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London students protest
Photography Taylor McGraa

15,000 students march in London to protest education cuts

‘Education should be free, not just for the bourgeoisie’

From the very moment we learn to walk, talk and interact with one another, we are connected to our education system. It is a system with the power to enhance relationships, transform lives, and influence our perspective on the world. But now, under the Tory government of the UK, it is also a system which is being crippled, commoditised and tailored to the interests of the bourgeoisie.

In recent years there have been a number of detrimental changes to education in the UK, allowing it to become more like a product-for-profit every single day. It is turning its students into consumers at a terrifying rate. The introduction of the Teaching for Excellence Framework (TEF) is setting ‘quality’ education institutions parallel with higher fees, meaning that the richer you are, the better the education you will receive. Not only this, but the implementation of Prevent policies are wrongly monitoring foreign students and migrant children in schools, turning our teachers into border control too. These changes come not long after the government's decision to scrap maintenance grants and remove bursary funding for student nurses. The future looks bleak.

This weekend, 15,000 students, parents, education workers and anti-austerity activists gathered at Park Lane in London, coming together on a mission to call out these horrendous Tory reformations to education. On this bitter cold afternoon, I marched with them.

As we make our way from Mayfair to Westminster, I witness a mass display of solidarity and anger. People chant and carry placards through the streets – some push their children in prams, some push their friends in wheelchairs, others hold hands, shouting together. It is a Saturday, and tourists spot the pavements. Holidaymakers in the streets stop to take pictures of the thousands of activists pouring past Buckingham Palace. Red smoke from flares colour a November sky, and the chants of “free education” echo off bank buildings.

One group, a percussion band, play drums and whistle to keep the momentum going. Although it’s a protest against classist government oppression, there’s a sense of celebration too. Maybe it’s the joy that comes from being surrounded by like-minded people, or maybe it’s just the feeling of hope.

I catch up with Charlotte, a university student taking part in the march, and ask her why she thinks it was so important to come to the demo that day. “All of these recent changes in politics, like Brexit and Trump, they are all linked,” she explains to me. “Cuts to welfare and education funding are consistently on the rise, and the mainstream political thought is slowly creeping towards the right. That’s why it’s so important to organise now.”

“What’s great about today is that there’s so many different groups. Protests like these do work. They are a visible proof of how many people are committed to a cause” - Hannah Clare, Young Greens

With the poor pay conditions driving education staff into poverty too, lecturers and teachers protest next to their students, standing side by side for a more equal education system. “We are two sides of the same coin,” says Rob Goodfellow, the President of UCU. “We are our strongest when we work together, and we are our best when we stand and fight.”

As the march approaches Parliament, chanting becomes louder. I speak to Sasha Vale, an activist from Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, who hasn’t gone to uni yet. I ask him why students in further education have come out to the protest too. “Pastoral care in colleges have become of minimal importance,” he points out to me. “Sixth forms and colleges now focus almost entirely on grades in order to compete with one another – they neglect the mental health of their students.”

In a world of job-hunting and grade-chasing, it’s sometimes easy for us to forget that schools, colleges and universities are not just qualification-making machines – they are a place for people to develop and to flourish, and to prepare them for life ahead. It appears that the Tory government have forgotten this entirely.

As the march draws closer to the finish line, a sound system vibrates through the crowd and spirits are higher than ever. Hannah Clare, a member of the Young Greens, says that it’s the largest NUS demo since 2010. “What’s great about today is that there’s so many different groups,” she tells Dazed. “Protests like these do work. They are a visible proof of how many people are committed to a cause.” The organisation of the demo has been a collaborative effort between UCU and NUS for months now: the result is a marching crowd more diverse than I’ve ever seen at one demonstration before. There’s even activists from Scotland and Chicago who have come to London especially to join this march.  

In front of us is a gigantic stage, bearing a ‘Fight for Education’ banner, and for an hour in the icy cold we stand together, listening to powerful speeches from various union presidents, along with students and parents who have been personally victimised by the classist, racist regimes of our government.

“We will build a society which runs in the interest of the majority – we will build an education system which runs in the interests of our needs and aspirations, and not for the profit of a tiny elite” – Owen Jones 

Left-wing political commentator and writer Owen Jones also takes to the stage to encourage the crowds with words of faith. “Racists, fascists and the right-wing are now sweeping across the Western world for the first time since the fall of Adolf Hitler,” he warns us. “And this is a dangerous moment – but we will not let it happen.” There is a deafening cheer from the crowd.

“Have determination and have resilience,” he continues, “because that’s what we need. We will build a society which runs in the interest of the majority – we will build an education system which runs in the interests of our needs and aspirations, and not for the profit of a tiny elite. Have that determination.”

As speeches draw to a close crowds begin to walk home in groups. There is smiling, laughing, and dancing to the beats that are still playing from NUS speakers. Despite the tumultuous year, the atmosphere here is alight. With this, we travel home, determined to keep courage and with a drive to organise change.