Its hard to believe how things have changed since I was a student. I had my fees paid and a received a maintenance grant, which I just about managed to live on. I worked in the summer vacation by choice to earn extra money but I could have signed on. Being at university was about learning in the widest sense - not just about the subjects I was studying, and not just about hot-housing myself for a career Three great years and I came out of it with a good degree. If I hadn't it wouldn't have been the end of the world because I'd still have been able to get a decent job.
The rot started to set in around the end of the eighties after I'd left university, and accelerated under New Labour with the introduction of loans for tuition fees, but after the crash and the election of the Coalition government things have become much, much worse. Despite the promises of the Liberal Democrats, the government trebled tuition fees and slashed the grant it gave to universities. Students are now facing debts of around £40,000 or more when they graduate and its clear that many will never be able to repay this debt burden. So how is it that something which was affordable - free access to higher education - has become unaffordable? The answer is simple - ideology. What New Labour and the Coalition have done is driven by 'free' market fundamentalism, not necessity - its a choice.
The coalition government are making students, the poor, disabled, unemployed and workers pay for the global economic crash which their 'free' market ideology was wholly responsible. Its class war, and a whole generation of young people in the UK are suffering because of the failures of the 'free' market. But they are not taking it lying down. They are fighting back with protests and occupations, and are building alliances with lecturers and college workers who are struggling against privatisation and for better pay.
As a result the government is using coercion to suppress the protests. Students are being spied on (as they always have been), and subjected to increasingly brutal attacks by the police. It beggars belief that this can be happening in our society with so little comment by the corporate media and an apparent lack of interest by our MPs in parliament (with the notable exception of Caroline Lucas). But as I've posted about before capitalism routinely uses coercion and violence to impose its 'free' market economy on us. That is why we are witnessing protests by students and workers all over the world. We live in an economy which is about continual suppression of people's freedoms and crisis management backed up by surveillance and brutality.
The government will no doubt expect to suppress the protest by victimising individual students and criminalising the leaders but they are storing up trouble for the future. A generation of the brightest people in the UK are becoming radicalised. They have no illusions about what is happening and they represent the best hope for positive change in the future. I wish them all the luck in the world in their struggles. Sadly, Nelson Mandela died this week. The student protesters can take hope and inspiration from his example.