SSMU Skypes with British university activists

Students discuss taking action against rising tuition in the U.K.

On February 18, students gathered in SSMU’s Lev Bukhman room for a Skype video conference with students from the London School of Economics (LSE) to discuss tuition hikes, protest tactics and student successes. Evident at the conference were similarities regarding the difficulties that students face when confronting university administration about fee increases.

Thousands of U.K. students have been protesting across Britain since the Conservative-led government announced plans to implement austerity measures late last year. These measures will raise the cap on tuition for U.K. universities to rise to £9,000. This is a three-fold increase on the current cap of £3,290 for students starting university full-time from October 2012.

Hero Austin, community and welfare sabbatical officer for the LSE Student Union, and Ryan Hickey, a Master’s student in Political Theory, discussed the efforts of the LSE students and faculty against tuition hikes.

They spoke of events that targeted the wider LSE student body, rather than only those involved in student activism. Events such as balloon drops and flashmob dances were used earlier in the year and were said to be particularly successful.

Austin explained that these activities engaged students who would not have been interested in participating in more radical activities, such as strikes and protests.

Speaking two weeks after the conference, organizer SSMU VP External Myriam Zaidi, admitted that turn-out “wasn’t great” due to poor promotion and the upcoming reading week. She stated that this “made it less of a conference and more of a workshop” but maintained, “it was really needed.”

Students in Quebec have also been protesting proposed tuition hikes this year. Since 2007, the provincial government has increase tuition $100 per student per year, and students expect this number to increase even more when the five-year policy expires in 2012.

Both the provincial Finance Minister Raymond Bachand and Education Minister Line Beauchamp have called for a fee increase of approximately $500 per year for three years beginning in 2012, according to La Presse.

Although this is a far lower percentage increase than the one being forced upon students in the U.K., the atmosphere at the conference was that tuition hikes set a precedent that students must not accept.

“People say, ‘Well, this is okay, it’s just a little jump, whatever,’ but as soon as you surrender, there’s no limit to where they’ll go,” said Zaidi. “If you give up the right to education, if you can put a price on an education – whether it’s $100 or $10, 000 – you’ve lost a big fight.

“You’re accepting the rhetoric that…education is not a right, it’s an investment. … You’re removing the idea of education as being a social benefit and a societal institution. That’s what [universities] are supposed to be,” she added.

The proposed increase will also affect out-of-province students, whose tuition is comprised of the Quebec rate in addition to the out-of-province supplement.

“They [LSE students] realized that the bureaucratic way is not the way to get things done, and that now they had to do more direct action, as in going through civil society organization and grassroots organization,” said Zaidi. “And that was interesting because that’s what students have been trying here this year, and the government and the administration is not backing off.  So when you try everything, the only thing you have left is your sign and your voice to go outside and protest.”

Student groups at McGill protesting against the tuition hikes are using similar tactics to those employed at LSE.

U1 Arts student Robin Reid-Fraser attended the conference and is organizing the upcoming SSMU Mobilization Committee (Mob Squad) event “FlashMOB – Dancing Against Tuition Increases,” was inspired by the  discussed at the conference.

“Since the beginning of the year a number of us have been working on the issue of the coming tuition increases, and we’ve all been paying close attention to other student protests around the world,” Reid-Fraser said, “We had already talked about doing an action that would be quite visible in order to increase awareness on campus… After the video conference with the LSE students, we felt even more inspired and empowered, and the plan for the flashmob really started to come together.”

The flashmob is set to take place this afternoon in the Y intersection at 1p.m.