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The British students, parents and others who marched in opposition to the substantial increase in college tuition went from “Hell No, We Won’t Go” to “Off with their heads”  in a matter of a few days.

The demonstration began as a march then evolved into a rally. The police tried to contain the protesters, which unleashed the crowds’ anger. The demonstrators had a right to be angry. These were the ones whose futures may be in the balance now that they are to fund their own further education. This protest was nothing but democratic and genuine.

Andrew Sparrow (from inside the Parliament Building) recorded a running commentary on the events in Parliament for the Guardian of London. Below are excerpts from his account.

8.41am: For the Liberal Democrats, the day of agony has finally arrived. MPs are voting on the government’s plans to allow universities to raise tuition fees to up to £9,000, a huge public spending reform that will in effect privatise arts and humanities teaching at university (because they will lose all government subsidy) and affect anyone planning to go to university in the future.

Meanwhile, Nick Glegg, who is the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister, was interviewed on the topic. The man with the most to lose was struggling to “put lipstick on the pig.”

My message to the students who are protesting is to ask them, one final time, to look at what we’re actually proposing rather than what they are alleging we are proposing. Actually under our system they will all, all the demonstrators, will pay out less per month than they do at the moment. All the part-time students who are demonstrators wouldn’t pay any upfront fees whatsoever. Many of them would never pay the full value of their loan whatsoever. (Press Association)

The government’s message appeared too convoluted to be credible. If one is to understand what Clegg meant, one would have to look deeply into the proposal at the projections for repayment. The government’s implausible assumption is the following: The graduates higher salary would off-set the higher incurred loan. Glegg was talking about the people unable to earn higher salaries; they could never repay their loan. Nobody supported Clegg’s idea, except those inside Parliament, to whom he quickly turned.

9:47 AM In one email to the department’s officials, [Aaron Porter, the NUS president] suggested a compromise, allowing that £800m could be “deducted from the grants pot” over four years. That would cut total spending on grants by 61%. Mr Porter also proposed the “introduction of a real rate of interest” for student loans.”

We spoke to Mr. Porter last week and he was quite concerned about the demonstrations getting out of control and the “hooligans” who show up everywhere there is a protest. There were to be thousands of high school students, most of them accompanied by their parents and he was concerned that the hooligans “who love fire and gunpowder” don’t create casualties.  It would be tragic and the end of our credibility. I think this will be a close vote and if so, then we can re-group after the Holidays and do more targeted protests, while offering to negotiate.

10:45 PM Jessica Shepherd, the Guardian’s education correspondent, interviewed those who had studied the government proposals.

The Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) thinktank has pointed out that students who drop out of university have been “airbrushed” out of the argument. In a report, published last month on the government’s proposals, the thinktank states that ministers refer to “graduates”, but do they mean “former students” too? The reality is that there will be large numbers of former students without any higher education qualifications with large loans,” Hepi says. “The number of people in this position is likely to increase, firstly because loans will in future be provided to part-time students, where non-completion rates are much higher, and, secondly, because the financial incentives for institutions to ensure that students complete their year of study will be reduced. Under the current arrangements, students who do not complete their year of study are not included when calculating a university’s grant. With fees, universities will retain a part or the whole of the fee that replaces the grant. The penalty that a university suffers if a student drops out will be reduced, if not removed.

Academics are all but absent from the London-based demonstrations. Very few faculty and none of the university administrators interviewed in the press joined the students. The Vice Rector of Oxford Andrew Hamilton expressed regret that the students were being made to carry the brunt of the cost of higher education, when higher education benefits the whole of society, and universities’ grants are being cut by draconian amounts.  Every other vice-rector, rector, principal or president who spoke simply expressed similar regrets. The institutions themselves see ways to benefit from this, as the government withdraws support from areas universities have been accused of wanting to cut-away themselves.

