UK: Violence overshadows student fees protests

For the first time in decades, a student protest ended in violence on Wednesday night with missiles hurled at police and windows smashed at Conservative Party headquarters in London's Westminster. At least 50 people were arrested and 14 taken to hospital including seven policemen.

The demonstration was called to protest against the coalition government's plans to raise the cap on tuition fees by three-fold to £9,000 (US$12,350) and impose cuts of 40% on teaching budgets.

Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the violence and praised the bravery of the "thin blue line" of policemen while speaking on the eve of the G20 summit in Seoul.

Around 50,000 students and lecturers who travelled from all over the country took to the streets of London on a fine but chilly autumn morning in what began as a good-natured demonstration.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said she was delighted by the turnout. Old-fashioned slogans could even be heard, like: "No ifs, no buts, no education cuts!"

Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, told the crowd: "We have taken to the streets of London in the biggest student demonstration this century to tell politicians that enough is enough. We will not tolerate the previous generation passing on its debt to the next, nor will we pick up an eye-watering bill to access a college and university education that was funded for them."

Hunt told the crowd: "It isn't fair to make our public universities the most expensive in the world. It's time for politicians to recognise that education is an investment in all our futures not a millstone around our necks."

However, the atmosphere turned sour about lunchtime when around 200 demonstrators started to attack the Conservative Party offices in Millbank, with some entering the building and staging rooftop protests while others smashed windows.

Hunt and Porter also condemned the violence, blaming it on a small number of agitators who had hijacked the event. Porter said he didn't recognise them as being students.

Violence apart, there was no doubt about the scale of anger from the sons and daughters of middle England, noted one BBC commentator. This could be the foretaste of serious opposition to cuts across many sectors in the country planned by the government, he added.

During the protest, Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister, was attempting to defend the government's policy of raising tuition fees and making swingeing cuts to university budgets in the House of Commons, a stone's throw from the site of the violence.

Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman took pleasure in taunting him, reminding him of his party's election pledge to phase out fees. She asked: "Isn't it true that he's been led astray by the Conservatives?"

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson admitted his force was unprepared for the scale of the violence and he would be carrying out an investigation following "this embarrassment".

On Twitter, some students also expressed their disappointment at the violence. Dan Boxton tweeted that he was annoyed: "Millbank fixation. Real story: 50,000 students protest that basic right to higher education scrapped."

Wes Streeting, former president of the NUS wrote: "This morning I woke up with a MASSIVE sense of pride. I'm so glad I'm @nusuk officer alumni. The Demo was incredible."

The Guardian's veteran political journalist Michael White noted: "Right on cue, exactly six months into David Cameron's premiership, the ancient British roar of 'Tory scum' echoed across central London again.

"In honour of the coalition's deal on higher tuition fees, student protesters spliced their message with cheerful abuse of Nick Clegg. After almost 100 years of apathy Lib Dems can hold their heads high - hated at last."