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Denham denies debt
Protest against university fees
Students from Portsmouth, Southampton, Winchester and Oxford gathered in Southampton to lobby John Denham, MP and Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. Organised by Socialist Students and the Campaign to Defeat Fees, about thirty-five students let the minister know how they felt about tuition fees and privatisation of education with a noisy protest.
Toby Harris, southern region organiser for Socialist Students
Four of us went in to Denham's surgery to hand him more than 1,000 signatures collected in the past few weeks. We asked why a minister who had received a free university education was now happy to charge students £3,000 a year in top-up fees and hand millions of pounds of student debt to banks. We also pressed him on whether he would be lifting the cap on top-up fees in 2009.
In response, Denham denied fees, debt and poverty were driving working-class students away from university, refused to acknowledge the systematic inequalities in our marketised education system and boasted about one of the schemes in Southampton he was involved in to 'widen participation' - nothing more than a token gesture in a city where poorly funded inner city schools face savage cuts of £580,000 to social inclusion grants this year!
He abruptly finished our discussion after ten minutes, refusing to say anything about whether the cap on top-up fees would be lifted because "the decision has not been made yet".
The Minister for Universities may claim to personally have no clue about whether the government will be lifting the cap, but the students outside shouting "Scrap debt! Fight fees!" certainly had a few opinions on the matter.
He said a few words to the media and then marched past us with a strained grin, too arrogant even to address our protest. Of course, unlike most parents and students, he doesn't have much to worry about.
Apparently his children don't need to rely on meagre bursaries because, as he put it: "you get quite a big pay-packet in a job like mine"!
After the lobby we held a rally and discussion addressed by myself, International Socialist Resistance national organiser Ben Robinson, and Portsmouth University sabbatical officer Ben Norman. There was a solidarity message from the local lecturers' union branch and a good discussion on the way to take the Campaign to Defeat Fees forward.
A point echoed by many was that we need to work on achieving small victories to build the confidence of student activists in the fight for free education for all.
We discussed raising socialist ideas through our campaigning work, and made plans for the day of action against university fees on 21 February.
The protest and lobby were covered by the local media, including an item on BBC regional news, and students came away invigorated and ready to build the fight against big business politicians like Denham.
On 3 February, students from around the region met at Southampton University for a discussion on Latin America and a meeting to evaluate our campaigning work in the region so far and plan for the future.
Socialist Student members are playing an important role at Portsmouth University in transforming the student union there into a fighting organisation.
We are also developing our work in Oxford and Southampton and building new groups at Reading, Winchester and Chichester. We discussed how the student union at Portsmouth can help to build a national movement of fighting student organisations with events like the Activist Academy planned for April.
On 21 February students at Portsmouth will be holding a debate on fees with Vice Chancellor John Craven and making a picture montage of students burdened with chains of debt as a stunt to draw attention to the campaign.
Similar protests and meetings are planned in Southampton and Oxford as we maintain the momentum built up by this successful protest.
He may have tried to brush us off this time, but we will certainly be returning to John Denham's surgery in the future to pile more pressure on this arrogant minister.
In The Socialist 6 February 2008:
War and terrorism
Socialist Party women
Socialist Party news and analysis
Young workers and Students
Environment and socialism
Socialist Party debate
International socialist news and analysis