Thousands of students took part in demonstrations, sit-ins and walk-outs on campuses and in city centres across Britain yesterday as a largely peaceful day of action against rises in university fees flared into violence.
Scuffles broke out between protesters and police in several locations, with the worst disorder happening in Whitehall, where demonstrators found their path to Parliament Square blocked by riot officers. A mob vented its fury on an empty police van, smashing the windscreen and daubing it with graffiti before emptying its contents and letting off a smoke bomb inside.
The Metropolitan Police, who were caught by surprise two weeks ago when a group of protesters attacked the Millbank Tower, which houses the Conservative Party headquarters, deployed hundreds of officers, using controversial "kettling" tactics to quell clashes by holding demonstrators for hours behind reinforced police cordons.
Nine members of the public were treated in hospital for minor injuries while one police officer suffered a broken hand and another was knocked unconscious during the skirmishes, in which metal barricades were thrown and fires lit. The Met, which was criticised for its use of kettling during last year's G20 protests, provided portable toilets and water for the contained protesters, who kept themselves warm by making fires with seized police riot shields. There were 15 arrests for violent disorder, theft and criminal damage.
The violence punctuated the otherwise trouble-free protests from Brighton to Edinburgh for "Day X", as teenaged school pupils left classrooms to join undergraduates and demonstrate against the Government's decision to increase university fees in England to £9,000 and withdraw public funding for teaching in many subjects.
Much of the anger remained focused on the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who yesterday said he "massively regrets" reneging on his promise to prevent increased tuition fees but asked critics to study the detail of the funding reforms. He said: "I regret of course that I can't keep the promises that I made because – just as in life – sometimes you are not fully in control of all the things you need to deliver those pledges."
Such words fell on stony ground among protesters, as police clashed briefly with marchers in Bristol and Liverpool, and students carried out multiple occupations of university buildings, including Oxford University's Bodleian Library, Royal Holloway, Warwick, Birmingham and Essex.
Crowds of between 1,000 and 3,000 gathered in Manchester, Liverpool and Brighton, with schoolchildren as young as 13 or 14 among the demonstrators. One computer science student held up a placard reading: "404 Error: Funding Not Found."
In London, where about 10,000 demonstrators gathered, Tom Lugg, 23, a nursing student at Kingston University in Surrey, said: "It shows the young people of Britain are pretty angry. Why should the next generation have to pay more? The Tories are hitting working families, just like they did with the poll tax."
A letter delivered to Liberal Democrat headquarters in Westminster on behalf of the organisers of yesterday's protests, the National Campaign Against the Cuts, announced further demonstrations next week: "No amount of twisted reasoning from either you or [Business Secretary] Vince Cable can hide what everyone can see: you have lied to us."
As protesters were released from the containment area in Whitehall, some human rights campaigners criticised police tactics. James Welch, of Liberty, said: "As we saw at the G20, kettling is a very dangerous police tactic. It traps the innocent and vulnerable with the guilty and hostile."