Our national demonstration on Wednesday was certainly a day of ups and downs. Let’s get the downs out the way first – I utterly condemn the violent actions of that tiny minority of people who attacked Millbank Tower. Their actions, in smashing windows and setting fire to placards and banners were dangerous and are entirely unacceptable.
I am not in the least bit convinced that they were concerned with making the case for properly funding further and higher education – it seems clear that these were a group of people largely intent on violence, who had planned to use our peaceful demonstration as a cover to further their own agendas. Certainly, any who were trying to make the case against funding cuts are sorely mistaken about how to make an effective political argument – and, whatever point they were trying to make, if any, they are dearly confused as to the relationship between ‘means’ and ‘ends’.
But we cannot allow the actions of such a minority to overshadow what was otherwise an overwhelmingly positive event. Conservative estimates suggest there were as many as 52,000 people – far more than any of us could have expected – from all corners of the country: students, lecturers and members of the general public marching peacefully and in good spirits through the streets of London, all keen to make clear their strong, reasoned opposition to the looming savage further and higher education cuts, and to the tripling of tuition fees.
There were many students and lecturers present – but there were also school-children, trade unionists, parents – one of my favourite placards was held aloft by a man in his sixties, declaring simply, “I’m here for my grandson.”
Indeed, this is not only the largest student protest since the initial introduction of tuition fees some 12 years ago, but is the third-largest protest since the demonstration in opposition to the Iraq war. The mood was overwhelmingly positive, but people were resolute: there is nothing ‘progressive’ about cutting wildly at teaching funding (80% of which seems likely to be cut under government proposals), whilst trebling tuition fees; and nor can you claim to be concerned about protecting the poorest in society when you remove vital means of student support – such as the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and the Adult Learning Grant (ALG) – for those who wish to study in further education but do not otherwise have the means to do so.
And these are arguments that we must continue to strongly make. It is entirely unacceptable for Liberal Democrat MPs – all of whom personally signed NUS pledges to vote against any rise in tuition fees if elected – to then so flagrantly go against this now they are in power. About 20 Lib Dem backbenchers have stated that they will vote against the proposals – but I hope that all those who have not yet made up their minds on how to vote will have seen out of their office windows at least 52,000 people who are watching closely. I can personally guarantee that we will do everything we can to ensure that any MPs who so flagrantly betray the public’s trust are never given the opportunity to serve us again.
We need to all continue to strongly make the case for public investment in our universities and colleges – we cannot allow what are without question deeply ideological public funding cuts to undermine the vital role of education for individuals and for society. We will not allow our arguments to be dismissed by those intent on initiating the effective privatisation of the higher education sector, and who fail to recognise that without the Education Maintenance Allowance and the Adult Learning Grant, many people who would otherwise have wished to remain in study will no longer be able to do so. And nor will be will allow our arguments to be undermined by a small group of people who, at the heart of it, seem to just enjoy smashing things. These arguments are far too important for that.