Students march for free education

MORE THAN 15,000 students, lecturers and college workers marched through London last Saturday (19th November) from Park Lane, past the Houses of Parliament, to Millbank to demand free, quality further and higher education, accessible to all.

Their key demands were:

The National Union of Students’ (NUS) protest was actively supported by the college lecturers’ union UCU in response to what the NUS says is the wake of the biggest attacks to the education sector in modern times.

The union estimated this was the biggest student protest in London for years. Approximately 60 coaches brought students from across Britain, with a special mention going to Orkney College, whose students set off at 4am the previous day from the Northern tip of Scotland and travelled over 700 miles to take part.

The march concluded with a rally at Millbank featuring rousing speeches from Sally Hunt (general secretary, UCU), Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, Amelia Womack (deputy leader of the Green Party), students from NUS International Students, Campaign and Darletta Scruggs, a Chicago-based activist from the Black Lives Matter movement.

NUS national president Malia Bouattia, vice president (further education) Shakira Martin, vice president (higher education) Sorana Vieru, and Vonnie Sandlan, NUS Scotland president, also addressed the crowd assembled at Millbank.

They delivered the message that free, good quality education is a right for all, regardless of ability to pay and more than at any time before we have to fight for that.

FE colleges have been cut to the core, with huge job losses and course closures, and a desperate need for investment that simply isn’t being provided.

In higher education (HE), tuition fees are rising and the Government is forcing universities to run like businesses. Students are facing higher debt than ever before with maintenance grants and NHS bursaries scrapped, student loan terms changed and tuition fees set to reach £12,000 by 2026.

They protested against Government plans in the Higher Education Bill for an ideologically led market experiment that would open up HE in Britain to the likes of Trump University and leave students facing escalating fees.

Before the march Professor Stephen Curry, a structural biologist from Imperial College London, wrote in the Guardian: “The Higher Education and Research Bill has to be amended before it undermines the autonomy and vitality of our universities and the UK research base.”

Earlier in the week the Government tabled amendments to the Bill but failed to address critics’ key concerns relating to private providers and fees. The Bill will introduce a teaching excellence framework that will rank universities by quality and allow the best-performing institutions to raise their fees in line with inflation.

The proposals will also make it easier for new institutions, including for-profits, to gain a university title — a label that can significantly boost applications from overseas students and that currently takes decades to achieve.

Malia Bouattia said the plans would damage quality and leave students in even more debt: “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. “This week, before the Bill has even been properly debated in Parliament, let alone passed, universities are already advertising fees above £9,000.”