In the early afternoon of Friday, 18 October, a small group of protesters gathered outside the University of London Union as part of a nationwide objection against the proposed privatisation of student loans as announced by the government recently.
Mostly made up of current students at the University of London and supporters of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, the group carried placards bearing the message ‘Free education - tax the rich’ and hauled red cardboard boxes painted with ‘£’ signs to represent student debt.
The protesters divided to target the constituency offices of Liberal Democrat MPs Simon Hughes in Southwark, and Vince Cable, who is also Business Secretary, in Twickenham, to voice their displeasure.
The protests came as a result of broader government plans to sell public assets to make money. As part of these plans, the student loan book could be sold off to private companies, affecting any UK home students who took out a loan between 1998 and 2012.
Student debt is generally unappealing since much of it is never repaid, thus the government would have to offer "sweeteners" in order to attract investors. One option guarantees profit for private buyers through the promise of future government subsidies, but the more controversial alternative is to allow said buyers to lift the cap on interest rates – meaning anyone who originally took out a student loan with the promise of low interest rates during repayment could suddenly be faced with a dramatic increase in debt.
One student protester said, “We are already lumbered with so much debt. It would be totally hypocritical for the government to backtrack on a contract-based system. We didn’t sign up for this.”
After entering Vince Cable’s office and being informed that he was not present, the group of protesters in Twickenham waited outside for him to arrive for his weekly MP's surgery at 17:00.
While waiting, they stuck leaflets to the wall, piled up boxes in front of the door and along the street and handed out leaflets to passers-by. Local police arrived to oversee events.
Vince Cable’s arrival by bicycle was obstructed by the boxes, and by protesters "crushed by debt" lying down in front of him. He fought his way to the door of his office without responding to any questions, and was then heckled through a megaphone with calls of “Vince Cable, come out, we know what you’re all about. Cuts, job losses, money for the bosses.”
The government’s proposal comes not only as an aftershock of the introduction of £9,000 per year tuition fees last year, but also as a blow to graduates who started courses a decade or more ago - under the most extreme proposals, rates on the student loans of people now in their 30s would go up.
The news coincides with recent remarks from Oxford University’s vice-chancellor that top universities should be allowed to charge up to £16,000 per year in tuition fees.
Stephen King, a volunteer for the Liberal Democrat Party who lives in Twickenham, stopped by to help the protesters hand out leaflets.
“I went to university myself,” he said. “Young people shouldn’t be leaving with debt. Life is hard enough, especially in times of economic downturn.”
Mr King said members within the Liberal Democrat Party were divided on the issue, but that most had been “very disappointed” when the rise in tuition fees was introduced shortly following the coalition’s formation, despite the promise of Party leader Nick Clegg not to do so. “Education is very important, but students seem to be a consistently soft target,” Mr. King added.
The protesters at MP Simon Hughes’ office in Southwark chanted outside and stuck leaflets to his car.
Earlier on in the day, another larger group of protesters in Birmingham took over the office of MP John Hemming before police arrived to remove them.