Class action: The new faces of student protest

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Matthew Bell meets the new faces of student activism as they plan the next round of attacks on the Government's hike in tuition fees

Slapped on the phone box outside Tesco Metro, a poster screams "No!" Resist. Protest. Strike. It's dark and wet and the road is a black canal, glistening with minicabs. I'm in Oxford, the world-class university with a blowsy town attached, in search of anarchists. It's an unlikely breeding ground for the next Baader-Meinhof; at the Oxford Union the only flyers are for the "Night in Havana" ball, £49 a head. But for the first time in a generation, students are taking up arms and protesting. On television screens, we've seen the masses take to the streets of Cairo. Here, on the Cowley Road, where the Polish grocer and Quix, the 24-hour store, stand next to the pawnbroker, there are signs that the students are revolting. "Meet at 12 on Saturday" urges the poster. "Demonstrate!" I stop to jot down the anonymous mobile number. Passers-by slow down to look. "Good for you," says one. "Got any change?" asks another.

I find Kate and James at the Old Tom, a corridor of a pub opposite Christ Church, Oxford's grandest college. Tracking down activists isn't hard these days. This is the generation of texts, Twitter and Facebook parties; spreading the word is what they do. They can assemble a few hundred people before even deciding what to protest about. Kate has come from a meeting of the Oxfordshire Anti-Cuts Alliance; James is six foot of lanky goth, his black hair arranged in a modish sweep. Both took part in November's storming of the Radcliffe Camera, the university's library bastille, which prompted the headline: "We turned Oxford into Paris!" Today, they're drinking gin and tonic. "We're not against order," says James, "we just want people to realise they don't have to accept the order that has been decided for us." Kate nods. "I'm committed to rejecting authority in everything I do." Both are seasoned activists. Both are students in their early twenties. They will not be affected by the rise in tuition fees, which will hit those starting courses in September 2012. They are fighting out of solidarity for future generations. Climate change, the war, nuclear weapons – protesting has defined them. But now, the rebels have a tangible cause.

It emerged with a jolt in October, with the publication of Lord Browne's report into higher-education funding. Commissioned by the previous Government, but enthusiastically embraced by the Coalition, the former BP chairman recommended a near tripling of tuition fees, from £3,290 to a potential £9,000 a year. The Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a means-tested benefit paid to low income sixth-formers to keep them in education, is also to be scrapped.

Oxford and Cambridge have confirmed that they will be charging the full £9,000 a year. But the anger is everywhere: Aberystwyth, Brighton, Glasgow, Manchester – Britain's campuses are fizzing with students who have been quickly, radically politicised.

Action came with a bang on 9 November when up to 50,000 people amassed to demonstrate in London. And not just students: parents and grandparents; teachers k and lecturers; schoolchildren in uniform; girls dressed for summer festivals in dresses and Wellingtons; teens in skinny jeans and bandanas; hoodies wearing masks for battle. What began as a peaceful, songs-and-jumpers protest, notable for witty placards such as "Nick Clegg sold out faster than Muse", burst into a surging street battle. The police kettled; protesters hit back. One victim was Alfie Meadows, a 20-year-old student who needed emergency brain surgery after having his skull stoved in by a baton-wielding policeman. Another was Millbank, the Conservative Party HQ, where thousands of pounds of damage was done. One hundred and fifty three arrests were made; seven people were charged with violent disorder.

The violence was disowned by some, including Aaron Porter, head of the National Union of Students. To others, it was seen as an important awakening. Oxford art student Tim Crombie, 20, went for a peaceful protest but found himself beaten by batons. "It was frightening, but it was worth it. Busloads of students from all over the country had come in and, suddenly, we were united." For many, it was their first protest, or the first time they had engaged with politics. A generation of teenagers was unexpectedly discovering the possibilities of direct action: sixth-formers could dominate the news agenda.

But to some commentators, it's too middle-class to be taken seriously. The students are more Kooks than the Clash, and it's tempting to see the marches as just the latest craze from the Skins generation: easy bisexuality, ketamine, dubstep and now, a bit of cop-bashing.

