Thursday, 9 December 2010

Violent protests in London as government increases tuition

London was rocked today by the most violent anti-austerity protests yet seen, with Parliament Square becoming the scene of incredible sights of mayhem. The near-rioting took place just outside the Houses of Parliament where, inside, British politicians were casting the big vote on increasing English tuition rates by 300%. Horses charged into the crowd, fires raged and several police officers were seriously injured. Protesters broke into the treasury building and ransacked it. Christmas shoppers on Oxford Street were attacked. Even Prince Charles and Camilla were attacked as they tried to drive to the theatre, with protesters surrounding their car and smashing the windows.

The turmoil outside was mirrored by turmoil inside. The Liberal Democrats, who are in the governing coalition with the Conservative Party, saw a rebellion over the issue. Half of the Liberals defected, as did several Conservatives, shrinking the coalition's 84-seat majority to a majority of just 21 on this vote. The opposition Labour Party brutally criticised the plan, which will for the first time put British students in tens of thousands of pounds of debt after finishing a four-year degree - a situation that will be unique in all of Europe.

There is a lot of speculation tonight about what this will all mean for the governing coalition. There is serious talk of the Liberal Democrat party splitting down the middle between 'rebels' and 'loyalists'. Such a split might not be all that surprising considering the party was awkwardly cobbled together not so long ago in 1988 between free-market Liberals and leftist Social Democrats. It's always been a bit of an awkward match, and now that the party is in government for the first time ever, the pressure could be what makes the party fall apart.

There is also speculation that now that a large chunk of the coalition has had a taste of rebellion, they might not stop. In parliamentary systems, particularly in the UK, MPs always vote along party lines unless the party leaders allows a "free vote," where MPs are free to vote their conscience. If members of a party revolt, it is usually a sign that the party is in trouble. The Conservatives were tonight making the argument that this was a one-off. They were saying this revolt was due to the fact that the Liberal Democrats had made a campaign promise not to increase tuition fees. There aren't any future votes anticipated that would violate campaign pledges, so that's the end of it, they say. We'll see if that pans out for them.

In the mean time, some of these scenes from the protests today are truly frightening. And the mob is still amassed at Parliament Square at this late hour. Scenes like this one below, with horses charging into the crowd, haven't been seen in the UK since the poll tax riots. The big question is, now that the tuition increase bill has passed, will the protest movement spread to the other groups affected by Conservatives' austerity package of drastic cuts? That is certainly what the government, and the British public at large, is waiting to find out.

Sympathy for teenagers?

Of course it seems just as likely that these kinds of scenes are going to quickly fade away now that the painful vote has taken place. The students have vowed to fight on with their protests, but now that the issue is settled and there's little they can do to change it, it may be hard to mobilise them. And the public at large seems fairly unmoved by the plight of these incoming students. The British media was noting tonight that the big thing that sets these protests apart from the poll tax riots is that these cuts only affect a relatively small and powerless group of people - young people under 18 who will be entering university after 2012. The poll tax, on the other hand, affected everyone. It's been noticeable that there were few people over the age of 25 at these education cuts protests.

But perhaps that shouldn't be surprising given the huge gulf which I've observed and written about before that seems to exist between adults and 'youths' in Britain. In my experience, British adults seem to not only not like young people very much, they seem downright terrified of them. A poll conducted by a British charity in 2008 showed that more than half of British adults are afraid of British children. According to the study, words like 'animal', 'feral' and 'vermin' are used daily in reference to teenagers by British adults. Such an attitude seems to be reflected in the introduction of a product called the 'mosquito', which emits a painful noise that only people under 18 can hear. The device is being sold to British shop-owners and other people, with the idea that they would install them on their premises to keep away young loitering hooligans.

This kind of attitude may explain why many older people have been unsupportive of the student protestors. But of course education policy is one of those areas of government that creates ripple effects to all areas of society. It shapes the type of society we live in by, for example, affecting what socio-economic class of people attend university. Having a generation of British graduates enter the workforce with a huge amount of debt will have a big effect on the companies that need to hire them. Starting salaries will have to be raised in order to accomodate the monthly payments thes students will have.

And of course there's the big pink elephant in the room that is Scotland. Scotland and England have different education policies, and Scotland has kept university education free for Scots. This means that an English student will graduate from university with £50,000 in debt while a Scottish student will graduate with no debt - and both will be competing for the same jobs. Who's going to be able to take the lower salary? What makes the situation even mroe unfair is that it's not an option for the English student to go to a Scottish university and pay nothing - they would still have to pay the English rate since the free tuition is only available to Scots born and raised in Scotland.

And here's the most amazing part of all this - under EU law all EU citizens are entitled to the same tuition rates as domestic students in EU countries. So a French student could attend a Scottish university for free, but an English student would have to pay (the rule doesn't apply to citizens of the same country living in a different region). This is certainly not a tenable situation, but the Scottish government has refused to consider imposing any tuition fees for Scottish students. Now that the gap will grow so wide (£50,000!) tensions between Edinburgh and London over education policy are likely to increase.


Francis said...

"Such a split might not be all that surprising considering the party was awkwardly cobbled together not so long ago in 1988 between free-market Liberals and leftist Social Democrats."

I think this analysis is a bit simplistic, though it tends to be the one that the media reach to on such occasions.

But of those Lib Dem MPs old enough to have been part of the Alliance parties, more SDP members than Liberals voted Aye (Gordon Birtwistle, Vince Cable, Norman Lamb, Paul Burstow, Michael Moore); and almost as many Liberals as SDP voted Nay (John Pugh, Adrian Sanders, Mark Williams).

rashid1891 said...

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Bigvic said...

What a shame. excellent coverage of this situation. I have been following this from the US. The funny thing is that I was considering getting my PhD at the LSE, but now I'm looking at the University of Edinburgh. As you mentioned, an EU citizen can attend these schools at the domestic tuition rates, and now that the LSE is so much more expensive in comparison to Edinburgh, I think I would have to reconsider my options. I really like how the English students got together to fight tuition raises as opposed to huge amount of apathy here in the US. Great post, I really enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Also same goes for Welsh students who pay only £3000 while English students have to pay £9000.