Sunday, 14 November 2010

A comeback for the student radicals

It must seem like pretty small beer in a week when Aung San Suu Kyi finally walked free after twenty years under house arrest, but the opposition to higher tuition fees is showing signs of turning into the sort of student movement not seen in Britain since the sixties. Some people, buoyed up perhaps by utopian memories of the ‘summer of love’ see this as something to be welcomed, I’m not so sure.

One Wednesday the number of people who took to the streets of London to march in protest against the cuts took both the police and the National Union of Students (NUS) by surprise, the prediction was for 5000, on the day 50,000 turned up armed with placards. That might have been good news for the NUS had a small minority not grabbed the headlines by invading the headquarters of the Conservative Party located in Milbank Tower.

The ‘radicals’ behind this then gave their more reasonable fellow campaigners a further headache by attacking any criticism of the incident as ‘unrepresentative’ of their movement. They went on to say, in a statement given to the press and not endorsed by the NUS that they were willing to ‘fight to win’ and if that meant more broken windows and scuffles with the police so be it.

During the week students at Manchester University occupied a building on campus in protest at rising tuition fees and cuts to higher education funding and the science and technology fair at Cambridge was interrupted by angry protestors.

The official NUS position was to say that the rioting outside Milbank Tower was ‘shameful, disgraceful and counter productive’ and in doing so they were quite correct and almost certain to be ignored. A media keen to make its audience’s flesh crawl concentrated instead on the, again unofficial, statement made by lecturers at Goldsmith’s College praising the ‘magnificent anti-cuts demo’ and saying that the real violence being done was the ‘destructive impact of the cuts and privatization that will follow if tuition fees are increased.’

The authorities at Goldsmith’s distanced themselves from the comments saying they ‘in no way reflected’ the official view taken by the college. It was though too little said way too late, the media machine has started to spin and will only end its cycle when the overreaction is complete.

There is no question that if tuition fees rise in line with government’s plans the thought of being in debt for decades will put many people from less affluent backgrounds from going to university, in the process depriving our country of much needed engineers, doctors and other professionals. In a world where the balance of economic and political power is shifting eastwards turning the university system into a playground for Sebastian Flyte and his chums is the last thing we need to do.

The thing is though direct action of the sort that took place on Wednesday only makes that outcome all the more likely. Protest has its place in a democracy, but it has to be peaceful and backed by a set of coherent alternative policies.

That, alas, is something the campaign against higher tuition fees conspicuously lacks. They’re long on outrage, as is the Labour Party which, in the shape of Harriet Harman standing in for Ed Milliband at PMQ’s this week, sought to pin Nick Clegg to the wall over his pre election opposition to putting fees up; but they constantly duck the difficult questions.

If raising tuition fees is wrong should taxes be put up instead? It’s a legitimate position, to invest in tomorrow you have to go without today, but a tough one to sell to the public. Maybe tuition fees are the lesser evil and more should be done to encourage companies and wealthy individuals to set up bursaries to help the less fortunate pay for their education?

I don’t have the answer to the questions asked above, but I do know how we might go about finding it and its got nothing to do with throwing rocks at police officers. It involves reasoned argument and a willingness to make compromises for the greater good; the nuts and bolts of effective democracy.

That will, undoubtedly, seem rather timid to the student radicals high on adrenaline and self righteousness, but without policies tested by reason the student movement, if that is what we saw born on Wednesday, will grind to a halt.

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