Michael Gove a Conservative MP and former journalist who became the Secretary of State for Education in May of this year, wrote as a journalist in 2003 in favor of the argument that the “private good” is enough to motivate people to pay for their own education.

The first point that needs to be made about the so-called deterrent effect of a £21,000 loan is that anyone put off from attending a good university by fear of that debt, doesn’t deserve to be at any university in the first place. Incurring such a relatively small debt to pay for the huge economic benefit conferred by proper higher education is a fantastic deal. Over a lifetime, the direct financial benefit in higher earnings is around £400,000. Those who attend our best universities can expect to earn even more. Borrowing £21,000, at preferential rates, to secure twenty times that sum, is an offer you’d have to be a fool to turn down. And if you’re such a fool that you don’t want to accept that deal, then you’re too big a fool to benefit from the university education I’m currently subsidising for you. I accept that some graduates will take up jobs, which do not command handsome salaries. Individuals may pursue admirable work for which there is no great monetary reward, in the Church, the arts or public service. In these cases there is a strong case for the taxpayer bearing the cost of their degree. But why should the vast majority, who go on to benefit financially from their degree, be subsidised by me.

Now Secretary Gove was lobbying his colleagues in Parliament to vote for the bill and he was succeeding. He kept on repeating the talking points from Primer Minister Cameron’s speech the day before which went in part something like this:

Today I want to talk about the future of universities in this country. We’ve seen the protests. We’ve seen the marches. We’ve seen how passionate many of our students are about this issue. Well let me tell you this. I am just as passionate. Just as passionate that young people should have the chance to go to university, whatever their background or family income. Just as passionate that they should be able to leave university without an unfair burden of debt. Just as passionate that our universities should be among the best in the world. The debate going on today is about the best way of achieving these things. But if I’m honest, the passion in this debate is drowning out some of the truth.

It is difficult for an American like me to detect when a Britton is scared. However, from the tapes I have reviewed, the Labour and Liberal Members of Parliament appear honestly scared of their respective constituency’s passion described by Cameron. Eighty six percent of those polled are against the proposal. The Labour and Liberals opposition to the bill is being undermined as amendments are rejected and the bill remains unaltered. Andrew Sparrow writes in his blog:

2.25pm: The debate will be starting very soon. Business questions is just wrapping up. But the Labour MP Chris Byrant made a good point about tuition fees just now. He said that if any Lib Dem MPs “abstain” by voting both for and against the rise, they should be given a chance to explain themselves in the Commons tomorrow. MPs are allowed to vote both ways in a division, and sometimes they do this if they want to make it obvious that they are abstaining.

It won’t be until 6:00 PM that a vote is taken, 323 for the government, 302 against. The vote is twittered and immediately word began to spread through the crowd outside Parliament. The climate began to change. Parliament Square was cordoned off at all exits. Police struggled with the crowds. Students used metal fencing to charge at the officers. Officers were seen using batons to hold them back. Mounted police advanced into the crowds.  Inside the square, fires were created from piles of placards, burning to the accompaniment of loud rap music played to the crowd. Fireworks shot into the sky to the sound of loud cheers. ‘Tory Scum’ seemed to be the favorite slogan. A lone protester wore a hood with the slogan: ‘Off with their heads’.

Suddenly Prince Charles’ Rolls Royce came down the street, straight into the demonstration. At first the Prince and Camilla, began to wave at the demonstrators through an open window in the car. But as the crowds discovered their presence they began to toss stones and paint balls into the car. The police recovered control and ushered the Rolls out of the way.

A twenty something, holding a spray paint can in one hand and a sign in the other commented. “I bet he never had to pay for all the education we gave him!”

Personal Note: I am taking three weeks off to celebrate Christmas with my family.  I hope you have a similar opportunity. If this year was hard for universities next year offers to be harder still, so you better take this opportunity to relax and prepare. Since we began to write this blog in May, over 167,000 people have come to read it. I thank y’all for your support. Have a Happy New Year!

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