#GrantsNotDebt: Police clash with students marching for free education

British police scuffle with a masked contingent of the annual demonstration against student fees outside the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in central London on November 4, 2015. © Justin Tallis / AFP
Police clashed with students who marched in central London to demand free education and protest against further planned hikes in tuition fees and savage cuts to maintenance grants.

A police kettle imposed outside the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills was broken by students, according to reports on Twitter by eye witnesses.

Video footage reportedly shows police chasing after the students, but then giving up. Other videos showed scuffles between police officers and activists and firecrackers going off.

Police arrested one student on Vauxhall Bridge Road, according to reports. In a video on Twitter, cops can be seen pushing a protestor to the ground while an onlooker shouts “You’re breaking his arm.

One Twitter user claimed to have overheard a police inspector saying they will “arrest anyone” in the ‘Black Bloc’ for “violent disorder.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, a vocal supporter of free higher education, kicked off the demonstration with a short speech at 13:00 GMT outside the University of London Student Union on Malet Street.

From there, thousands of young people marched past parliament before ending the protest in front of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – the government agency responsible for universities.

The protest was organized by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), a group which calls for “free, democratic education and universal grants, funded by the taxation of the rich and business.”

Student demands

Students demanding free education are buoyed by successes in Germany and South Africa, where campaigners have won similar demands in recent months.

Protesters also called for the government to establish living grants, as opposed to means-tested maintenance loans that are repaid with interest after graduation.

Addressing crowds of students on Wednesday afternoon, McDonnell said the government is betraying them and future generations.

Tory Chancellor George Osborne’s plan to replace existing maintenance grants for students from low income families with loans has provoked the ire of students across the country and was one of the catalysts for the demonstration.

The Chancellor’s reforms will saddle the poorest 40 percent of students in England with £10,000 more debt upon graduation, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

‘A lifetime of debt’

Oxford University Students Union President Becky Howe told RT the government’s plans to scrap maintenance grants is “regressive and totally unacceptable.”

Since the announcement of the emergency budget in early July, we’ve been part of the national lobbying movement against the abolition of maintenance grants,” she said.

Increased loans are not an acceptable substitute for grants – it will just mean that students from the lowest income backgrounds will leave university in thousands of pounds more debt than wealthier students. It’s regressive and totally unacceptable.”

Recent graduate Tom Baldwin, from Bristol, told RT he was joining the protest so that future generations aren’t burdened with “a lifetime of debt.”

I'm not a student any more but still saddled with debts. They keep getting bigger and I’ve not even started to pay them back,” he said.

My girlfriend is studying now and her debts will be astronomical, even with the bursary she got, which is being withdrawn for future students.”

He added: “I'm protesting today for her and future generations, so getting a degree doesn’t mean a lifetime of debt. Education should be a right for all. It’s outrageous that millionaire ministers who benefitted from free education themselves are denying it to others.”

Baldwin, who is a member of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), said if his girlfriend hadn’t received a maintenance grant she could not have afforded to study at university.

Working class students are already forced to take on disproportionately more debt. It’s an irony for the government to say they’re tackling the national debt when they’re just transferring huge amounts of debt to ordinary people.

The Corbyn effect

He dismissed the government’s argument that free education is too expensive and unsustainable.

They claim it can't be afforded, but they can find money to cut corporation tax. They look after their rich mates and screw the rest of us.

Baldwin said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge of free higher education had re-energized the movement against fees.

[We’ll] have to make sure Labour stick to that position though, I imagine many of their MPs want it ditched.”

Corbyn set out a £10 billion plan to scrap university tuition fees and restore maintenance grants during his campaign for the party leadership in July.

He plans to fund the measures either by a 7 percent rise in national insurance for those earning more than £50,000 a year and a 2.5 percent higher corporation tax, or by slowing the pace of deficit reduction.

The Labour leader made waves during his election campaign when he apologized to students on behalf of the party, which introduced tuition fees under Tony Blair in 1998.

I opposed those changes at the time – as did many others – and now we have an opportunity to change course,” he said.

Plans to raise fees

The government is under pressure from advocacy groups representing UK universities which are calling for increases in tuition fees.

Umbrella organization Universities UK (UUK) is demanding the government lift the £9,000 tuition fee cap in line with inflation and also increase funds for institutions, as well as maintenance support for students.

Evidence shows that students are more concerned about the level of maintenance support they receive while studying than they are about the long-term repayment of their student loans dependent on income,” UUK vice president Janet Beer said in July.

NCAFC spokeswoman Deborah Hermanns described the government’s latest round of proposed tuition fee hikes and maintenance grants cuts as the “worst attacks on society since Thatcher.

They have no basis in economic sense. They come from a disposition of greed and hatred, and form an overarching attack on the rights and welfare of the working classes. We cannot allow this to go unchallenged,” Hermanns told the Morning Star.

She added: “It is the duty of the student movement to resist this government and we will continue to fight until we win — on the streets, in occupations and in our communities.