I took a twelve-hour trip by ferry and bus from Belfast to London. Why did I do this? I don’t like demonstrations, I consider myself a realist and I don’t believe a demonstration can influence or alter anything. No, I even think they’re a bit useless. There are far more useful measures. I went because I wanted to see and hear for myself what other students think of the situation, how things look in other institutions. I also wanted to see what ideas people have come up with to actually do something more substantial than a demonstration.
Let me tell you from the start, I was disappointed by what I found.
Admittedly, the atmosphere was vibrant, it felt almost like a festival. Busloads of students from every corner of the country were there. I found myself absorbed by the spirit of it all, well, for at least 20 minutes. I was sceptical. The young people there all looked very young which might not be an issue because the future students are the ones affected by the raise in fees. What struck me was that they seemed to see this as a big party. I talked to some people and couldn’t help but marvel at the statements I heard. Nobody seemed to know what the funding cuts really meant besides ‘I have to pay more money’ (which is rather vague if not untrue for current students). Few seemed to have actually read the Browne report. Unfortunately I missed the opportunity to take a picture of a young lad, barely the legal drinking age, holding a sign that said “I still hate Thatcher”. I pictured him as a toddler, roaming the streets in a pram with a raised fist, cursing the Tories while trying to smash windows with his dummy!
I also noticed a large group of people waving red flags, Communist flags and the well-known banners of the far-left. Their hoodies and covered faces would play an important role in the afternoon riots.
The march itself was rather unspectacular, at least during the period of my participation. Chants of ‘No ‘if’s, no ‘but’s education cuts’, ‘Tory scum’ and so on accompanied the march. I did not sense any of the anger and rage that led to the events reported in the news, but that might have been due to the fact that the QUB people walked among the Scottish delegations and they had a bagpipe player with them and were jollily chanting along to ‘Scotland the Brave’ and ‘Flower of Scotland’.
My enthusiasm quickly declined so I decided to use the beautiful day for something I thought more appropriate. I left, after about one and a half hours, met with a friend, took a stroll through the V&A, said ‘Hello’ to the manuscripts in the British Library and finally went to an exhibition at the British Museum. I had a lovely day. I also missed all the rioting and violence that happened later and that (in my opinion) should have been expected. I felt that my attitude towards demonstrations was vindicated, however, and was happy to have spent the rest of my day in company of Egyptian artefacts, ancient sculptures and medieval manuscripts.
So, what have I taken back from this day?
There seems to be a hazy and vague fear about the future of tuition fees but nobody really knows what’s going to happen. Things are changing and changes are often difficult to adapt to. I am sure there are a number of students honestly concerned about not just the funding cuts but also the declining image of UK Higher Education and in particular of the Arts and Humanities as a valuable and necessary contribution to society and the economy. I share these views. I also believe that politicians, students and universities will come up with more useful ideas in the next two years.
Apart from that I felt that the most I had helped Arts and Humanities that day was by becoming a member of the Friends of the British Museum.*
*Oh, and FYI, Beowulf and Gawain and the Green Knight are no longer on display in the public galleries of the British Library! There are now a Canterbury Tales manuscript, Harley MS 1758, and Piers Plowman, Harley 2376 on display.