Student Protests

Ami Tian

When I caught up to the student protesters at Westminster Abbey on Saturday, I almost didn’t expect to see them there in such large numbers. I wouldn’t have been surprised if, in light of the protests in Cairo and Tunis, the protesters had said, “Never mind, I guess we don’t have it so bad, after all,” and stayed home.

But there they were. The students and their sympathizers, marching down Parliament Square, chanted, “No ifs, no buts, no education cuts!” and “You say cut back: we say fight back!”

They held signs: “Met Police Deprogramming Unit”, “F**k Fees”, “Free Education for All!” and, most prominently, “What Parliament Does, The Streets Can Undo”. However, a more literal and less ambitious expression of their expectations would probably read,”What Parliament Does, The Streets Can Loudly Disagree With”.

Most people I talked to felt that nothing immediate would come of it: the legislation was passed. So why protest? One person I talked to acknowledged that the last successful protest in England was probably in the seventies, but said that even if protesting was futile in this case, at the end of the day they wanted to be able to say that they’d done something. Another person felt that it was the only way to make the students’ voices heard, to express their discontent.

At the Conservative Party headquarters, part of the group remained outside the building while the others continued towards the Egyptian embassy. A new chant rose up: “Tunis, Cairo, we’re with you: if you can do it, we can, too!”, which seemed ridiculous to me. What did “it” refer to? Surely not the overthrow of a dictatorship. On one hand, the UK student protests seem insignificant (especially as they seem to be petering out) compared to the protests in Tunisia and Egypt. ¬† But on the other hand, the protests in all situations arose, despite the dissimilar conditions, from similar sentiments: anger, resentment and helplessness.

From an American’s perspective, it might be hard to see where the students’ anger comes from. Sure, the cap on university tuition tripled from around 3,000 to 9,000 pounds, but that’s still nothing compared to the cost of American universities. And their loan repayment system, which is income-based, seems fair enough by American standards. But the British aren’t used to paying for higher education, which they regard as a right, not a privilege. And despite how manageable the fees might seem to Americans, every person I talked to, even if they themselves weren’t affected by the cuts, knew people who no longer had the certainty of going to a university. ¬†Many also felt that the cuts were unnecessary: corporations deprived the government of much more money through tax evasion: or that students should not have to pay for a financial crisis caused by bankers.

However, from what I gathered, most of the resentment comes from the government’s betrayal. The students’ general consensus was that the liberal democrats had been carried into power by the student vote.

“Nick Clegg’s seat is a student seat,” said one person, bitterly. And Nick Clegg, the leader of the liberal democrats, had specifically promised not to raise fees.

One person, when asked what the outcome of the protests would be in an ideal world, said simply that “the government would listen.”

The question isn’t, “Would this happen in America?” (it has) but rather, “In America, what would we do?” We’re used to having to pay for things that ought to be free or at least cheaper. We’re used to being lied to. But what we’re not used to, it seems, is doing much about it, other than voting: and often not even then.

Maybe it’s because we know better. California’s public education cuts seemed more devastating than those in the UK. Yet the California protests, which in America were the biggest in forty years, were milder and more peaceful: and equally ignored.

Again: why protest? More than an expression of public sentiment, protests are meant to be a call for action. The effectiveness of protesting is really defined by the response to the protests; if the government ignores them, it means that despite the students’ anger, protests are ineffective. If you care enough, you’re willing to go further to the stage where you can’t be ignored, which is hard to do peacefully. In a democracy it seems like the best thing to do is vote (and certainly, most people said, this term was the liberal democrats’ last). But what guarantee is there that the new government won’t pull the same old shit again?

As the UK student protesters see it, the impetus to protest is not relative. Regardless of how angry the Egyptians are, the UK students are angry as well, and if you’re angry, you need to speak up. The only difference is how far you’re willing to go to get people to listen.