British Parliament approves tuition hike despite widespread student protests

British students march on Parliament as lawmakers debate an austerity plan that would triple tuition fees.
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 8:59 PM

LONDON - British lawmakers pushed through a controversial hike in university tuition fees on Thursday, even as tens of thousands of angry students took to the streets of London and across the nation in protest.

The vote had become the most divisive issue to face the seven-month old coalition of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. The measure passed by a narrower margin than the government had hoped, with half of the lawmakers from the Liberal Democrats - the coalition's junior partners - voting against it or abstaining.

Two Liberal Democrats and one Conservative lawmaker resigned their government posts because of their opposition.

The decision ensures that the cap on subsidized university fees will jump from $4,800 to $14,500 a year, infuriating students who have seized on the hikes to launch a wave of protests against the government's historic move to slash the budget deficit through drastic cuts in public spending.

On Thursday, thousands marched in the shadow of Parliament's Big Ben in demonstrations against the measure, chanting slogans aimed in large part against the Liberal Democrats, who, before joining with the Conservatives, had vowed to fight any tuition hikes.

Clusters of protesters set a bonfire and threw pool balls, firecrackers and paint bombs at mounted police, bringing parts of central London to a standstill. At least three protesters were arrested and 19 were injured; eight officers were being treated for injuries.

A car containing Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, and his wife, Camilla, was attacked on Regent Street in central London. Neither was injured. The Treasury and Supreme Court buildings in Westminster and a retail shop on Oxford Street were vandalized.

Yasmin Fernley, 17, a secondary school student demonstrating in central London, said that she was afraid her family could not afford now to send her to university. She vowed to continue the demonstrations, as did other students.

"This is definitely not the end of it," Fernley said.

Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats who has borne the brunt of student rage for doing an about-face from his preelection opposition, on Thursday called the tuition hike necessary to ensure universities remained funded in tough budgetary times. Analysts said the issue has damaged Clegg politically, further eroding his flagging public support.

"It is not unreasonable to ask those who are lucky enough to go to university to contribute to the costs," Clegg said.

Special correspondent Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi contributed to this report.

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