Students at the heart of the system? They don’t think so.

Last Wednesday, several thousand students marched through London in protest against tuition fee rises and what many of them see as the “privatisation” of UK universities. By now, we’re used to seeing students out on the streets. Indeed, we’ve blogged about protests before, and we’ve commented a lot on the rising ill feeling towards tuition fee rises. But the latest march had a different – and some would say tenser – character.

There were no repeats of last year’s scenes, when a small group of protesters smashed their way into Conservative Party Headquarters. But that may have been because according to some estimates there were more police on the streets this year than demonstrators. The Met had allocated 4,000 officers to control the demonstration – a massive operation. What’s more, those officers were authorised to use plastic bullets in extreme circumstances – a fact that came to light before the march took place. Police had also sent letters to last year’s protesters, which made clear what the consequences would be if they didn’t stick to the protest’s strict rules.

Estimates of student numbers vary drastically – from the police’s own 2,000 figure to the 15,000 suggested by the demonstration’s organisers. In the end, the real figure doesn’t matter much. More important is the fact that the police may actually have outnumbered students. This shows how nervous the Met and the Home Office are about the wave of demonstrations and riots they’ve had to deal with in the past twelve months.

At South Street, our job isn’t to question or analyse police tactics. But as a business that works directly with universities, we need to keep up with the collective student mood. And right now, that mood isn’t great. A big part of the problem is the gap between the government’s perceptions of tuition fee rises and what students on the ground think of them. For example, the government has titled its fees white paper “Students at the Heart of the System”. And yet the protests seem to suggest that students feel more disenfranchised than ever.

And while it might be easy to think that student protesters are only concerned about their future personal debt, the reality is far more complex. As Birmingham student Claire Lister told the Guardian: “The cuts within universities will affect women to the greatest degree. Humanities courses – which in general have a larger percentage of female students – are being targeted first for spending cuts.” Lister’s concerns are already becoming a reality at some institutions. London Metropolitan, for example, has apparently cut up to 70% of its undergraduate courses, with the arts and humanities most severely affected.

The reality is that there is no simple answer to tuition fees. The government needs to save money, and universities need revenue to keep operating. But perhaps the experiences and motivations of students are more complex than we’ve given them credit for too. Last week’s actions – from police and protesters alike – make it clear that this standoff isn’t going anywhere in a hurry, and will take some serious diplomacy to resolve.

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