Last week, a national day of action was called by the NUS wherein students and sabbatical officers lobbied their local MPs with the intention of allowing discourse, applying pressure and expressing discontent surrounding the hostile, oppressive and frankly illogical scrapping of maintenance grants for HE students. Outrage is unsurprisingly rife amongst students as the realisation dawns upon us that those in the most financial need, incidentally the same demographic that is the least likely to go on to become highly paid, will now realistically be graduating university with around £50,000 of debt. The aim of this day of action was to express our outright dismay and make sure that the government are aware that they cannot and will not get away with committing such offences to the detriment of higher education without a backlash from students.
Locally, Chris White (Warwick and Leamington Conservative MP) was mandated to discuss with SU representatives whether the aforementioned policy should be opened for debate in parliament. Luke Pilot, Welfare officer for the SU stated that “Despite the mounting costs of Higher Education and the burden of debt being of huge concern to students nationwide, Chris White made it clear that he fundamentally disagreed with the principle of maintenance grants and Free Education. While he did offer to facilitate further correspondence on the issue, it is obviously disappointing that he chooses to act on personal or party-political grounds rather than listening to the views of his constituents – of whom students constitute a significant proportion.”
This simultaneously frustrated but did not surprise members of Warwick for Free Education, who had assembled outside Chris’ office with banners and, much to the dissatisfaction of Leamington police who had been disconcertingly fast in directing their cameras towards protesters on the day, megaphones. After some predictably ridiculous rhetoric about ‘breaching the peace’ by disrupting the office (heaven forbid we make noise on a noise demo) the police reluctantly ventured inside and attempted to mediate for Chris, who decided that one ‘representative’ should be allowed to come in and talk to him. Needless to say, this was a unanimously unappealing concept, and we managed to persuade the MP that he should be coming outside to speak to us, as a non-hierarchical group and as members of a constituency that he is supposed to represent. Ha.
What we were greeted by was a laughably patronising individual who was thoroughly intent upon refusing to engage with any of us, claiming that he had already had a ‘legitimate’ conversation with members of the Student’s Union, and thus our complaints and comments did not need to be heard. After a frankly hilarious and ultimately completely useless conversation about literally nothing other than how prepared the MP was to engage in conversation, he retreated back to his office, seemingly offended, when fairly accused of preventing the poorest of students from accessing university education. After this delightful encounter, Chris’ office was entirely cleared for the day as its inhabitants became progressively more and more tired and frustrated by the noise and disruption we were creating outside.
Police presence was high and unpleasant, and the threat of arrest was mentioned but despite this spirits remained high and the general enthusiasm and energy outside the office was truly brilliant – an inspiring start to a year of fighting for free education within and beyond the confines of our university. The response from locals was overwhelmingly positive – from residents above Chris’s office waving in solidarity and passers-by sounding horns, to Labour councillors voicing their approval of our actions and the area’s residents stopping out of interest and support for free education, congratulating us, wishing us luck in our endeavours and engaging in debate.
A really valuable lesson we all took away from the demo was never to underestimate the enthusiasm and compassion of those in the wider community – our expectations of the day’s outcome were vastly exceeded and it should be kept in mind that our struggle extends far beyond that of students, and solidarity with people outside of formal academic institutions is invaluable and integral to the success of any movement.