The anger at tuition fee rises which currently see many university students paying £9,000 per year returned to Britain’s streets today as thousands of demonstrators marched through London. But, as a wet and weary march ground to a halt in a south London park, much of the frustration was directed at student union leaders, rather than at the government.
Liam Burns, the head of the National Union of Students was booed by a section of the crowd, with students angry at what they said was a “spineless” demonstration plan devised by the NUS. Some chanted slogans, while others threw eggs and fruit at him. A small group of protesters stormed the stage as the NUS’ rally descended into chaos and in-fighting before disbanding. Chants of “NUS, shame on you, where the f*** you brought us to?” replaced songs expressing anger at Nick Clegg and other senior government figures.
The scenes reflected a feeling of frustration evident across the day. Some students said they felt let down by the NUS march organisers’ willingness to cooperate closely with police, who ruled out a return to Whitehall.
Others, however, said they were happy to be back and to see a new generation of protesters opposing the government’s tuition fee increases and budget cuts.“There is a lot of anger still there but there are a lot of new faces, there are new students marching now,” said Rhea Simpson, a 19-year-old student at the University of Westminster.
She added: “A lot of people seem a bit unsure because there has not been a string of protests leading up to this one. I was not sure what to expect today, I thought maybe there would be a bit more trouble but I am happy there wasn’t. I saw people putting balaclavas on and I began to worry. It is not the way to go about this, although it is what normally gets the headlines and puts the issue on the agenda.”
Parliament Square was once again the target for many nearly two years after it served as the stage for the violent clashes which marked MPs’ approval of the government’s policy on higher education fees. But protesters were unable to break through police lines and instead made their way to the NUS rally in south London.
There were only a few minor scuffles between police and protesters as union leaders claimed around 10,000 people took to the streets. Two marches converged on the north bank of the Thames when the official NUS demonstration was joined by a feeder march which came down through London from the University of London Union, near Kings Cross station.
People on the smaller feeder march, organised by activist group the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), said they wanted to return to Parliament Square. But a Section 12 order, put in place by police under the Public Order Act barred them from leaving a strictly defined route. There was pushing and shoving as protesters tried to get into a heavily defended Parliament Square from Westminster Bridge. But officers held firm and a brief stand-off followed.
Demonstrators had previously failed to break away from police lines as they wound their way from Russell Square down past Aldwych to meet the main march on the Victoria Embankment. They tried to evade officers early in the march but the Metropolitan Police were well prepared and had the strength in numbers to pen them in.
A high police presence blocking all routes towards Whitehall provided an impenetrable barrier and the students eventually gave up and crossed Westminster Bridge, following the agreed route to the NUS rally at Kennington Park.
One demonstrator, who did not want to be named, said: “It seems a lot smaller than previous marches but that makes sense because there is nothing going through Parliament at the moment, so it is to be expected.
“The perfect outcome would be free education, but the more pressing thing would be a student loan system for postgraduate education.”
Another, who refused to give a name, added: “I am not at university any more but I still believe in the message that we were trying to get across and I want the people coming after me to get a free education. But I also want to do a postgraduate course, which I am struggling to fund, so that is another motivation.”
Addressing the crowd at the NUS rally, Mr Burns said: “I’ve got a message for some of you here today: when people say that we are not united in picking the right fights, fighting the real enemies in Government rather than among ourselves. Well, witness it here.
“I’m going to stand here and listen to the progressive campaigners in our movement and ignore these people. I invite you to join me.”