This time last year, a deluge of Oxford students converged in London for the national protests against tuition fees. A year on, and the same cries of “no ifs, no buts, no education cuts”, are still being heard, but they’re considerably muted compared to the headline-grabbing news of last year’s violence at Millbank.
In the march on Wednesday, the protesters were practically outnumbered by police officers, in stark contrast to the woefully underprepared services we witnessed last year. The protests barely even caught the eye of national newspapers. Closer to home, applications to Oxford for 2012 have seen only a negligible drop in numbers compared to last year. So are we all resigned to the fact that government policy on fees has been irrevocably set?
Back in February of this year I wrote a highly optimistic piece for this paper after the University held its official Congregation debate on tuition fees. At the time, having heard rousing speeches from our dons promising to fight the changes, I was convinced that, however unlikely we were to make a difference, we should continue to take a stand against changes which would punish a generation for a financial crisis we didn’t cause.
Nine months on, I’ll admit that I was not among the number who took to the streets with my well-worn placard this week. Nevertheless, I still back those who continue to battle for free higher education.
Yes, there was a different tone to Wednesday’s march, with crowds making their way towards the city instead, almost reaching the occupation at St Paul’s. This perhaps reflects the fact that those still protesting are representing a cause that has spread wider than fees now to encompass opposition to all cuts. But the fundamental message of the march was that many students are still unwilling to accept a market in university education — a cause that will gain widespread sympathy from Oxford students, even if we’re all too lazy to hop on a bus to London again. The marchers were applauded by bystanders in Trafalgar Square, proof that many still agree with the fundamental principle.
An article in the Daily Mail this week complained that the protests were the “self-indulgent” work of middle class students studying for “mickey-mouse” degrees. If anything, these protests are far less self-indulgent than last year’s — on Wednesday there were no marchers who had come along for a jolly day out to London, rather, they were prompted by strongly held beliefs. And if there’s one time in our lives when we can afford to put ideology above pragmatism, surely this is it.