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Increasing unease

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The students' protest in the UK over the hike in fees is just one instance of a general discontent with the present government's policies…

Boiling over: Students at the Millbank headquarters of the Conservative Party. Photo: AFP
Boiling over: Students at the Millbank headquarters of the Conservative Party. Photo: AFP

By Bill Kirkman

T housands of students staged protests during the past week against the government's plans to bring in a large increase in university tuition fees. There was an outbreak of violence when a small group of students launched an attack on the headquarters of the Conservative Party.

Inevitably, much of the attention of the media was focused on the violence, although that constituted only a small part of the demonstration. As people reflect on the demonstration, and on the protest against the imposition of higher fees, much of the attention centres on the crucial issue of the extent to which the demonstration was an indication of a much more deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the nation's politics.

In my last Cambridge Letter (November 7), I wrote about the growing unhappiness about the increasing disparities of wealth in the United Kingdom, and suggested that they were a sign of social divisions in the country, which ought to be taken seriously. When I wrote it, the student demonstrations had not taken place. When they did, they were, in my view, a graphic indication of political discontent extending far beyond the specific matter of the student fees — and they merited another article.

Strong feelings

Significantly, the National Union of Students (which, incidentally, strongly disapproved of the violence) is launching a strategy designed to bring about the removal from their parliamentary seats of Liberal Democrat members of parliament who support the rise in fees. Their case is based on the fact that Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, and deputy Prime Minister in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, gave a pledge, before the election, to oppose any increase in fees.

Clearly, he broke the pledge by supporting the government's decision. Of course, he suggests that the case for doing so is strong, and a reflection of economic realities which the government faces. No doubt he now wishes that he never made the pledge. The fact is, however, that he did make it, and has now broken it.

Students' unhappiness at that decision obviously reflects the fact that students are those who will be directly affected by the rise in fees, but there are strong indications that they are not alone in feeling disillusioned by government policies.

As more news about plans for cuts in public services emerges day by day, there are increasing signs of public unease. The cuts, after all, will affect many of the things which, since the Second World War, have been at the centre of British society — a national health service, and higher education available to all, regardless of income, being high on the list.

It is obviously easy to over-simplify the situation. It would be foolish, for example, to ignore the fact that the huge increase in the number of university places since the 1950s has put the higher education budget under severe strain.

Valued service

The fact remains that in the UK people generally value what can broadly be described as public service provision. There is, for instance, in the UK nothing like the visceral hostility to the idea of a national health service that is to be found in the United States (a hostility that I, and many others, here find quite extraordinary).

Take the British attitude to public service provision, and set current government policies in the context of high unemployment, and it is easy to understand why the students staged their, very well supported, demonstration. Add the social divisions between the wealthy and the rest, which I discussed in my last Cambridge Letter, and it is not unrealistic to recognise that support for the students may well range far more widely than the student community alone. The fact that many senior members of the government (from both parts of the coalition) are millionaires is likely to encourage such wider support.

The year in which I came to work in the University of Cambridge, 1968, was a year of widespread student protest, largely about the Vietnam War. The protests were particularly strong in France, and were a serious threat to the government of General de Gaulle's. By comparison, the protests in the UK (and Cambridge had its share) were much milder. Nevertheless, they were — and were recognised to be — a significant indication of political feeling that was not limited to students and universities.

In the current political climate in Britain, it will be interesting to see how the pressure on the government, and on individual MPs, develops. We may well find that this is more than a protest over tuition fees.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: bill.kirkman@gmail.com


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