Thousands of students once again flocked to central London last week, in a day of protest which saw the Metropolitan Police criticised for what was widely seen as an excessive policing effort.
Around 3,000 students joined the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) demonstration on Wednesday 9 November, to protest ongoing cuts to higher education funding and the lingering spectre of dramatically raised tuition fees.
The march follows the publication of the coalition government's White Paper on higher education which many fear will lead universities to operate more as businesses than institutions of learning.
The heavy police presence at the demonstration, which saw students march from the University of London Union in Bloomsbury to London Wall in the East End, has been widely criticised as "disproportionate" by campaigners. Reports that police had sought and received Home Office authorisation to use rubber bullets and water cannon if trouble erupted led organisers to accuse police of attempting to "pre-criminalise" protest.
Around 4,000 officers from across several forces were drafted in to police the march, amid fears of a repeat of last year's Millbank riot, which saw the Conservative Party's headquarters ransacked by protesters at NUS' Demolition protest.
In a statement, NCAFC condemned police crowd-control tactics, including the controversial practice of 'kettling' as "brutal and inhumane, barely legal and counterproductive."
Reports that police kettled striking electricians attempting to join the march led to a brief stand-off between police and protesters at Fleet Street. But despite tense scenes between police officers and an increasingly agitated crowd, the situation was quickly defused.
Officers warned protesters that deviation from the planned route, negotiated with local authorities by NCAFC and NUS, would be treated as a criminal offence, and were quick to enforce an order made under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act which effectively outlawed the wearing of masks or face coverings at the march.
But despite aggressive policing, student activists have claimed that the march was largely self-regulated, with student marshals directing demonstrators and encouraging adherence to the agreed route. Stephen Donnelly, one of EUSA’s NUS Scotland delegates, said: “The absence of any serious disruption or damage to property helped keep our message credible and resonant with the wider public.”
Police reported 24 arrests, mainly for public order offences, while an attempted occupation which saw protesters pitch tents in Trafalgar Square, was quickly closed down.
Around 120 University of Edinburgh students — reportedly the largest student contingent from outside London — travelled through the night on coaches subsidised by Edinburgh University Students Association to take part. EUSA president Matt McPherson told The Journal he was “really proud that Edinburgh students were leading Scotland’s fight against fees."
Additional reporting by Dominic Sowa and Lydia Willgress.