Newspapers have delighted in making Charlie Gilmour, son of Pink Floyd guitarist Dave, the face of the protest. Rolling a cigarette on the balcony of her tenement flat in Homerton, east London, journalist and activist Laurie Penny says the focus on Gilmour over the other 50,000 people who marched that day was, for her, indicative of a lazy media colluding to undermine a genuine protest. "It shows an establishment that is threatened by a groundswell of political opinion against it, and has focused on the most convenient riff."

This groundswell is not just manned by the young and hopelessly optimistic . In fact, the cuts will not directly affect the majority of those on the protests. University of London lecturers Des Freedman and John Wadsworth hailed the Millbank protests of last November as "magnificent", drawing instant criticism from the press. In the bustling main corridor of Goldsmiths College, the Evening Standard front quoting them is pasted on a notice board. Next to it, a terse note from the Warden "completely distances" the college from these opinions. Upstairs, Wadsworth and Freedman tell me why they spoke out. "That day was a marker in people's determination to defend an education system, and to inspire others to join with them," says Freedman.

They have had dozens of messages of support from other academics. Many joined the march – perhaps not surprising given that the cuts will effectively make tutors employees of their students, rather than the state. In fact, if fewer students decide to do degrees, some universities may have to close courses, even departments.

But the lecturers are not protesting for themselves; their concern is for poorer students who are put off higher education for financial concerns. In particular, they are worried that the Government's plans to scrap the EMA will mean poorer children will be forced into work instead of education. The real battle is ideological – what, in the end, is higher education for? "Is education here so we can get a nice job and serve the interests of the market economy?" asks Wadsworth. "Or is it bigger than that? I think that's a debate that we need to have."

The fight now is not just to reverse the increase in tuition fees – it's to scrap them altogether, to go back to free higher education for all, as enjoyed by all of today's politicians when they were students. "Every member of the Government is recommending this raise, but they didn't pay even £3,000 a year," says blogger and activist Jody McIntyre, "Every one of them got a degree for free. So if they're telling universities to charge up to £9,000 a year, why don't they all pay that retrospectively for however long they went to university?"

The return to the punk aggression of the late 1970s is not just ideological. Above a pub in Camden, 24-year-old Derek Meins, also known as the Agitator, is yelling out a song called "Let's Get Marching". One of few musicians to embrace the student protests, his sound is raw and urgent: two drummers, no guitars, and his astonishingly powerful voice, roaring out marching tunes with lyrics such as: "We can't afford to hesitate, now is the time to agitate." Backstage, he is misleadingly mild-mannered. He talks of the need for music to reflect the zeitgeist. "People have convinced themselves over the past 10 years that it's a bit uncool to deal with political issues – that's a stupid attitude."

But attitudes change fast, and around university campuses and city fringes, the crescendo of dissent is growing. Ten years ago, nobody questioned the need to contribute towards a degree: it was an investment worth getting into debt for. Until a year ago, the University of London Union had little purpose except as a gym. Today, it is a red-blooded political body, galvanised into action since March by 37-year-old single mother Clare Solomon, who was elected president with a manifesto demanding free tertiary education for all. Its premises in central London have become the de facto meeting point of all student protests. Many more are planned: the Coalition of Resistance has just held a week of resistance, building towards the TUC's nationwide anti-cuts demonstration on 26 March , expected to be the biggest since the anti-war marches of 2003.

Today, education funding is the focus, but when the cuts bite elsewhere, how many other groups will rise up? Many talk of "the struggle" as a long-term project; they compare the demos at the end of last year to the Poll Tax riots of 1990, which took two years to effect a change. Behind the Agitator on stage in Camden, giant crimson letters spell out "No!". He calls the movement No-ism, and it's spreading: from Homerton and Brixton and the Cowley Road, to Bloomsbury and Whitehall and Downing Street. The Government has found its opposition; but who can say "no" the loudest?

The student

Sophie Lewis, 23

A student protester at Oxford University, Lewis is affiliated with the grass-roots group the Oxford Education Campaign, which instigated the occupation of the Radcliffe Camera

"This is a movement that objects, with rage, to the idea of education for GDP points. The 1,000-strong November 'march' in Oxford, which broke four police lines, empowered people who had never done anything political before, and I'm encouraged by it. A demo should be subversive. Any protester who's done any thinking about how power works has to conclude that the police, when in uniform, are the enemy, the armed wing of the state. Their violence radicalises people. Believing in anarchy is not anti-order, it's anti-authority: the principle of anarchy is order. Anarchism aside, there are a lot of anti-capitalist protesters trying to defend very simple things, such as the pleasure of libraries. It all links straight to the really big questions: What are we doing with global economies in the context of a crash followed by austerity measures?"

