Student protest in the age of contempt

A huge shift is taking place in universities across the country. This is not just a change to departmental budgets and a culling of staff. Something far more profound and deep-rooted is happening within the students themselves.

Adam Ludlow is a University of Bristol undergraduate and is organising a march by Bristol students to their local Liberal Democrat MP’s office this week; here he gives his insight into what students are feeling at the moment

A huge shift is taking place in universities across the country. This is not just a change to departmental budgets and a culling of staff. Something far more profound and deep-rooted is happening within the students themselves. Much has been made of our dissatisfaction at the proposed rise in fees during recent weeks, but the commonly given explanation – that this is just self-interest or anger at a broken election promise – does not reflect the extent nor the subtleties of the feelings that students are presently experiencing.

Of course, the belief is rife among us that the government has no mandate to carry forward its Higher Education programme.

Beyond this, though, in saying the coalition agreement means more than the NUS pledge, Vince Cable and his party colleagues are effectively telling us that politicians believe the backroom promises they make to each other are more important than those they make to the electorate. It is perhaps no surprise this has left students feeling rather patronised.

More fundamentally, it has seemingly become accepted among the Liberal Democrat hierarchy that the pledge was a mistake, made by a party which did not realistically expect to gain power.

This has puzzled many young people, as the possibility of a Hung Parliament was very evident at the time the pledge was made in April, and every student in the country knew it was Lib Dem policy to abolish fees, not merely oppose their increase.

The pledge was therefore made to avoid scaring off student voters who were worried that their vote might enhance the prospect of a coalition with the Tories. It was a guarantee that tuition fee levels would be protected in any prospective coalition deal. So much for that.

This is nothing to do with the extent to which the Lib Dems can implement their manifesto. No one is asking them to attempt to abolish fees. It is more about outright deceit and betrayal. So much for the ‘cleaner politics’ too it seems.

Much of the NUS campaign has thus been heavily focused on the Lib Dems, but the majority of students have also been appalled at the wider picture. First, we were told that the current crop of cuts are being made for ‘our sake’ – so that our generation can live without paying off the burden of debt created by today’s adults. But no one’s asked us what we think about this, and shifting the debt onto us as individuals hardly suggests that the government really has our best interests at heart.

Now, the Conservatives are calling for a ‘debate’ on how Higher Education should be paid for. This means nothing though. The Tories have lingered in the background, letting the Lib Dems squirm in the spotlight, but the politicians have actually paid contemptuously little attention to the debate itself.

Students have though. The government knows this and is now expending far more energy keeping their eyes tightly shut and ears firmly blocked to the fact that the overwhelming consensus is against their present plans: 50,000 people descending on the streets of London and the nationwide nature of this week’s protests both bear witness to that. The fact that this amount was almost exclusively made up of people whom the plans will not even affect, shows this is no selfish tantrum about being made to pay more.

Almost no one at these protests realistically expects to prevent the rise in fees. The government is happy to provide no reason for its plans and embark on a programme of breathtaking condescension where younger generations have no say over their own futures.

We are not being listened to on matters that primarily affect us. The continued high turnouts at protests, which often have had no more organisation and publicity than the creation of a Facebook event, are a result of people previously uninterested in politics, or even in the issue of the fees, turning their heads to witness rulers neglect the will of the people. This lofty disregard for democracy itself is fuelling long dormant feelings of injustice, deceit and outrage.

It is ultimately for this reason thar students are flocking to the streets and a generation is becoming politicised: this is no longer a protest against a single policy; this is an expression of resentment against the process of its instigation.

In seeing democracy crumble before their eyes, it has stimulated students with a very acute respect for it. If the ‘new’, ‘clean’ politics of today is intent on destroying some of the country’s most cherished and noble principles, we, on the other hand, shall be there when its shoddy practioners are gone and our time comes to correct things.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.