Voices of #Demo2012

Lucy Mair spoke to some of the estimated 10,000 student protestors who descended on London for the NUS-led demonstration

Today's demonstration was organised under the banner of "Educate, Employ, Empower", and students from across the UK marched through London to protest against the increased cost of tuition fees and high youth unemployment - and to make their voices heard.

Freddy Stringer, president of the students' union at Writtle College, Essex, said: "We're here because the government is cutting spending on youth and it's going to cost us jobs and our future. We just want to make people aware - the government knows we're upset already, we're making sure the public know what we're fighting about and what we're upset about, too."

"F**k fees"

Anger at the tuition fee increase to £9,000 per year was one of the most prominent emotions among protestors. Chloe Green, vice-president of welfare at the University of Southampton Students' Union, said: "I think what the government's doing is keeping students from going to university, and university is a social good... I just hate the fact that it's had a huge price tag slapped on it. It's not fair to a whole generation of students who have to make the biggest financial decision of their lives at 18. It's obscene. "

"At Southampton it's also pushed a lot of our mature students out which is, in a way, even more sad because it means that people aren't even able to go back to uni if they never got the chance in the first place... I didn't vote for this."

Danielle Levin, a second-year student at the University of Leicester, agreed that the coalition government is responsible for the problems: "I think a lot of the people in power lead quite comfortable lifestyles and they don't realise how hard it is for some people to get into education. I know anyone can get a loan, but £9,000 fees can put people off - a lot of people don't want to go to uni now and the rate of people applying has dropped."

The high rate of youth unemployment, which currently stands at just under one million people, and the tough graduate jobs market was also a big concern. Tom Greaves, a final year student at De Montfort University, said: "This is the perfect opportunity to show that students are still upset and that we still care about issues like the rise in youth unemployment... and that our degrees are being devalued because of the current [employment] market. And we're pissed off at this. Some people want to overturn the tuition fees, but for a lot of us it's that we want to have a job when we come out of university."

"Eton mess"

Some students' concerns extended beyond the issues directly affecting undergraduates to the privatisation of the UK's public services more generally - including the NHS, police and fire services. Calls for the Trades Union Congress to hold a general strike and for unions to take collective action against the government's cuts were loud and clear.

Lily Lewis, a second-year student at Durham University, said: "Education is far too important to be privatised like this. The cuts that are being made in the education system at the moment are a total step back for equality... I feel more strongly about fees [than graduate unemployment] and also the cuts to adult education - the courses where adults can learn basic skills if they haven't had the chance to get them before - and cuts to the Sure Start scheme for young children."

University of Brighton student David Brand, who made a placard declaring: "This is an Eton Mess", said: "We're protesting a combination of things really... It's about the whole package this government is offering - not just fees and a tax on education. I'd much rather a protest that involves the trade unions, students, all workers of all kinds out together. We need wider solidarity between groups."

Another big theme was calls for the return of education maintenance allowance (EMA) for A-level students, with chants of: "Bring back EMA, take it out of the bankers' pay". University of Leicester student Charlie Griffin couldn't agree more: "My reason for coming out to protest is the removal of EMA. When I was at college I got £30 a week in my first year, then in my second year it dropped to £20 a week. EMA helped me so much and it made a big difference when it was reduced. Now some people who really need it aren't getting anything at all."

But not everyone at the protest was ideologically motivated. "I like the Tories," said Jacob from Bangor University, who declined to give his full name. "I don't know why I came here today. Someone said, "Do you want to go to London," so I said, "Alright then". I thought it'd be a nice day out. If we had to go to university then I'd think it should be free, but it's not mandatory - we opt to go to university so I kind of think it should be paid for. But £9,000 a year is slightly excessive."

Peaceful protests

The Metropolitan Police were out in full force on the streets to keep the demonstrations under control and prevent a repeat of the violence that broke out during student protests against fee increases in 2010. Many protestors today were worried about the same thing happening again. Lily said: "I'm definitely worried about non-peaceful protesters and we'll be trying to distance ourselves from them. I think it'll be a real shame if anyone decides to act like that."

But some didn't rule out non-peaceful protest entirely. David said: "I can't condemn non-peaceful protesting because I think when the government shuts you out of democracy so much sometimes violence is the only recourse that you've got left. If you're completely shut out of the political and democratic process then what else can you do?"

The NUS is looking ahead to the next general election and preparing to demand more of the next government. Today's protest was certainly a sign of more to come. Danielle said: "This is the first protest I've ever been to. Now I see that all these people are standing up for education, so I'm getting more involved and I think other people will, too." And Tom indicated the same: "This isn't just about letting off steam, I think this is the start of students rising again and fighting back."

Comments