The protest singer

Derek Meins, 24

As the Agitator, Meins writes political lyrics and has been called the sound of the protest movement. His third single, 'Say No!', is released on 7 March

"As it has in the past, music can keep up the momentum in this fight. The decisions that are being made are wrong and if I can do anything that can help change them, then I will. There aren't many other bands doing it. I don't know why, but it's still a niche thing. I know a lot of music is escapism, but surely music needs to inspire people, not just help people to escape from life. Because we're in such a tumultuous time, we haven't yet seen the worst of how the cuts are going to affect us. So it's more important than ever that, as a bold nation, as a nation of young people, we stay focused on what's happening, and not lie back and fall into the position of apathy that we were in maybe a year or two ago. The next few months, the next year or so, are going to be more important than ever."

The journalist

Laurie Penny, 24

Penny is a feminist activist and a journalist who writes for publications including'The New Statesman'. She blogs at pennyred.blogspot.com

"The movement is about more than this Education Bill. Young people, but increasingly people from different generations – lecturers, parents, trade unionists – are finally articulating a culture of resistance to the narrative that we have to pare down the state. People are standing up and saying there is an alternative. And education has become a flashpoint. People are asking what they want from their education, which in some ways is the same as asking what they want from their culture, their society. It was brilliant when they smashed up Millbank; I have no problem with property damage at all. More people should be saying how inspiring it was to see these previously well-behaved young people realising they can change something. A lot of people are in this for the long game. It took years to reverse the Poll Tax. This is not a fight that is going away."

The school pupil

Barnaby Raine, 15

Raine is currently studying for his GCSEs at a school in central London. He will be directly affected by the rise in tuition fees. A protest speech he made has had more than 70,000 views on YouTube (tinyurl.com/4uu6783)

"I've been on a lot of the recent demonstrations. Our generation is angry to see young people who rely on government help to stay in education being told to abandon their dreams and aspirations while those who caused this crisis pay themselves bonuses big enough to fund education for decades. This Government has made a choice: to attack those too young to vote rather than taking on the richest and most powerful in our society, and I think it's legitimate for people abandoned and ignored by the system to feel very angry. Cameron has a vision for our future – that's what makes him so scary. It's a vision of a darker, crueller country where a university education means more than £30,000 of debt. The fate of future generations depends on our fighting that."

The blogger

Jody McIntyre, 20

McIntyre, who has cerebral palsy, was dragged from his wheelchair by Metropolitan Police officers during the student protests in December

"Education should be free. The Education Maintenance Allowance should be kept. These are not controversial issues. What has happened is the marketisation of education: education is now a commodity; as a student you are a consumer of that commodity, so that you then go out into the capitalist society to make as much money as you can. These cuts are ideological, and it's become clear that the main parties share the same line on this. So there's no real freedom of choice, no real democracy, as the choice we have made is not represented by anyone. We are not going to lay down and accept it. We're going to fight back, and as the cuts spread into other sectors of society, those sectors will also rise up. The harder the Government makes life for people, the most vulnerable sections of society, the more they will resist. It's what we're seeing now. It's a very exciting time."

The unionist

Clare Solomon, 37

An undergraduate, Solomon is president of the University of London Union, which she is credited with politicising. She left school aged 14 and has a 20-year-old son

"A lot of student unions are just gyms. If you stand on a non-political basis, 'Vote for me because I'm nice,' then a union is seen just as a service provider, when they were set up as campaigning organisations. And when you are campaigning, more people know about it and get involved. I became interested in world politics on the anti-war demo in 2003. Students are being politicised by the Government. There's a sense that they're not being listened to, that they're being patronised and told what to do. I find it offensive that students are written off as middle-class – as if that's a bad thing anyway – as it suggests students of all backgrounds aren't interested in studying and engaging politically. The demonstrations have had sizeable representation from poorer backgrounds, and kids who depend on EMA to study."

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