The NUS estimated 10,000 students would march across London for Demo2012, but only around 4,000 students attended the march to protest against government education policies. The crowd also called for a issues ranging from freeing Gaza from Israeli occupation to advancing women’s rights.
Duncan Davis, a Physics student from the University of Nottingham, said: “I’m marching for free education, for public education, not marketised education, and I’m totally opposed to the ageist policies of the government. They’re completely cutting housing benefits for under 25s and that’ll affect loads of students when we graduate and it is totally unacceptable.”
Other protesters told Impact they attended the march to protest against all “disgusting and ridiculous” austerity measures.
Although 130 Nottingham students signed up for the demonstration, only 61 showed up for the 6.45am start from Portland. Impact believes the cost of providing free transport was estimated at £1500.
SU President Amos Teshuva commented: “It comes down to the Union and the Officers doing more one-to-ones to get students to be engaged in the first place. Today this wasn’t about bringing hundreds of students, it was about making the people who did come become activists and encourage them to engage. Hopefully we can encourage them into sabbatical positions!”
Nottingham students were delayed getting to the protest by two hours due to a miscommunication between the SU and the driver. At the end of the protest, there was also confusion about the pick-up point. SU Education Officer, Matt Styles, refused to comment.
Having arrived at the march, Impact spoke to a policewoman between Aldwych and Westminster, who described the protest as “not like 2010… much calmer than expected.” The 2010 demonstration saw 50,000 defenders of higher education marching against the introduction of the £9,000 tuition fees.
A worker with Westminster City Council claimed that he was in favour of the demo, stating that “the students are protesting about education, it’s a really good cause. Students have a right to education.”
NUS stewards tried to keep the demo moving in contention with people trying to keep the protest at Westminster. As a result, the march appeared to have split into two separate groups.
Speaking to Impact outside the Houses of Parliament, Jack Saffrey Rose, 19, from Royal Holloway University, said: “The NUS bureaucrats are trying to get us to go to Kennington where nothing happens. Theres no proper route past parliament and you can’t get to Whitehall or anything.
“I came here basically in a walking kettle. Its completely over the top. We can’t voice our opinions when there are pigs everywhere. I’m gonna stay here [by Parliament] and get other people to do the same, and ultimately we want to get into Parliament where the MPs are. That’s where we should be”.
Other protestors also questioned the reason for moving the protest away from the centre of London and towards Kennington. 20 year old Amir Qureshi, from Ravensbourne University, said to Impact: “I just don’t know why we’re going to Kennington, because apparently theres nothing down there. It’s definitely a bad choice, but I think that may have been all that they could get permission for”.
Teshuva said that he supported the route to Kennington Park, and noted it was a “historical” place. The Park was also used for demonstrations against the Poll Tax in 1990, and for several Gay Pride events.
There was a heavy police presence surrounding the march, with numerous police vehicles around Parliament, and many officers lining the streets around the protestors.
Mark Wheddon, 18, from Edinburgh University commented: “The police presence is obviously high today but they haven’t been oppressive. I haven’t had any problems with them.”
Qureshi also said that the police were “just doing their jobs. The police had to be here and people know that.”
When asked about violence, most protesters speaking to Impact said that they did not think violence was beneficial to their cause. Charlotte from Bristol University said: “I don’t think the violence will be repeated this year, and I hope it isn’t. I don’t think it helped last time. It turned peoples minds against what we were trying to do. When everyone tries to get violent then others try to poo poo what they’re actually fighting for, and so the cause of the majority of people who weren’t being violent is forgotten.”
One sociology postgraduate student came all the way from Sorbonne, Paris to take part in the march, and students from several Scottish Universities also attended.
Lucy Drummonds, Womens’ Officer from Scotland’s University of Stirling Students’ Union, told Impact about their reasons for being at the march: “I’m here because not only am I marching in solidarity with those students south of the border, but I’m also here because the students in Scotland cannot afford to be complacent just because the MPs of Westminster are cutting left right and center below the border. Students in Scotland have to be on their guard as well.”
“A lot of people don’t understand why Scottish students and universities are here but we’re marching in solidarity because we know what it’s like to face cuts. We were here in 2010 and were not going to leave you high and dry this year. We’re completely with you,” she added.
Chants for “free education’, anti-Tory chants and calls for “Palestine will be free” with lots of people calling for solidarity with Gaza, could be heard throughout the crowd. Inspired by the wet weather, students also sang: “We’re soaking, we’re wet, we don’t want student debt.”
Kamal Shaddad, SU Activities Officer at Ravensbourne University, said he was marching against the tuition fees rise. Addressing the anti-Tory chants of the crowd, Shaddad said: “Labour would have had to have done the exact same thing, so when it comes to bringing down Tories I’m all for the chant but it wouldn’t have changed either way. There would have been a slight difference but you’re still going to get the anger no matter what side.”
Shaddad also commented on the issue of student apathy, “There are only four of us here from our University. [Students] know if we march then we might be able to change something but I think because of how tuition fees ended up rising, that they feel like there’s just no point in it which is a shame.”
Some universities held a referendum on whether or not their Students’ Union should be involved in the demonstration. The results differed widely, with the University of Reading voting overwhelmingly against SU involvement.
Having attended the student protests in 2010, against raising tuition fees, Alex Dias, also from Ravensbourne, compared his experience with Demo2012: “[At] the march in 2010, there was a lot more people and I think there was more of a message.” Commenting on the violence that broke out two years ago, he said: “I think a lot of the message was lost so I think because of that people are a bit calmer and I think they just want to get their voice out but again this [protest] isn’t really working.”
The day ended in a rally held in Kennington Park, where NUS President Liam Burns was heckled off the stage by a group throwing eggs and fruits, calling for a “general strike” and accusing the NUS of “betraying the grass roots”. Burns commented that he was “not going to get particularly bogged down by a few people who want to shout in a rained out park”.
Amos Teshuva, SU President, reflected that the attack on Burns was a “real shame”, but that overall the day “was really successful”. He also commented that this was his first protest and that “it was really interesting to get engaged”. However he also noted that “the real way to get power is about getting people to turnout to vote which is why the NUS should organise students for the general election, to encourage people to turnout to vote – I don’t think demos are necessarily the way to do it”.
Teshuva said he would try to bring up this issue at the upcoming National Conference for students because “students are one of the least groups taken into account by politicians because we’re not organised. You get power through organising people, we tried with the Police and Crime Commissioner campaign. UK Citizens do it really well. Thats how the NUS should follow”. He went on to say that the demonstration was perhaps “a springboard to start doing this – a jump off point for the activists”.
Antonia Paget, Emily Tripp and Ellis Schindler
Photographs by Ellis Schindler
See a slideshow of our photos here