The center of London yesterday looked like a scene from a dystopian drama. Under gray skies and swirling snow, rows of police in bright fluorescent jackets blocked access to Westminster Bridge, to Millbank where the Conservative Party has its headquarters, and to the House of Commons. High metal barriers walled off Parliament Square. Armoured vans lined the streets. Small knots of demonstrators shivered in the cold, wondering where to go next. The London rally to mark the third day of national student protests against education cuts had turned into an angry game of cat and mouse after police blocked Whitehall against some 4,000 marchers, who split and scattered to avoid being "kettled." At last week’s much larger protest hundreds of teenagers—some as young as 13 or 14—were penned in by police and held for seven hours in the freezing cold, charged with batons and horses, kept from going home even when their frantic parents came to beg for their release. Nobody—not the students, not the government—wanted a replay of those scenes, grown men in uniform hitting screaming children, police in riot gear roaring at little girls.

Of all the cuts and privatizing measures announced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition since it came to power, the radical restructuring of Britain’s higher education system has hit the deepest nerve. Students, schoolchildren and parents are joined by professors appalled by the effect the cuts will have on scholarship and teaching, especially in the humanities; the three days of action held so far have brought thousands onto the streets. Last week there were occupations at more than thirty universities, including Oxford, Cambridge and London, with students demanding that their administrations refuse to implement the government’s proposals; several are still going on. Here and there, glass has been smashed—the Tory Party headquarters got broken into on the first demonstration, and a fire extinguisher was thrown down off the roof; an empty police van left provocatively in the middle of Whitehall was trashed, despite the efforts of a few brave schoolgirls—but most of the protests have been peaceful, even thoughtful. This is a leaderless uprising, coordinated as such things are by Facebook, text and Twitter, driven by a strong (and very British) sense that the measures are unjust, sustained by a growing cross-generational solidarity.

Kasia, whose bright hand-lettered sign—FIRST DOBBY, NOW THIS—seemed made for a different movie from the bleak one unfolding yesterday in Westminster, is going to Aberystwyth University next year and won’t be affected personally by the plan to raise the cap on tuition fees in 2012, from just over £3,000 to £9,000 a year. "I’m here because it’s wrong," she said. "You shouldn’t have to pay that much for higher education. It’s wrong if only the rich can afford university." John Hughes, a counsellor, was on the march with his two teenage sons: "I’m a dad who’s going to have to pay £18,000 a year. It took me a long time to get my degree; I don’t want the same to happen to my kids." He wasn’t at the previous protest—he watched it at home, on Sky, so that he could text his boys where to go to avoid being kettled.

It’s today’s younger teenagers who will be worst hit by the measures, which is why so many of the protesters are in school uniform. As well as raising fees, the government plans to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance, a £30 weekly grant given to poorer students aged 16-18 to help them stay in school. "The EMA kept me going," Kasia said. "It motivated me to go to all my classes. I felt like there was a reward for me in the end." Liya, 15, from Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Technical College for Girls, wants to be a surgeon when she grows up; she was marching with four of her friends, in knee socks, short grey skirts and red and white striped blouses: "They say they want to get kids off the streets but kids who are doing the right thing and going to college, they’re making them pay. I’d rather sell drugs than pay nine grand a year."

It is, as they say, too early to tell, but these protests have the potential to spark a wider movement against the government’s neoliberal policies. First, tuition fees are the perfect wedge to drive between David Cameron’s Tories and their coalition partners, (former Nation intern) Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. In the election campaign Clegg and the Lib Dems made an ill-considered pledge to phase out tuition fees entirely; they won enthusiastic support from students, who voted for them in droves. Anti-Clegg placards—from the simple "Clegg Lied" to the more petulant "Nick Clegg you’re tacky and I hate you"—are de rigueur at every demo, and the Lib Dems are now engaged in most undignified political contortions, with Clegg begging the students to be nice to him and the party deeply split about which way to vote on the measures. Even Clegg’s number two, Vince Cable, the secretary of state responsible for universities, may now be forced to abstain on the policy he helped frame.

Second, the higher education package—a 40 percent cut overall to the higher education budget, with 80 percent to be cut from university teaching funds, as well as the tuition fee hike and the end of the EMA—lays bare the ideological motives behind the Tories’ deficit reduction plans. The proposals turn higher education into another market—the more students universities "attract," the more money they get—and recast it as a private benefit rather than a public good. And the economic payoff is by no means clear. A report by the university think tank million + argues that the plan will in fact increase government debt: more will have to be borrowed to cover higher student loans (provided by local authorities and repaid, with interest, once a graduate is earning above a certain threshold) than will be saved by cutting university budgets—unless, that is, poorer students stop going to university. (Americans who think that even then British students will have a cushy deal should reflect on the fact that there are no scholarships here funded by billion-dollar endowments, no state universities and no community colleges. And the fact that it costs the same to go to Oxford as it does to study at the University of North London has been an important corrective in an education system still riddled with class inequalities.)

Third, young people in Britain have been becoming more politicized for some years now, in the antiwar movement or in environmental campaigns; here, at last, is an issue that touches them directly, that draws their elders in, that no one can dismiss as flaky or irresponsible. Some are making connections with the bigger picture, suggesting where some of the missing money might be found. The fast-growing tax justice campaign UK Uncut has closed down some thirty Vodaphone shops in the past six weeks, claiming that the company has avoided £6 billion in tax, and is now targeting Sir Philip Green, Cameron’s efficiency adviser and owner of the Arcadia fashion empire; it’s also won the support of War on Want and the Jubilee Debt Campaign, two mainstream antipoverty groups that between them count around 30,000 supporters. At a recent protest outside Green’s Topshop—a mecca for teenage girls—the banner read: YOU MARKETI$E OUR EDUCATION, WE EDUCATE YOUR MARKET$. You can’t put it plainer than that.

Like this blog post? Read all Nation blogs on the Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.
NationNow iPhone App