London Tuition Hike Protests Turn Violent
By SARAH LYALL
Published: November 10, 2010
LONDON — A demonstration against government proposals to cut education spending and steeply increase tuition for university students turned violent on Wednesday as protesters attempted to storm the building that houses the Conservative Party.
The Lede Blog: Video of Student Protests in London (November 10, 2010)
The protesters scuffled with police officers, set off flares, burned placards, threw eggs, bottles and other projectiles and shattered windows at the building, 30 Millbank, in Westminster. A small group of demonstrators, some of whose faces were obscured by ski masks, climbed to the roof of a nearby building, waving anarchist flags and chanting “Tory scum.”
The protest was dispersed about 10 p.m. Fourteen people, including seven police officers, were injured, none of them seriously, the authorities said. Thirty-five people were arrested.
An estimated 52,000 people from across the country also massed near Parliament on Wednesday to condemn the government’s education proposals, which would allow universities to charge £6,000, or $9,600, to £9,000, or $14,400, in tuition a year, up from a cap of £3,290, or $5,264. The protest was the largest street demonstration against the government’s plans, which were announced last month, to cut public spending by $130 billion by 2015. Unions and public employees have promised more demonstrations and strikes, particularly as details of the cuts become clear.
Tuition is a politically sensitive subject in Britain, where universities are heavily subsidized by the government. Until the late 1990s, when the Labour government introduced tuition, students paid nothing to attend college.
The current government, a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that has ushered in an age of budget austerity, has announced plans to cut teaching grants to universities and said it had no choice but to raise tuition.
That has presented a dilemma for Liberal Democrats — the more vulnerable members of the coalition — who made abolishing university tuition a core element of their platform in the general election last spring. Joining the Conservatives in proposing tuition increases has been hard for many Liberal Democrats. Their leader, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, was taunted Wednesday in the House of Commons by members of the opposition Labour Party.
“In April he said that increasing tuition fees to £7,000 a year would be a disaster,” Harriet Harman, the deputy leader of the opposition, said of Mr. Clegg. “What word would he use to describe fees of £9,000?”
Accusing him of “going along with Tory plans to shove the cost of higher education onto students and their families,” Ms. Harman told Mr. Clegg that he was like a college freshman who meets “a dodgy bloke” during the first week of classes “and you do things that you regret.”
“Isn’t it true he has been led astray by the Tories?” she asked.
Mr. Clegg responded that he had to make compromises as part of a coalition, and because the country’s finances had been left in such poor shape by the previous government. But, he said, he had prevailed on the Conservatives to make the proposals fairer and more progressive.
Under the plan, students would borrow money from the government to pay tuition, as they do now. They would not start repaying the debt until they earned at least £21,000 a year (about $38,000 at current exchange rates), an increase from the current level of £15,000 ($24,100). They would then pay 9 percent of their income above that level to settle the debt. The debt would be wiped out after 30 years.
Student leaders have made it a priority to denounce Liberal Democrats who support the higher tuition, and they said on Wednesday that they would try to recall any legislators who had broken their election promises on the issue. Some Liberal Democrats have said they would abstain from the vote to increase tuition when it comes up in Parliament.
Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, said the proposed increases were doubly unfair, since they were paired with cuts of about 40 percent in the money the government pays to subsidize teaching at universities. “We should be clear that the government has asked students to pay three times as much for a quality that is likely to be no better than what they are receiving now, and perhaps worse,” he said.