘Sambatage’ group, there was a celebratory atmosphere with many dancing, singing ‘solidarity forever’ and repeating chants throughout.

Hasan Patel, a 14-year-old school who helped organise the demonstration, told crowds he was “not just angry but also inspired” due to the genuine prospect of free education that has put on the table by Jeremy Corbyn and the fact so many were marching together to fight for this goal. Support for Corbyn was widespread amongst the protesters with the chant ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ repeated many times, including in front of 10 Downing Street where the march came to a stand-still for several minutes. Fiona Lali (BA Law and Development), from the SOAS Marxist Society, said that to achieve free education “We need a Corbyn lead Labour government […] elected on a radical programme.” The protest was backed by Momentum and also had Corbyn’s personal backing.

The Marxist Society were not the only ones protesting on an anti-capitalist agenda. Almost musical cries of “A-anti-anti-capitalista” were a crowd favourite and encapsulated the feeling that it was not just this policy but the whole system that needed to come down. While the chant “eat the rich” was largely satirical, many protesters’ concerns were based around economic and class injustice.

As NUS executive member Ana Oppenheim pointed out, “Since the government scrapped maintenance grants, the poorest students will be graduating with the highest debt. This is what injustice looks like.”

The £16,907 a year fees SOAS charges international students are even more daunting than the debts of those from the UK or EU. More than 50 per cent of SOAS students are international and without access to student loans from the UK government, amassing debt in order to study in the UK is not even an option for many, who are automatically locked out. Hansika Jethani, an international student and co-organiser of the event, said there was ‘very little support’ available. She said issues included ‘isolation and worrying about disappointing your family’, visa issues, and being ‘thrown out of the country immediately after graduating’. She told the crowd: “Students from New Zealand are marching hand in hand with those from Newcastle, those from Brazil with those from Bristol, united in the belief that education is a public good, not a commodity to be bought or sold.”

Although the government has claimed the rise in tuition fees has not discouraged students from poorer backgrounds from going to university, campaigners have argued these statistics are skewed as they are only based on those going straight from secondary school. Twenty-four per cent of SOAS undergraduates are mature students. Tom Ana, a mature student studying for a BA History of Art, said: “Mature students who are in work become discouraged from entering university when they are faced with the prospect of getting into a lot of debt.” He added that they often look to alternative forms of education instead such as the Open University and apprenticeships.

The SOAS SU has played a key role in organising students within SOAS as well as in the national campaign, but co-presidents seemed dissatisfied with the narrow definition of free education put forward the NUS and others. Welfare and campaigns officer Dimitri Cautain said: “Fighting for free education is not simply about tuition fees, which is sort of what the reductionist arguments of the NUS can sometimes be, but are very much about changing universities and university curricula.”

He noted the Justice for Workers campaign, a fight against outsourcing and privatisation, as well as campus cuts and inequalities as examples of issues that are ‘part of the problem’.

The demonstration was linked to a planned walk-out at SOAS on November 24, which the SU said was also opposing the marketization of education. Democracy and education officer Nisha Phillips said this trend was ‘a measure to pit people against each other and to really kind of create silos of universities and also to create market and create an environment in which universities are set up to fail as well.’ In a statement, SOAS said it was ‘committed to promoting equality and celebrating diversity’ by providing ‘vital financial support’ supporting ‘over 150 socioeconomically disadvantaged home students’ each year.

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