Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the past two months will have been aware of the students march in London last Wednesday. It is of course a shame that the small group of people who thought it necessary to start vandalizing Tory HQ hijacked a largely peaceful march by so many thousands of students. Watching the news channels, one would be forgiven for thinking that what the BBC called the ‘student riots’ were the main event. I can absolutely understand the frustration, but in their actions it is very possible that those trying to force immediate action have undermined in the public eye a struggle that we are all a part of. That debate aside, it seems to me that the campaign to oppose raises in tuition fees could easily be accused of some very unconnected thinking.
The main oversight that people seem to have made in regard to the recent coalition ‘bombshell’ regarding tuition fees is that it is the plan of the government to raise tuition fees for most students. The actual legislation wouldn’t change the level of tuition fee charged currently – not directly at least – it would change the point at which fees are capped by the government. Now, we’ve all heard about how controversial that proposed change has been, but it seems clear to me that if we’re hoping to achieve movement on this, it isn’t likely to be by pressuring government by going on a mosey through London. After all, while marching, who actually thought ‘Yes, David Cameron is going to see this happening and completely change his mind, in fact he’ll probably lavish us all with presents instead…’ The fact is that if (and it’s a big if) this legislation passes, it will be the powers that be at the University of Sussex who decide to change the level that fees are charged at. Call me cynical, but it came as no surprise to me that the university was so accommodating with yesterday’s demonstration. The comment by Union Education Officer Lita Wallis, suggesting that the university’s decision to back the NUS student demo was a ‘sign of how relations on campus have changed since last year’ I think is a little over-simplistic. It is completely in the interests of the University of Sussex to allow students the day off, because it means that they’re taking any civil unrest or disarray far away from the doors of Sussex House.
Let us be clear. If this legislation goes through, Sussex will be able to raise tuition fees, more than likely to £6K a year. That is the decision of the powers that be at the University – it isn’t Nick Clegg or even Lord Browne. Our thought that suddenly Sussex are being terribly accommodating to our cause is at best misplaced. If we really are going to oppose this change and secure affordable and constructive further education for those likely to be hit by the changes, then we need not walk the streets of London shouting at people who aren’t likely to listen (much less likely following yesterday’s sad little interlude…) but rather take our argument all the way to Sussex House. It seems clear to me that we as a student body, and our representatives in the Student’s Union need to start an active dialogue with the university. It is them and them alone who will choose to hike fees, and it is us and us alone who can argue against it, or force them to a point of compromise. Whether this is achieved through protesting outside Sussex House (this seems to be a popular option, I often wonder why there isn’t a some kind of Sussex House Protest Society…) or whether it’s a much more constructive and pluralist dialogue with the University, it seems to me the only way to achieve our goal. Yesterday in London the Student’s movement achieved many things, some of which they weren’t hoping to. Undoubtedly now, the issue of student fees and funding is on the minds of the general public; we need to ensure that it is also on the minds of the people in high places who will be making the decisions that could make Sussex a distant and unattainable dream for huge swathes of society. Sussex hoped yesterday that they had nicely stage-managed their troubles off-campus; I think such a view is very naïve. To achieve the goal, we need to send a very clear message to those few in their offices, ‘We are Sussex’, and as yesterday showed very clearly, this isn’t going to happen on our watch.