A banner at the NUS/UCU demo- photo credit, Bradley Allsop
A banner at the NUS/UCU demo- photo credit, Bradley Allsop

On Saturday the National Union of Students and the University and College Union held a national demonstration for free education on the streets of London, with some estimates placing the number of demonstrators at as high as 15,000. The demo had three key policy asks, and forms the start of a wider programme of campaigning by the two unions:

  • To invest in FE colleges and sixth forms and stop college mergers
  • To write off student debt and stop private education companies profiting from student fees
  • To scrap the HE Bill, halt the rise in tuition fees and bring back maintenance grants

(The details of the HE bill and the response by NUS and UCU can be found here and here).

The march comes after recent government decisions that include the raising of tuition fees in line with inflation (leading some universities to now be charging £9,250 a year for undergraduate courses), the removal of grants for living costs to be replaced with loans and a storm of criticism against the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the associated National Students Survey (NSS) and the decision to grade universities on this as ‘gold’, ‘silver’ and ‘bronze’.

The march assembled at the edge of Hyde Park and marched to the Houses of Parliament, ending with a round of speeches from a stage erected in the middle of Millbank. The route took marchers past Downing Street, at which point a number of protesters paused to play steel drums, dance and chant ‘Tories out!’ at the gates.

Speakers at the rally included NUS president Malia Bouattia, Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, recently re-elected Deputy Leader of the Greens Amelia Womack  and Guardian columnist Owen Jones, with a video-link appearance by Jeremy Corbyn too.

Unity played a key role during the day, with the two unions expressing mutual support to one another and recognising the interdependent relationship students and teaching staff have with one another.

Beyond this though, what marked the speeches was a focus that went beyond purely educational issues, with many of the speakers expressing solidarity to immigrants and ‘brothers and sisters in the US’, reflecting on the impacts that large events such as Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory were having on broader society. In part this is because societal issues such as how Muslims and immigrants are treated are having repercussions on campuses, such as with the much-maligned Prevent programme and the recently-ruled illegal deportation of many international students by the Home Office.

Speaking to Bright Green, NUS vice-president for Higher Education Sorana Vieru said:

We marched to oppose a further rise in tuition fees and the government’s reforms for higher education. Education is a public good and our degrees are not a product to be ineptly measured, exchanged or damagingly sold.

It was great to see thousands of students take to the street to raise awareness of our demands and dissatisfaction with the direction of travel this government is proposing for education at all levels.
Our voices were heard loud and clear, and I hope many have been inspired by the march and show of solidarity and go back on their campuses to organise locally, turn more and more students into activists and connect with others from other institutions – and together we can defeat the disastrous plans the govt has and push for our vision of Higher Education.