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What can student protests achieve?

Ben Sutherland Ben Sutherland | 09:24 UK time, Friday, 26 November 2010

Students in the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Students across Europe have been occupying their campuses, libraries - and, in one case, the Leaning Tower of Pisa - in a series of protests. But what are they complaining about - and are they right to do it?

In the UK, the students are marching through cities and sitting in their libraries over plans to raise the tuition fees from their current level of £3,000 to an "upper limit" of £9,000.

In Italy, economics is again at the root of the problem. There, students and academics are outraged over cuts of around 9bn euros (£8bn, $12bn) and the proposed loss of 130,000 jobs in the education system.

"We'll besiege every palace and we will not give the government a break until it resigns," said one of the leaders of the protests yesterday. "Their reform will not pass."

But why shouldn't they? These countries (students were at the heart of recent protests in France too - there focused on the raising of the pension age) are not dictatorships; the cuts are the actions of a democratically-elected governments.

Clearly, the worldwide recession means savings are having to be made. There are cuts being made everywhere.

Students may be at the front line of that - their comparative lack of political clout means they often are - but is there something special about higher education that means they deserve to be protected?

Writing in The Guardian, the leader of the opposition Labour Party in the UK, Ed Miliband, says yes, because - given the importance of achieving a degree - any rise in fees would push people from poorer backgrounds out of university, ultimately leading to a more unequal society:

We must seek to avoid a market in higher education, where some universities charge more than others. This is an important matter of principle. The supremacy of the market has extended too far into areas that should not be defined by commodity and exchange.

But student blogger The Appalling Strangeness argues students need to make the case for public money at a time like this, and that they have only harmed their case by protesting:

"If you want the money supplied by the government, then you need to convince the person who ultimately parts with the case - the British taxpayer - that you deserve the money. And a lacklustre protest that occasionally flared into vandalism and violence is not the best way to do that."

Indeed, in the case of the UK, fees are - as the economics blogger Paul Goldberg points out - comparatively low; raising them will simply be bringing them to parity with the rest of the industrialised world.

Students who come to study in the UK will know that already, of course - their fees are already much higher.

The argument of the UK government is that students will eventually go on to earn more money - in some cases, much more money - than people who do not. And in the event that they don't, they won't have to pay the fees back anyway.

As The Daily Mash satirically puts it, "Britain backs middle class children who want the moon on a stick".

In central London, more than 50,000 lazy, pretentious, self-absorbed protesters said it was vital for Britain's future that the cost of their education should not be allowed to eat into their handsome, white collar salaries.

I was in the very first wave of students who had to pay fees; when I worked on the university newspaper, we regularly ran stories about the protests (at that point aimed at getting the fees recinded). Clearly, they didn't work.

So why protest at all?

Well, back in 1960 in South Korea, for example, student protests forced the country's President Syngman Ree to resign. In 1987 they forced fresh elections.

Meanwhile in 2003, it was the students at Tehran University whose protests triggered a high-impact - if rather short-lived - campaign for political reform.

And in Europe in the late 1960s, student protests led to an explosion in political activism, triggering a number of movements including environmentalism. Perhaps this is 1968 all over again?

Adam Ramsay of the Liberal Conspiracy blog says that it is essential that the students of 2010 continue their protest because their success is essential:

To the students who spent a cold hungry day at Whitehall yesterday; to those bedding down on hard floors of occupied university buildings tonight - I say this: you are not trying to win a personal popularity contest. You are helping thousands to see that their future, or their childrens' futures, are being stolen.

What do you think? Is student education special? What is a fair price - if any - for people to pay for higher education? What can the protests and those carrying them out hope to achieve?

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