Thousands march against Tory education bill

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Over 15,000 students and lecturers campaigned against the proposed changes.

Last Saturday, thousands of students and lecturers from across the UK travelled to London to oppose imminent government changes to Higher Education.  The march from Park Lane to Parliament Square was followed by a rally including speakers such as the NUS president, Malia Bouattia, and the prominent left-wing writer and journalist, Owen Jones.

When asked why they were marching, protesters gave a wide range of answers. Many were angry about the new Higher Education Bill and its implications for university students and staff, others wanted a reverse to the cuts in college funding set to be implemented during the course of the current Parliament. A few were even calling for nothing short of a Marxist revolution, but chants of “One solution, Revolution” gained little traction in the crowds compared to old favourites, “What do we want? Free education,” and, “Oh when the beans come out the tin”.

Perhaps the most controversial element of the Tory bill is the implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). The new framework will create a university league table based on ratings for teaching quality. However, critics of the bill have raised concerns over which statistics will be used to decide gold, silver and bronze ratings, worrying whether pure figures can provide an accurate representation of all universities.

Predictions of which institutions will come out on top are surprising, with many speculating that even Oxford with its world-famous reputation may not be guaranteed a gold-medal status under the new rules. LSE, Liverpool and Bristol are also expected to score poorly. Bristol Vice-Chancellor, Prof Hugh Brady commented: “UK institutions have a superb reputation worldwide, and it would be a shame if the government were to damage that through an inappropriate use of metrics.”

A recent Guardian survey found that Russell group universities were less than on-board with the new bill. Only six of 20 have agreed to participate in the TEF, while potential remains for a large-scale boycott amongst those refusing to comment. The University of Leeds has as yet given no indication that they will take part in any boycott.

The diversity of issues the protesters hoped to raise was also reflected in the range of slogans on the placards they were carrying, such as ‘Cut War Not Welfare’, ‘End Islamophobia’, ‘No to Trump’, ‘Fight for Socialism’, ‘Tories Out’ and the quaintly British, ‘Stop Being Silly’.

Far left groups such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) were out in force, although one demonstrator said it was difficult to determine whether they were there to support the protest or more interested in trying to pick up new recruits.

Unlike demonstrations in previous years, at no point did things turn ugly. Instead of kettling demonstrators, police were friendly and helpful.

At the rally in Parliament Square towards the end of the day, several speakers criticised the planned TEF and called for a boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS) in order to disrupt the implementation of the controversial policy which could result in further increases in tuition fees.

Malia Bouattia warned against gambling with the futures of students and staff: “The government is running at pace with a deeply risky ideologically led market experiment in further and higher education, and students and lecturers, who will suffer most as a result, are clear that this can’t be allowed to happen.”

Many voiced fears that a loosening of regulation would allow private companies to easily establish for profit educational institutions and label them as universities, something the Government insists will offer students more choice. But many fear the potential of Trump-style universities beginning to operate in Britain.

Half a dozen other issues were raised at the demonstration, suggesting protesters were not outraged by any single policy. Yet it is clear that unease is growing around the government’s ongoing commercialisation of the higher education system and what negative effects it could have for university students and staff.

Ian White and Euan Hammond 

(Image: The Guardian)

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