Lifting 'a veil of political apathy'

British students in Birmingham protest proposed tuition increases Wednesday, a day before a parliamentary vote on the issue, which has led to a level of student activism not seen in Europe in decades.
British students in Birmingham protest proposed tuition increases Wednesday, a day before a parliamentary vote on the issue, which has led to a level of student activism not seen in Europe in decades. (Darren Staples)
  Enlarge Photo    
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2010

IN LONDON The first sign that something is awry inside the venerable halls of London College University is a fresh red scrawl on the side of the regal entrance that simply reads, "Join the fight."

Inside, Ellen Evans, a 20-year-old English major, was doing just that, standing among sleeping bags and clothes strewn on the floor of an "occupied" auditorium. Along with tens of thousands of other British students who have undergone a political awakening in recent months, she has cast aside a life of carefree pub crawls to join what many here are calling the most widespread university demonstrations here since the Vietnam War.

But rather than bombs in foreign lands, the protests and occupations rocking campuses in Britain and in other European nations - including Greece, Italy and Ireland - are targeting fiscal austerity.

European nations struggling to cut massive deficits and restore investor confidence are slashing their budgets, with the plan put forth by Britain's new Conservative-led government among the most painful.

In this new "age of austerity," government officials say, Britons must pay a more realistic price for their educations. Today, publicly subsidized undergraduate tuition is capped at $4,800, even for top-flight universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. After a landmark vote in Parliament on Thursday, that cap is set to rise to $14,500 by 2012, higher than the current average of $7,605 at U.S. state universities although far less than the U.S. private college average of $27,293.

Yet in Britain, what started as a narrow protest against tuition increases is morphing into what some observers are calling a social phenomenon. It has seemingly roused a generation raised on the celebrity culture of soccer-wife reality shows and bubblegum music to a level of student activism that almost no one here thought possible a few months ago. Few are more surprised than the government itself.

Evans, for instance, is among a group of increasingly radicalized students who are expanding their protests beyond campus, using social networking sites such as Twitter to organize "flash mobs," or surprise demonstrations, inside big retailers as well as larger demonstrations that have on three occasions brought parts of central London to a halt. Tens of thousands of students are set to take to the streets Thursday, when Parliament is expected to pass the tuition increases.

"It's almost as if these measures have lifted a veil of political apathy from my generation," said Evans, an elegant young Englishwoman from the well-to-do region of Gloucestershire. "It's ignited something within us. We're being asked to pay for a financial crisis we did not create, and I think students across Britain are waking up, realizing that it's time to get political. It's time to stand up."

Opposition to budget cuts, particularly those aimed at universities, is reinvigorating student moments across Europe. In Italy, austerity measures have reignited an era of large-scale demonstrations, with students last month occupying the Colosseum and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, draping them with signs reading, "No to reforms."

But no other country in the region has witnessed the kind of radical shift on campuses seen in Britain, which has generally not shared the deep-seated culture of street protests so common on the other side of the English Channel.

Many trace the decline of public demonstrations to the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher broke up the once-powerful unions here. Of course, British students have, through the years, shown their wrath. In 1988, the move to curb the generous public grants that helped students cover living expenses sparked a wave of campus protests. But nothing like the current outpouring has occurred, scholars say, since the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"And even then, British students seemed rather nice," said Gerard DeGroot, author of "Student Protest: The Sixties and After." "They were quite affluent, living in a country with full employment, and were part of a class system that kept protests at bay. British youth culture gave the world the miniskirt, pop art and the Beatles, but British universities were never the hotbeds of protest you saw elsewhere."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company