Why Do We March For Free Education?

Two weeks ago we saw in London the ‘Free Education Now – Tax The Rich’ national demonstration, organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC).

After the 2015 Conservative majority, Brexit and the continued marketisation of higher education through the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the demo was an illustration of an embattled and exhausted student movement.

But some may be asking: what was the point? Why march, demonstrate, protest? Why keep fighting for this?

“It doesn’t make a difference” is a line we hear too often about student protests.

No one is suggesting the demonstration was a strategic masterstroke but people who say it makes no difference, aren’t looking in the right place.

It measures the ‘success’ of a demonstration on its immediate policy effect. In other words, they asking ‘Will the demonstration change the minds of the key decision-makers in Parliament and Government, right now?’

What’s striking about this interpretation of protests is how starkly top-down it is. As a framework for analysing and judging a phenomenon whose power literally rests on grassroots collective action, it seems remarkably inadequate. Instead, we must assess protests from the bottom-up, and take our point of reference to not be the MP in Parliament, but the protester on the street.

When protesters are exposed to these environments, they get energised and radicalised

For when we take a bottom-up approach to demonstrations, a multiplicity of beneficial effects appear which were previously hidden. Protests and demonstrations are often formative, electrifying experiences for people who attend. They create a space of radicalism that all too often gets suppressed or marginalised in society, by the very nature of capitalism. At the march, I was surrounded by activists from all over the country, with similar ideals and new ideas.

We chanted “students and workers, unite and fight” and “no borders, no nations, stop deportations”. For newcomers to activism, who may have never been exposed to these kind of ideas before, it may lead to exciting things. But it all depends on the appropriation of public space that a march represents.

In his recent book Student Revolt, Matt Myers documents this excitement in detail. He examines the 2010 student protests, with many interviews positively recalling the energy and intellectual curiosity that surrounded the spontaneous waves of occupations and demonstrations of the period.

When protesters are exposed to these environments, they get energised and radicalised – they go back to their campuses and organise for local, radical change. From the Cut the Rent movement to the Justice For Workers campaign, a whole range of positive student activism has been shaped by the radicalism unleashed post-2010 – even if tuition fees remain ludicrously high. 

There’s also the point that, even from a top-down perspective, demonstrations have evidently worked. Tuition fees remain a toxic issue – they effectively ruined the Liberal Democrats, and any party that dares increase them substantially again risks a similar fate. The post-2010 student movement also helped form the backbone of Corbyn’s two leadership victories and Labour’s success in 2017. The Labour Party’s pledge to scrap tuition fees and backing the creation of a National Education Service has certainly contributed to  the support of 42% of the electorate, according to the latest polls.

So if people tell you ‘You’re wasting your time’, don’t listen to them.

Trailing in the polls and having lost a majority in the face of this, the Tories have recently offered (weak) concessions to students, including raising the loan repayment threshold to £25,000 a year. None of this would have happened without the grassroots activism unleashed post-2010, and the yearly free education demonstrations in the years after that kept the issue on the agenda, reminding people: this issue is not forgotten.

So if people tell you ‘You’re wasting your time when you go to marches or engage in activism’, don’t listen to them. You’ve been to them, and you know they work. You also know politics is not just about those in Parliament, but the communities of everyday people, engaging in a long, hard struggle for equality. And marches, protests, and occupations are a crucial part of that struggle for change.


Featured image: Akanshya Gurung

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