For the NUS Demo, the Wessex Scene was given an NUS Press Pass to all the media events going on during the day, as well as being able to interview activists when they were on the ground and, of course, get involved a bit in all the chanting.
Aaron Porter, NUS President, spoke of the cuts at the Media Conference in the morning as being unprecedented, including the 80% cut in teaching funds and the abolishment of Humanities and Arts funding altogether; he claimed this would see a movement away from certain courses based on job prospects, saying “students should not have to choose a University education based on the graduate gains at the end”.
Alan Whitaker, University and College’s Union President, said these measures would culminate in the UK “having the most expensive public Universities in the world. Forget America, the Harvard’s, Brown’s and Yale’s are all privately owned – what the UK Government is proposing is wrong”.
The protest began officially at 11:30, with Southampton being one of the first Universities to arrive. The march went to the Ministry of Defence, where Aaron Porter gave another speech. The movement then continued to Westminster, to time in with Prime Minister’s Questions finishing.
Speaking to Andrew Neil, host of The Daily Politics Show and This Week, he said “the U-turn is too big to come back from … I think we will see a lot of Liberal Democrats voting against the Governments decision, but [students]might lose this one. It will be a big problem for the coalition though.” When asked about what effect this would have on the Voting Reform Referendum, he said “it won’t happen, we won’t be seeing the Alternative Vote system”.
We also had the opportunity to talk to former Government Minister for Immigration, Shahid Malik, who supported the protest, having protested himself in 1998. He spoke of how he was arrested, and acquitted, during the protest on Grants not Loans, and that this demonstration was much more civil. Millbank-gate hadn’t happened yet. He went on to talk about how the Labour party opposed the plans, despite voting for an increase in fees in 2003, citing that the circumstances then were completely different. “These plans are a plug for the cuts the Government want to introduce to Education as a whole; students are being left to carry the load”.
There were also large numbers of Sixth Form students, who would be the generation that suffered as a result of the cuts and fee rises; one girl, who wishes to study English spoke of not wanting to go to University if her course was to be so detrimentally changed, and another spoke of her plans to shop for the cheapest degree, as opposed to what was the best University.
Amongst the SUSU contingent, who were vocal and out in force, I also managed to grab a word with SUPA President Matt Evans, Liberal Democrat Party Liason, Jonathan Bates and James, a Winchester School of Art student.
What the protest did best to show was that there are students who know about the cuts, the politics and the lobbying involved, as many Student’s Unions arranged for their local MP to meet them outside Westminster on Parliament Square at the end of the day, such as Cheltenham who have a Liberal Democrat MP in Martin Horwood. He spoke more defensively of the party, saying that although he strongly wanted to vote “No”, the cuts to Education are already in place, and if voting “No” means the budgets for the STEM subjects need to be cut as well, it is a decision that will require a lot of thought.
What is more, many students came from all over the country, including a couple of coaches from Edinburgh University, who are not going to directly be affected by the cuts. One member of the University spoke of “doing my bit; I can’t stand by and watch something I disagree go by, especially when I have brothers and sisters to think about”. There were also some very lively people from Liverpool.
Rob Stanning, VP Academic Affairs at Southampton and organiser of SUSU’s trip, said “this isn’t the end, this is just the beginning. Students need to write to their MP and do all they can to stop this going through”. Rob will be collecting signatures from students living in the Romsey and Southampton North constituency (best described as north of Burgess Road) to petition their Conservative MP, Caroline Nokes, who intends to back the Government plans.