Despite the NUS dropping its campaign for free education and taking up a more moderate stance of fairer funding, Wednesday 25 February saw a free education rally in London which the USSU and 60 Sussex students attended along with students from other universities, colleges and schools across Britain. At the very least the rally hoped to prevent a rise in fees, as the recent decision to shelve the cap on tuition fees could see university costs rise to as much as £6,000 to £7,000 a year.
The demonstration was led by a number of campaigners from many different higher education institutions and is the first national demonstration organised by students in 10 years. Tom Wills, the next USSU president and one of the leaders of the free education campaign said: “This is a grass roots student movement that we hope will be the start of a bigger campaign.” “With the march, we want to put this on the agenda and make sure free education is talked about on every campus, especially next term as the review raises the temperature on the debate around tuition fees. We need to make fees an election issue.” He further comments that “as an immediate aim we would be happy if we prevent the raising of the cap” and mentions that “with the economic crisis the future is already uncertain and students want to feel part of shaping that future.”
This comes at a time of aggravated tension between the NUS and students. Tom Wills comments that “the NUS’s policy is flawed logic – you don’t win concessions by trying to appease the government, you need to put pressure on them.” Wes Streeting, president of the NUS, has refused to back the free education campaign and has also condemned the recent Gaza protests across universities in Britain. He comments: “If the student movement gets campaigning tactics (over fees) wrong in 2009 there will be no chance of stopping the lifting of the cap.” “We’ve made a bold and brave decision to focus on how graduates contribute and eliminating the market rather than getting rid of fees, which is unfeasible.” He also added that “The economic climate would make it unrealistic to argue for the abolition of fees”, he said: “It looks like cloud cuckoo land. The fight has got to be to ensure the market in fees doesn’t go further and to defend investment in universities and colleges. That’s a campaign we can win.”
Laura Tazzoili, president of the USSU, who was at the march, comments that: “It was really empowering to see so many students come to London and stand behind free education and to see the incredibly positive reaction from the public, people were cheering us on in the street and clapping.” She further comments that it is ‘only the first step and hopefully in the summer we will build on the movement and hold a conference at Sussex on free education.”
Ed Maltby, a final year student from Cambridge University and national secretary of the education not for sale campaign, said: “For as long as you’ve got fees, the logic of the system is to move to a market. Merely asking government to keep the cap isn’t a solution. Higher education is a social good. A degree is not a matter of an individual ticket to a better-paid job. Society should pay through progressive taxation on the rich and big business not ordinary working class people.”
This comes at a time when there are mass debates on the social inequality in universities and higher institutions and the elitism that some institutions still follow. The Oxford University Chancellor Chris Patten, in an interview with the Oxford University newspaper, Cherwell, attacked the “angry middle class parents” who have criticised his proposal of a rise in tuition fees commenting that “parents are prepared to spend £20-30,000 a year, or if it’s a year £10-15,000 a year getting their children into university but then resent paying more than £3,000 when their child is at university.”