The catalyst was the introduction of higher fees for students. Despite being a devolved issue, the Plaid/Labour coalition in the Welsh Assembly were playing their cards close to their chests. Not only are they facing an overall cut of 1.2% of the Welsh block budget from Westminster, but five out of eleven Welsh universities have a deficit of £70 million and funding cuts of £50 million.
The initial solution, as far as the universities saw it, was to put up fees for students, and they lobbied the Assembly accordingly. This would mean universities charging up to £9000 annually per student, up from the original cap of £3000.
On 10th November, 25 coaches full of students from Wales went to London to protest with others from around the UK. The Police failed to maintain control of events and students were able to 'run riot' and occupy Millbank.
But what distinguished these protests from others that have occurred over the years is the momentum that was generated. A week later, in Cardiff, 300 people marched and the Shandon lecture theatre in the main university building was occupied. In a carnival-like atmosphere, teach-ins and spontaneous demonstrations went off as students and their supporters made their feelings plain.
In Monmouth and Chepstow sixth formers took to the streets to try and reclaim their future. More teach-ins happened, in Aberystwyth (where they had already scared off the secretary of state) it took place in the centre of town, with students stating that:
“If we can’t get education in the universities, we’ll get it in the streets.”though before long, they occupied the university too!
A "Carnival Against Cuts" demonstration in Cardiff’s city centre on 28th November turned into a game of cat and mouse with cops, as students dispersed from the main demo by the Bevan statue and occupied Lloyd’s bank on Queens Street, for its role in causing the initial credit crisis that got us in this mess in the first place.
While all this was going on, Education Minister Leighton Andrews finally stated his position, saying that students living in Wales, regardless of which part of the UK they study, will not have to pay the extra fees. The cost instead would be met by the Welsh Assembly, as well as cuts in the teaching budget. English students who come to Wales, however, will still be subject to the higher rate. This is on top of the fact that the Education Maintenance Allowance is to be kept in Wales, but not in England.
Which, on the surface of it, is a victory of sorts. By announcing it as the protests were going on, Andrews acknowledged the importance of what was happening on the streets. The question facing us in Wales now is do we pack up and go home, or see this as the cosmetic touch-up it is?
The implications of Lloyds occupation in Cardiff are considerable. There is a widespread awareness amongst this new generation of politicised students that these protests are nor just about cuts in education. All over Wales and the UK, ordinary people are gloomily bracing themselves for the impacts of cuts across the board, as well as hikes in VAT and the overall cost of living. This is a crisis we did not create, and should not be expected to pay for.
The UKuncut movement is targeting firms such as Vodafone who are avoiding paying tax. There have been actions in Cardiff, Swansea, Aberystwyth, Wrexham and across the UK. This wave of protests at corporate tax dodgers is capturing public imagination, who knows what the impact might be.
The Assembly may well be using their position as a way of trumpeting the virtues of devolution. They have made reassuring noises that they want to protect health and social services, and do not believe education should be a market. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that the control they have to limit the effects of the ConDem austerity programme is limited. The Welsh Assembly has already released it's draft budget in advance of the the full announcement of its budget in February.
Experienced radicals need to marshall our support for what is going on, as well as kick off any new initiatives that we see may be lacking. This is a real opportunity to push forward. But without support from those in the Trade Union movement, community and workplace organisations and large doses of direct action, we will not be able to defeat this austerity programme and push for radical alternatives. In January non-hierarchical groups opposed to cuts from around the country are meeting in Manchester for a Network X gathering.
We need to acknowledge that this is a global problem and link up accordingly. There have been massive demonstrations across Europe, from the 'usual suspects' of Greece and France as well as Ireland and elsewhere. There have also been solidarity demos for the UK students as far afield as Helsinki, Finland.
If we look so far into the past, the radical traditions of working class activism and self help in Wales that created improvements in education, housing health care and working conditions, provide a great source of inspiration. So too do more recent struggles to protect the Welsh language. Once again, it's our entire future that is at stake now. We need to fight to get it back.