The only demolition by NUS was to their cause
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The Browne report released just a few weeks before recommended raising tuition fees to approximately £9,000 per year and removing the cap on what universities are able to charge. The argument against this, according to the NUS, is that poorer students will no longer be able to access higher education. They claim the government is being elitist and that education should always be free. Bringing a consumer market into universities not only helps to solve the funding crisis but also improves the quality of education and relationships between students and education providers. The protesters believe that the state should have the ability to control the type of education we receive and socially condition us into certain sectors of employment. Not only is this ethically wrong but it destroys the basic values of freedom our country stands for. They believe that paid education prices out the poor. Conversely access to higher education has increased as a direct result of the introduction of tuition fees by bringing a financial market into the system. We have turned students into consumers and thus given them the rights of consumers to expect certain standards of quality, to purchase what is described, and to take their money elsewhere if they choose. The standard of their education increases because their financial investment encourages their greater participation in the direction of their studies.
The protesters also believe that paid education would be subject to the influence of business. This is the one point I may agree with them on, but I see no detriment to this. In order to afford education many students will need scholarships or sponsors; for those with the right skills and the greatest potential a company such as BP or PricewaterhouseCoopers might fund a number of students to take up a degree in Petroleum Geology or Accountancy, respectively, on the provision that the student undertakes a minimum contract of employment with their firm upon graduation. This is of benefit to the individual, to the company and to society. With this charitable and/or corporate sponsorship we also increase access to universities for the brightest students regardless of their socio-economic background.
During the London protest, a group of around 2,000 students including many named members of the NUS NEC stormed the Millbank centre, the Conservative party's headquarters. They smashed windows and broke into the building, started fires and destroyed furnishings; they drew graffiti, assaulted and hospitalised seven police officers and occupied the roof. The actions of these students were despicable and destroyed the message they were trying to convey. The debate about funding higher education is one which we need to have the budget from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills allocated to universities is currently £16.8bn and could easily be privatised. Yet what the protesters have done is show that socialism has an ugly face.
The President of NUS, Aaron Porter, denies that there has been any student involvement in this "breakaway" group of "anarchists". This simply isn't true as has been proven by a letter of solidarity from NUS members involved, published by the Coalition of Resistance. Mr Porter was irresponsible not to warn the police of accurate numbers in attendance at his protest and naive to think that marching past Conservative Campaign HQ would not result in some dissident activity.
Having drawn the route himself, he diverged from the usual protest marches in London which meet in Trafalgar Square to the significantly quieter rallying point of the Tate Britain. Strategically this was bizarre, organisationally it was inept.
The protesters have displayed an inability to communicate their ideas without violence, destroyed private property and evidenced the coercive nature of socialist ideology. It is through their actions that we have won the debate before it even started. Whilst I should be pleased, I am instinctively disappointed. Good public policy requires effective and informed public debate, without which it is merely the will of tyrants. We need to talk about higher education, but we need to do it peacefully.
Those involved with the Millbank riot do not deserve the privilege of a free university education and have instantly destroyed their employment prospects. What I am most ashamed of is that I was able to spot students from my university in the front line of these riots. We as students should condemn the violence and those individuals involved, and see that all necessary actions are taken to ensure justice and the rule of law is upheld. NUS should recall their President and sack him, along with the rest of their National Executive Committee. A complete renewal of the organisation is required for discussion to continue on the topic of funding universities. Then we must redefine the terms of the debate.
It's not a day we will forget, but for all the wrong reasons. It was the day the student movement began to self-destruct.
An extended version of this article appeared in the University of Aberdeen Conservative and Unionist Association newsletter, Blue Granite.