Big Debate: Protest Without Progress

Illustration by Anita Cheung

The recent NUS demo in London failed to attract a crowd anything like that of the 2010 march against the rise in tuition fees. Big Debate asks, was Demo 2012 a waste of time?


YES: Benjamin Conway

In an ideal world, the answer to this question would be a clear, firm ‘no’; given the bleak prospects many students now face upon leaving university, how could any attempt to challenge the status quo possibly be a waste of time? Successful or not, we should hope there is some value in questioning the Coalition’s reforms and the effects they are having on young people, both in an out of education. Unfortunately Demo 2012 failed to contribute any constructive message or sizeable impact and thus proved to be a wasted opportunity to advance the cause.

Two years after some 50,000 students protested in London, the ‘siege of Millbank’, and the rash of occupations that spread across British educational institutions, Demo2012 could only muster up 10,000 protesters, who were lead to a muddy field in south London. Along the way attempts were made to stop outside the Houses of Parliament, but these were prevented by the police and NUS stewards; it was clear that the dramatic scenes of 2010 were not to be repeated. Instead, angry students were treated to a rousing speech from NUS President Liam Burns, repeating empty platitudes and ending up, quite literally, with egg on his face.

Where previously students critiqued the notion of the ‘university as a factory’, Burns asked students to march under the slogan ‘Educate, Employ, Empower’; we should not demand a better future, but instead request that university will straighten us out into good employees. This lack of radical vision and rejection of more direct forms of protest on the part of Burns and the NUS should not come as a surprise; after all, the function of any union is to mediate between the demands of its members and the institutions it is seeking those demands from. Even in this limited function, however, the NUS have completely failed its members, and the overwhelming sense of apathy amongst students is a sad reflection of this.

This year has seen inspiring – and successful – student movements in Quebec and Chile, both of which were directly inspired by the actions undertaken by British students in 2010. In June, for example, 150,000 students marched in Santiago, whilst in Quebec a month earlier between 300,000 and 400,000 young people marched through Montreal. Not only were the numbers impressive, but these actions took place after months of organising and demonstrating. The idea so beloved of the NUS, that a one-off protest might make the government sit up and listen, was quite clearly rejected.

Of course, there are important differences between Chile and Britain, and Quebec and Britain, which gave these movements different aims and impulses. In Chile, for example, there are few public universities and free primary and secondary education does not exist in the same way it does in Britain. Overwhelmingly, however, the concerns of Chilean students echoed those in Britain: high levels of debt, poor opportunities upon leaving university, and a sense that the educational system is structurally unequal. The protests of students in Quebec seem even closer to home, with Jean Charest’s Liberal government attempting – and failing – to increase tuition fees by 82%.

It would have been foolish to hope that Demo2012 could evoke scenes of Montreal or Santiago, but it might have marked the start of a movement that eventually would. Then it would not have been a waste of time. Instead, the poor turnout and disastrous behaviour of the NUS acted as a reminder of how far we have to go if we do wish to challenge the coalition. Maybe this will serve as an incentive to rebuild the student movement, maybe it will lead us further down the road of apathy.


NO: Alice Smart

As we marched through the rain and wind on the streets of London last week, it was tempting to question whether it was the best use of a Wednesday afternoon. The placards were falling to pieces in the damp, looks of distain could be seen on the faces of some London commuters and the mud-ridden rally point was reminiscent of the worst Glastonbury washouts. But the spirits of most of those marching didn’t change. Our message was clear, the Government has to change course on education.

The new fee regime has created chaos in the higher education sector, the abolition of EMA has priced too many out of a decent college education and learners of all ages have been let down. But Demo 2012 wasn’t about changing these things over night, it couldn’t be. It was about creating a catalyst for future action, about showing our politicians that we’re not going away. It doesn’t stop here.

The demo makes up only one part of a broader strategy on fees and cuts. At no point have we been able to attain instant change on demand. Take the last big student demonstration in 2010. Critics have argued that because it failed to stop the rise in tuition fees it was anything but a success. But we know that students used that march and the huge amount of support it received to successfully lobby some MPs to stick to their pre-election promises and vote down fees. What’s more, students have shaped the whole debate through that action to ensure that nobody will forget those that sold them down the river. Come 2015 when it’s time to vote again, I doubt many Lib Dem MPs will see our actions now as ineffective.

There is another dimension to this debate. Our generation is often criticised for being too passive, compliant and apathetic. We are just expected to accept the Government’s decisions, with our only opportunity to challenge these decisions being at the ballot box. Demonstrations and political action present an opportunity for people to be directly involved in their democracy, and helping shape the decision making processes that affect their everyday lives. Last week’s demo presented such an opportunity to students to get involved in that process, an experience they’ll take with them into later life.

It wasn’t just about raising concerns and politicising students either, it was also about highlighting and promoting real alternatives to the government’s policies. It was not simply about providing opposition for opposition’s sake. In the past we’ve managed to convince major decision makers of the merits of our arguments, including when we convinced Labour to submit an amendment in parliament to change 9k fees vote to a proposal to implement a more progressive graduate tax. We can use this demo as another platform to convince people, groups and parties of the validity of our alternatives. Our ideas certainly won’t get any consideration if we make no attempts to draw attention to them.

It’s easy to dismiss one demonstration as a waste of time when you take it in isolation. But you have to look at the bigger picture. The demo was about more than just one day of action. It was about one part of a long term strategy to show politicians how students feel about the massive and sweeping changes to education. It was about encouraging students to use the democratic right to protest to effect change. It was about making the case for genuine alternatives. And I, for one, think that that isn’t a waste of time.


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