On Wednesday 11 November, a contingent from Nottingham University were among hundreds of students who gathered in London to protest against the threat of higher tuition fees. The protest, according to organisers, was an attempt to demonstrate that students were “active, angry and ready to fight any attempt to lift the cap on fees”,
The demonstration is yet another event in a long running tuition fees saga, which began with their original introduction in 1998. In March this year, a BBC survey revealed that two thirds of university vice-Chancellors wanted an increase in fees, while a later report from the Confederation of British Industry made headlines by arguing that a fee hike was ‘inevitable’.
Lord Mandelson – the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills – announced an independent review of higher education costs in Britain: the first since 2004.
Distributing flyers to Londoners outside the Westminster Underground, NUS Vice President (Further Education) Shane Chowen argued that an increase was “dangerous” for the future of education in Britain. Referring to Mandelson’s call for students in higher education to become more like consumers in an education market, Chowen argued that “Education is not and should not be a market system.”
Under an overcast sky in the early afternoon, the rally featured a sizable crowd of students convening en masse in Parliament Square, accentuating their mantra that MPs need to “come clean” by donning mops and other various home cleaning supplies in the crowd. Chants of “1,2,3,4, Fairer funding for us all; 5,6,7,8, Top-up fees are out of date!” rang through the Square, under the watchful eyes of a statue of Winston Churchill. NUS President Wes Streeting praised the ability of the student unions to respond to the review:”What we have here is a 48 hours’ snap action. We have gathered at Parliament today to put pressure on MPs.” Streeting went on to state how important it was that David Lammy would be in attendance. Lammy, the Minister for Higher Education, had been a focal point in the NUS’ movement against Top-up fees.
Around 2:30pm, the demonstration quickly dissolved as students entered the House of Commons to meet with their MPs to discuss the proposed Top-up fees. The NUS enjoyed full occupation of Committee Room 11 for over two hours as around ten MPs gladly held an open discussion with members of the rally. The room was filled to capacity – police were required to quell the crowd that spilled into the corridor, mandating they remain seated in pews until the room cleared out.
Evan Harris, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, was first to sign the pledge that he would vote against any new Top-up fees. Emerging from the Committee Room with a smile and raucous applause following him, he stated “I am in complete agreement with this proposal. It is likely that all Democrats will oppose new Top-up fees, and abolish existing fees.” Frank Dobson, Labour MP for Holborn & St Pancras, spoke in opposition of Top-up fees, saying they would put graduates in an unacceptable amount of debt. He pledged his support to the NUS’ proposed system, whereby graduates would contribute to a trust in accordance with their salaries over a 20-year period after graduation.
Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North, gave a particularly rousing, charged speech which drew considerable applause after insisting “Should this proposal ever see the light of day, it won’t find my support.” Edward Davey, the last MP to take the floor, spoke of how the review was only part of a much larger underlying problem of governmental dishonest over fees. Speaking to Impact, he said “It is essential that we force all political parties to come clean. No more broken promises to students.”
Streeting closed the meeting stating that today’s proceedings were only a taster of the local action planned between now and the end of 2009. Birmingham, he stated, will be an important battleground, as it is the hometown of several members of the review. The NUS has plans to hold “Town Takeovers”, taking their campaign to communities throughout England whilst advocating voter registration. A full schedule can be found on the NUS Website (nus.org.uk)?