On Saturday the 19th of November, I joined students and lecturers to march as part of ‘GoldBloc’ at the National Demonstration for Education, a protest organized by both the National Union of Students and The University and the Colleges Union. The demonstration was held largely in response to the proposal of the Higher Education and Research Bill, a controversial piece of legislation devised by the Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson who is turning out to be as despised by students as his brother, Boris. Most prominently, the Higher Education and Research Bill, commonly referred to as the HE Bill, proposes the creation of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) which allows universities to establish the quality of their institutions and raise their fees accordingly.
Goldsmiths have already voted to raise tuition fees to £9,250 per year for students starting in 2017 if the bill is fully approved. The threat of even higher tuition fees for upcoming students and the government’s increasing attempts to marketize and privatize the education system sparked the higher than usual turnout at the march, which was the biggest student demonstration since 2010 when the government tripled fees to £9,000.
We gathered at Park Lane where we were joined by some lecturers at Goldsmiths and waited patiently, singing lefty-themed Christmas Carols and enjoying the lovely free vegan food provided by a Hare Krishna man. Students from Leeds and Manchester gathered around us and it was clear from placards and banners that the simple act of removing tuition fees was not the only issue on the agenda. Strong opposition to ‘Prevent’, a flawed and controversial anti-terrorism strategy, was also clear, with protesters holding signs that read, ‘Stop the Anti-Muslim Prevent’. Many other marchers held signs that read ‘Say NO to Trump’ and ‘Save Education, Tories Out’. We set off, following the carefully devised route which often pushed the estimated 15,000 strong crowd into narrow roads and dispersing large groups, a potentially purposeful decision.
Whilst we marched, I began to notice the abundance of people on the street filming and taking pictures of the protest, often with a look of light amusement on their faces as if they were photographing some sort of elaborate and vocal parade. I eventually realized that this may have been a familiar scene for the general public. Political disunity has dominated the past two years, with students, in particular, becoming one of the most vocal groups on issues and marches with thousands of people taking to the streets of London have almost become part of the mise en scène of the city.
We continued to march until we reached the end of the route and were pushed into a long, narrow street alongside the Thames, coincidentally the same street that the Conservative Party Headquarters are located. The speakers were next led by Malia Bouattia, president of the NUS. Other speakers included Sally Hunt, General Secretary, UCU, Rob Goodfellow, President of UCU and a short pre-recorded message from Jeremy Corbyn.
The current political climate hung over the rally like a black cloud with the likes of Trump and Brexit featuring in many of the speeches and often making an appearance on witty placards. Owen Jones, journalist, and activist, who brought his usual boisterous energy to the rally as he shouted, ‘We have a clear message for the racists and the fascists…We have defeated you before and we are going to defeat you all over again’, received with rapturous applause. It was clear that the march was just as about young people’s dissatisfaction with 2016’s political offerings as it was about the demand for free education.
The march ended and 15,000 students dispersed throughout London, a few of which attended the official NUS afterparty held at the Goldsmiths Student Union, featuring an appearance from Lambeth-born rapper Big Narstie. Overall, the march felt like a familiar setting. 2016 has brought anti-Brexit, anti-Trump, anti-fascist marches all over the country, with angry people, many of them students, taking to the streets to stand against these decisions. But with the government pushing austerity, the opposition in disunity and the leader of the ‘free world’ an inexplicably bigoted mess, the Higher Education Bill seems almost a drop in the ocean of political turmoil that seems to be enveloping us.