Focus on: Students take to the streets

Finbarr Bermingham asks what the latest round of student protests can hope to achieve

With the Occupy movement still digging in its heels and widespread industrial action set to cripple the UK in the near future, the spirit of protest is clearly in the air. The student population, so often the voice of change across the world, were not to be outdone and on November 9, they took to the streets of London in their thousands. A heavy police presence greeted the march, which was organised in response to government funding cuts in higher education, a tripling of maximum tuition fees, and the controversial education white paper which would allow degrees to be issued by private providers.

Having first been introduced to the UK in 1998, university tuition fees have been steadily rising. Next year, universities will be permitted to charge up to £9,000 per year. The new system will saddle students of the future with more debt, for a longer period of time, and with a higher rate of interest. However, some have pointed to the fact that September 2012 undergraduate starters will actually pay their loans back at a lower  monthly rate than earlier generations of graduates. The debt doesn't need to be repaid until you cross the £21,000 threshold and after 20 years, any remaining debt is wiped. Say, for example, you graduated in 2009, and are now earning £40,000. You will pay back £187.50 per month. Under the reformed system, just £142.50 will be deducted from a £40,000 salary each month.

The first steps towards privatisation in higher education have also been met with widespread condemnation. As cuts are impinging on how public sector education is delivered (the government's budget for teaching, research and buildings has been slashed by 12.6 per cent for the current academic year), the government seems to be paving the way for higher education to be opened up to private colleges, with a white paper set to go before the Commons next May. While students at such institutions would be able to get the same loans and grants as those attending public sector colleges, there's a fear that profit making enterprises could offer only the courses that are cheapest to run, provide fewer facilities and pay lower wages to lecturers, opening the door for less qualified and experienced tutors. Protestors drew attention to the US system, where a range of profit-making universities have been investigated for financial mismanagement and had their student attrition rates examined.

The march was comprised of 10,000 students, and was also supported by members of the Occupy London Stock Exchange demonstration. Organisers voiced their frustration at what they considered to be a poor turnout. They blamed the NUS for not lending its explicit support and also said many potential demonstrators were put off by "intimidating" police tactics. The police contacted many of the attendees from 2010's protests, saying there would be a heavy police presence, and that officers would be armed with rubber bullets - the first time such ammunition has been officially deployed on the UK's mainland. The protests passed off peacefully, and the students have vowed not to be silenced. But should the graduates of the future be saddled with more debt than today's students? And what can protests like these achieve?

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