Students and lecturers marched through central London today, for the United for Free Education demonstration organised by the National Union of Students.
According to the NUS more than 15,000 people joined the march, though many present disputed this and said it appeared to be much smaller. Unlike last year’s student demonstration, the march remained peaceful with no reported arrests.
The demonstration began on Park Lane and proceeded through Westminster to Millbank, where trade union leaders, NUS officers and activists addressed the crowd.
NUS President Malia Bouattia told London Student: “We are protesting against the government’s attempts to further marketise our education, the cuts to colleges throughout further education which are a lifeline for so many, the mergers that are happening that are going to mean less students accessing education, bigger classrooms, less staff, and really the list is endless.
“So we’re here united with the University and College Union, so all our lecturers, our teachers, our tutors, saying that we oppose all these things and we’re putting forward an alternative vision of education.”
Owen Jones, the commentator and activist, told students: “What we are seeing is the punishment of young people for a crisis they did not cause”, adding that the cuts to education amount to “vandalism on an industrial scale”.
Deputy Green Party Leader Amelia Womack promised to support free, liberated education, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, though not present, pledged his support via video.
He said: “University is too expensive and debts are too great, shutting out students from low-income backgrounds. Labour will tackle student debt, reinstate Student Maintenance Allowences and grants to university students, to ensure that the benefits of education are accessible to all.”
During the preparation for the demonstration, there were reports of confusion about the exact purpose of the march despite it having a budget of more than £60,000.
But pre-made placards made by NUS and handed out at various points all called for three things: a boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS), better funding for Further Education providers, and No Debts, No Cuts, No Fees.
The NSS boycott is an attempt to undermine government plans to raise fees in line with a university’s percieved quality, which will be evaluated in a system called the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) using the data the survey provides.
Under the plans, universities which score highly in the TEF would be allowed to raise their fees above £9000 a year.
Addressing the crowd, Sorana Vieru, NUS Vice President (Higher Education) said: “You won’t have your survey data until you give us our money back.”
Additional reporting by Maariyah Dawood, Will Ing, Rebecca Pinnington and Laurie Chen.