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By Winston Featherly-Bean
A movement stated by a dozen friends has grown into a mass protest that forced Vince Cable to cancel a visit to Oxford.
Students were planning “the biggest mass protest in Oxford in over a decade” when Business Secretary Vince Cable was due to visit Exam Schools today, in demonstration against proposed rises in tuition fees.
But Cable cancelled his visit after being told of the planned protests, a spokesperson for the Business Department confirmed.
Over 200 students had packed out the Moser Theatre in Wadham on Monday to organise action against the rise in tuition fees proposed by the Browne Review.
The meeting, the second run by the Oxford Education Campaign, voted unanimously to hold a protest when Cable, the Business Secretary, speaks at Exam Schools on Thursday afternoon. A Facebook group advertising the event already has over 1,200 members.
Jason Keen, communications officer for the campaign, said the group started with a dozen friends, and grew organically. “200 people turned up to our first meeting,” he said.
He reckoned about 250 people attended Monday’s meeting, including tutors and college staff.
Keen said the students had come together because “OUSU [officers] have been found hopelessly wanting on this issue. It’s come down to spontaneous student action.”
OUSU council decided last night to both condemn Cable’s cancellation of his visit and to oppose the Brown Review’s recommendations.
While last week’s meeting at Wadham focused on analysis of the Browne Review, this week’s was dominated by the discussion of possible methods of protest.
Suggestions for protest included letter writing and lobbying local MPs, but mainly involved direct action. Ideas ranged from blockading University offices to “finding some sort of finance building and having a protest outside it”.
The Campaign has set up working groups to look at different possibilities.
Other less drastic suggestions included wearing black armbands to symbolise the death of education, while one student proposed that, since attendance was usually so sparse, they should stage “an arts lecture walk-in.”
A tutor at the meeting was pleased to see students taking action. “I’m glad to see so many students caring about the future of higher education, making sure it remains accessible to all,” he said. “I doubt I would be an academic if the system the government is proposing had been in place when I was a student.”
Sophie Lewis, a St Hilda’s student who went to the meeting, said the action was inspiring. “A diversity of views were represented and empowered to act collectively,” she said. “Let’s not waste our time letter-writing; real, collaborative interventions by students, sixth-formers and academic staff, will put a spanner in the works of Cameron’s plan.”
But some students sympathised with the difficult decisions the University had to make. One student said in open discussion that, regardless of whether a fee rise was morally just, “the University has a funding deficit to fill”.
The University currently spends £16,000 per year educating each undergraduate. Of this total, almost half comes from government funding and tuition fees, with the remaining £8,000 being drawn from colleges’ own sources, such as endowments and benefactions.
To solve this shortfall, the Browne Review has suggested a complete removal of the tuition fee cap, as well as slashing 80 percent from the government’s teaching grant to universities. It is unlikely that this will be introduced in its entirety by the government: Vince Cable, along with other government figures, has called for a cap at just £7,000.
Browne’s proposals have been heavily criticised by student groups, including the NUS, which has organised a demonstration on 10th November in London. OUSU President David Barclay described the review as “a dark day for meritocracy in the United Kingdom.”
Students at the meeting also voiced concerns over the impact that cuts to university funding could have on research. Several students expressed fears that it could become a purely commercial venture, sponsored by big business.
Teddy Hall student Reuben Walsh said: “The government has failed to realise the value of research and its dependence on free exploration of ideas by the brightest minds, and not the richest.”
The proposals still have to be voted on, and campaigners plan to lobby individual MPs, many of whom pledged before the election to vote against any fee rise. Keen believes students can make a difference: ”There are lots of opportunities this term for protest. The NUS protest in London, Nick Clegg is visiting Oxford, and we can lobby local Oxford MPs before the parliamentary vote”.