Wednesday, 21 November 2012

F**k fees: student protest

"Well, someone's got to clean up all this shit", ventured the bored copper, stood idly, watching some of London's students protest.  Despite the rain, many had made it out to lament the injustices of high UK student debt and heightened university tuition fees. 

Despite their snappy "F**k Fees" slogan, it seems the organisers didn't get their desired headcount today, judging by the large piles of unused placards, preprepared by organisers. 

The protest I witnessed was outside the student union of my former place of study, King's College London. Conveniently close to lectures, or the KCLSU bar, depending on your point of view. I subsequently looked it up to find it's part of the National Union of Students' (NUS) tuition fees "Demo 2012".

I watch most protests in Western countries through an almost impermeable veil of cynicism. The fees slogan from today is crude and abrasive. Obviously it occurred to me to empathise and speak with the bored police officer at the time, rather than the legion of student activists on the scene. The image that grabbed me was the cynical snap of spare placards above, rather than the drab banners scene below.

I'm sure I'd be more outraged if I was paying their student fees. Fate was kind to me in that respect. My school year was the last to sneak through the door, in September 2003, before fees were tripled to £3,000 "top up fees" the following year. I never took a "Gap Yar", as many friends did. I landed a graduate reporter's job in 2007, before the financial crisis and resulting economic downturn set in, slashing graduates' chances of finding work after university. Students these days have a tougher lot.

"If you're not a liberal when you're 20, you have no heart.  If you're not a conservative by the time you're 30, you have no brain." – quote falsely attributed to Winston Churchill, but the sentiment rings true.

Well, I voted Liberal Democrat when I was 20. Now I'm past 25, nearer 30, and it's 5 years and counting since I completed my studies. My attitudes are conservative and Conservative. The size of the C doesn't really matter. Perhaps London's grey autumn shades and the drab economic outlook have darkened my cynicism. I stumbled on today's protest on my way back from a meeting at a hotel on nearby Aldwych: a morning coffee with a Bermudian lawyer.

The students who voted in droves for Nick Clegg in the 2010 election were woefully naive, falling for a fanciful populist line. The Lib Dem pledge of the time to scrap tuition fees was made on the strict understanding that the party would never really get into government, lest they be saddled with actually implementing it. The Lib Dems since lost a good deal of their support after confronting some elected realities in the Coalition, which instead capped fees at an unpalatable £9,000.

"Red Ed" Miliband's Labour still suffers from the same policy vacuum that sabotaged Gordon Brown at the last election: the Left's appeal dies with the credibility of its policies; and it can't  innovate without bottomless pots of money. That was the lesson, given hindsight, of New Labour.

Students are understandably angry, hemmed in by debt, fees, politics and realities. I genuinely feel sorry for them. In better times they would have better fortunes. I think £9,000 is an unfair ask  genuinely I do  but it's hard to imagine them getting much discounted. Street protest seems about their only option.

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