Thousands of British students protest planned tuition increases
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 5:20 PM
LONDON - Tens of thousands of students took to the streets across Britain on Wednesday, with the largest crowds scuffling with police and setting placards ablaze in central London in an intensifying campaign against budget cuts.
Coming after months of massive strikes in Greece and France, the protests here were among the latest in a wave of demonstrations against austerity measures in Western Europe, where debt-saddled governments are rolling back social services and subsidies. Portugal was also hit by protests Wednesday, as the largest general strike in a decade shut down trains and buses and reduced service at airports.
In Britain, student activists turned out en masse for the second time in two weeks to protest plans to slash subsidies and raise university tuition fees. The demonstrations, in which eight people were reported injured, underscored students' emergence as the most significant public opposition to the Conservative-led government's plan to cut state spending by $131 billion over the next four years - the most ambitious deficit-reduction program in the industrialized world.
Thousands of protesters marched peacefully, including 2,000 who surrounded the city hall in Sheffield and a large crowd in the historic university town of Cambridge.
In London, however, large bands of students demonstrated violently, attacking a police van and attempting to force their way through police barricades. Students vowed that Wednesday's actions were only the beginning of a series of planned protests meant to force the government to reverse its proposals, which would allow universities to charge as much as $14,500 a year for tuition, more than triple the present rate.
The protests drew overwhelmingly young crowds, including thousands of teenagers chanting anti-government slogans. Robert Smith, 16, of East London said he plans to study medicine in college but doesn't think his family will be able to afford it if fees are tripled.
"Our parents aren't rich," he said. "We should all have a right to go to university."
Police officials said two officers were injured in London and three student protesters were arrested.
But Michael Gove, the Conservative education secretary, vowed that the government will hold firm, saying the students have allowed themselves to be "hijacked by extremist groups."
Much of the anger on the streets appeared to be directed at the junior partner in the nation's ruling coalition, the Liberal Democrats, which had initially campaigned against a tuition rise before forming a governing alliance with the Conservative Party after the close May elections.
The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, told the BBC: "I will defend the government's plans for reforming the funding of universities, even though it is not the one I campaigned for. It is not my party's policy, but it is the best policy given the choices we face."
Special correspondent Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi contributed to this report.