The carnival atmosphere of the NUS protest in London yesterday – there was a barbeque and a marching band – was paired with an undercurrent of real anger among the 25000 students present.
Amid the hordes of university students protesting fee increases and baying for a bonfire to be built with “the Tories on the top”, it was easy for the protests of secondary school children to be drowned out.
Standing out from the anti-cuts and anti-Tory placards which dominated at the NUS protest in London yesterday were some representing a minority and overlooked issue: the cutting of the Education Maintenance Allowance.
The EMA, which provides £30 per week to students from low income families so they can continue to attend school, will be abolished under the government’s new plans.
The severity of the effects that the cuts will cause is not lost on the students which will be affected.
Ronnie Griffths, a student at Westminster Kingsway College, said: “A lot of people won’t apply to university now. I have friends who only come to college for the EMA.”
The money from the EMA covers most of the basics for students including food.
Another student from Westminster Kingsway lives in Tower Hamlets- a deprived area of London- with her disabled father.
She wants to study Education Psychology at university, but with no family support she is worried she won’t be able to afford the course.
“I would be spending the rest of my life paying back that debt,” she said.
The anger and frustration felt by these sixth form students is clear from their passionate showing at the protest, in contrast to some more casual participants who brought beer to drink and avail of the barbeque food available.
The students feel vulnerable and betrayed by a government in which Nick Clegg vowed to vote against fee rises.
“I wanted to get a career in politics,” said one sixth former at the protest. “But now I don’t want to because I feel betrayed.”
The plight of secondary school students does not tell the full story of the less-represented victims of the cuts.
Students studying access courses for university will also be badly-hit by the government’s plans.
One student at Mid Kent College, studying an access course to get into university, said: “two thirds of students here get EMA because they need it to continue education. Going abroad for higher education seems like an attractive prospect right now.”
The mood among those protesting against the EMA cuts was sombre, but there was real outrage in the students there.
Adila Kassim, a secondary school student from William Morris 6th form college, painted a bleak picture of the futures of students from a working-class background.
“I may as well leave school now and get a job, because I can’t afford £9000 a year in tuition fees”, she said. “I wouldn’t be able to get a house or anything with that debt.”
Another teenage protestor, Jordanna Phillips, added: “I feel betrayed by the government because they’re getting rid of EMA.”
Frances O’Grady, Deputy General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, echoed the students’ sentiments in her passionate speech against the government’s “assault on education”.
“They want to turn our places of education into finishing schools for the rich”, she said, to which the crowd cheered loudly.
The 25,000-strong crowd responded wildly to her appraisal of the cuts as “vicious, unnecessary and right-wing.”
“Don’t dare tell us we’re all in it together, because the banks have been let off scot free”, she said. “This deficit wasn’t caused by bystanders; we want banks and financiers to be called to account.”
Estimates put that student debts will rise to £40-50000 after a university course, compared to £20000 for current students.
Although many students overlook the issue of access to university for the working-class, some did recognise the severity of it.
One student from Queen Mary in London attended the protest with his little brother in mind.
He described how he wanted to show his disagreement with government plans so his brother can afford to get into university.
“It’s awful to cut social sciences by 70% and then charge for education, because the government is then charging us for something which benefits the state,” he said.
The protest ultimately descended into violence as the Conservative Party headquarters was stormed by students, with one student bystander remarking that it “wasn’t the point” of the protests.
OUSU President David Barclay, speaking about the protest before the unrest broke out, remarked: “The story of today is that tens of thousands of students sent a clear and respectful message to the government. The turnout showed the level of passion and how many students care about the future of higher education.”