SOAS students put free education back on political agenda at national demo

Credit: Himasha Weera

Photo: Himasha Weera

Clare Birkett, MSc Environment, Politics and Development

The student movement is celebrating a comeback after holding a 10,000 strong protest on 19th November demanding free education. The demonstration was followed by a national day of action last Wednesday, which saw renewed levels of police violence and calls for cops off campus.

The day of action included an occupation of the Universities UK building in Woburn Square by SOAS and UCL students. Universities UK is instrumental to the marketisation of education, and is also the institution that proposed the cut to pensions, which led to the recent UCU marking boycott.

Warwick students also held a large sit-in on the same day, which sparked an aggressive response from authorities. Police used CS spray (an active agent in tear gas) and heavy force on students, and threatened to use tasers. A wave of solidarity events have taken place in Warwick and elsewhere in the country since then, including a Cops off Campus demonstration in London last Thursday.

The national demonstration in November, which many SOAS students joined, was the biggest student protest since 2010, despite a last minute decision by the National Union of Students’ (NUS) to pull its support and funding.

The large turnout and jubilant mood signalled a renewed energy for the student movement since its defeat four years ago when tuition fees were trebled, hitting the movement hard.

I think that students are excited because instead of being on the defensive and protesting against onslaughts from the government, this time we’re actively calling for something- a whole new education system,” said Georgie Robertson, co-president of SOAS student union.Student tuition fees are one of the coalition’s biggest failures, with the new fee system actually costing the government rather saving it money, demonstrating that the argument for the current system is more ideological than logical.

University students were joined at the protest by staff and alumni as well as sixth formers, and people came from as far as Cornwall, Stirling and Lancaster.

There’s a really great atmosphere, a real sense of purpose and direction and determination,” tweeted Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, who joined the march.

SOAS students began the march outside of the school, where around 200 protesters listened to rousing speeches and joined in with protest songs which boosted spirits before demonstrators headed to Malet Street to join the official start of the protest.

There was a good turnout from SOAS students but we hope that even more will get engaged in the campaign throughout the year,” said Georgie. “People sometimes assume that SOAS students will just turn up to these protests because they’re political, but you still have to work to get the majority of students supporting the campaign.”

The union had organised an event “Beyond the Neoliberal University” days before the protest in order to boost engagement.

Protesters marched from Malet St through central London to a rally by the Houses of Parliament. Chants such as ‘No ifs, no buts, no education cuts’ ripped through the crowd to the beats of the SOAS samba band. Banners showed slogans reading ‘Books not bombs!’, ‘No Racist Scapegoating!’ and ‘Education is a Right!’, and flares added to the palpable energy.

Rather than focus on the politics or message of the demonstration, the media chose instead to focus on short moments of violence involving those they label ‘hostile’ and ‘rowdy anarchists’. There was no serious damage to property, and violence was, as usual, provoked by police. Reports showed that between 4 and 11 people were arrested, then released without charge a couple of hours later. The police ‘snatch squads’ arresting people arbitrarily, suggests it was a tactic used to intimidate protestors and not due to actual illegal activities.

One male student from Birkbeck College was aggressively shoved to the floor by police, with onlookers claiming that the victim had done nothing to either warrant nor provoke the incident.

Police also lined the front of branches of Starbucks and Topshop, as students passing by chanted “Pay your taxes”.

The irony of course is that if they did pay their taxes, these stores would have no need for police protection. Instead of deploying tens of police officers to guard these multinationals, these companies should be forced to pay their taxes. It is obvious who the police are here to protect today.” said Laura Hill, a recent SOAS graduate.

At the end rally, speakers including Green Party MP Caroline Lucas addressed a receptive crowd. But several off-shoot groups which included many SOAS students left the main route before the end of the march, targeting key areas and buildings around central London.

The samba band led a carnival style rally in Parliament Square, while others marched on the government’s department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)- the department that deals with the financing of higher education- leaving it daubed with paint. Others marched on the Tory headquarters and the National Union of Students (NUS) headquarters.

Student anger at the NUS was due to the latter’s decision- made just two weeks before the event- to withdraw its support and funding from the protest despite having voted to support it, citing safety fears. In a statement, the SOAS union heavily criticised the decision, highlighting that it was made undemocratically. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) also called the NUS’s decision ‘ridiculous’.

We heard that the NUS called several student unions, encouraging them not to support or attend the demo,” said Georgie. While the NUS pulled its support, the demo was strongly supported by other groups including the Students Assembly Against Austerity, NCAFC, and the Green Party. Young Labour refused to lend its support.

The great thing about this protest is that it wasn’t swamped by one left wing party, which is one of the reasons why the student movement fell apart in 2010,” said Saul Jones, a second year Social Anthropology student at SOAS, who attended the rally. “Also, organisers stipulated that they wouldn’t collaborate with police, so I think there was a real sense of ‘We’re not going to march in the rain to Hyde Park again,’” he said, in reference to the NUS march organised two years ago, which did little to boost the student movement. “There’s a potential here, but it’ll only come to anything if we take action on it,” he said.

A number of countries have already made education free, with Germany the latest to do so and Chile the latest to commit. England currently has the highest higher education fees in Europe, with the average student left £40,000 in debt after graduating.

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