Marching with students for Free Education

The 2014 National Student Demonstration, held under the banner “Free Education: No Fees. No Cuts. No Debts”, was said to be the largest student demonstration since 2010, according to the organisers.

One of the organising groups, the student-based National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, estimated that roughly 10,000 protesters gathered for the march outside the University of London in Malet Street. The route took machers around Russell Square, along the Strand, past Trafalgar Square, along Whitehall and finishing with a rally outside the Houses of Parliament.

Although the message “free education for all” was clear throughout the protest, there were groups chanting and protesting something more profound about government policy as a whole. There were anti-war groups in attendance holding banners that read “Books not Bombs”, and others brandishing Palestinian flags calling for a Free Palestine. One particular group, wearing black and covering their faces with scarves and hoodies, made it clear why they were there. They waved red and black flags and held Russell Brand’s book, Revolution.

“There is definitely wealth in society but it’s with the rich and in the banks.”
Beth Redmond

These protesters also led the storming of Parliament Square, and called for the students who watched from the sidelines to join them to “reclaim” their square. Scuffles broke out as police in vain tried to contain the rushing crowds and keep the barricades up.

The distinction was clear as two distinct groups swiftly began to form. One group occupying the square, chanting “anti…anti…anti-capitalista,” while in the other students holding banners for free education walked further down the road to where the main rally took place.

Speakers included the leader of the Green Party, Natalie Bennett, and the deputy leader Amelia Womack.  Several MPs including Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn, and Caroline Lucas also spoke in support of the campaign, with Abbott receiving the loudest applause from students after hinting that she would like to stand as Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London.

Representatives of the Mexican Student Movement also took to the stage as they were holding a separate protest outside Parliament against the Mexican Government after 42 students recently went missing. The group showed their support for free education, and called it a universal battle that had to be won.

Free Education is a cause that students have long been fighting for. Since the introduction of education fees in 1998, and their increase in 2004, as well as recent rises, student organisations have been raising their voices. They are speaking up against what they call an education system that is now more than ever favouring the elite and not making university education accessible to all. This year’s demonstration was a result of the suppressed voices of an entire student generation.

Students were angry that within the past few years, not only have tuition fees trebled, but the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), that many students from poorer backgrounds have relied upon, has also been scrapped. Organisers have said that the reason for the march was to spark a whole movement against government austerity. Beth Redmond from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) said: “No one in the movement is under an illusion about how the government is attacking the working class and students. There is definitely wealth in society but it’s with the rich and in the banks. If Germany has a free system then I don’t see why we cannot.”

The organisers were various student groups including the NCAFC, The Student Assembly Against Austerity, and The Young Greens. However the National Union of Students (NUS), the umbrella organisation for students’ unions in the UK, decided controversially to withdraw their support two weeks before the demonstration due to safety concerns and accessibility for their members with disabilities. This decision was met with a lot of backlash from student groups.

Although the protest was mostly peaceful, groups of protesters gathered outside the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills after the rally, where they were met by riot police. Organisers later said in a press release that police became violent towards protesters, and up to 11 arrests were made with at least one protester taken to hospital. The demonstrators have since been released with no charges but have been put on bail, due to return to the police for questioning at a later date.

Organisers say that this is just the start of the student movement and that they will be back. They urged students to continue the fight on their campuses and in their schools, and build the momentum to be back in December, and again early next year in time for the general elections.

Featured photo © Lauren Towner