Britain’s Tuition-Fee Protests Turn Violent

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Demonstrators protest outside the Conservative Party headquarters building in central London

REUTERS/Toby Melville

Protests turned violent in London Wednesday, as nearly 100 students occupied Britain’s Conservative Party Headquarters, leading to a standoff with police over the U.K.’s proposal to increase fees and cut government funding of higher education in England.

Around 50,000 students and teachers traveled to London for a march and rally in Westminster against the Government’s plans to raise yearly fees from $5,300 to $14,500. What started out as a peaceful protest in the capital early in the day suddenly turned violent. A small minority headed to the Tory Headquarters where placards were set on fire, smoke bombs and missiles were thrown at police and windows were smashed by rioters, reports the BBC.  Within two hours, the entire lobby of the Conservative Party was destroyed, followed by riot police entering to regain control and evacuate the building.

Police blamed the riots on that small minority of protesters.

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Elsewhere in London, dozens of police officers moved in to form a line outside one of the main entrances to the House of Commons, used by Members of Parliament. Up to 100 students broke away from the main march to protest outside the government’s Business Department. Police officers moved in to stop the students storming the building.

President of the National Union of Students (NUS) Aaron Porter condemned the violence and tweeted: “Disgusted that the actions of a minority of idiots are trying to undermine 50,000 who came to make a peaceful protest.” “This was not part of our plan,” he told the BBC. “This action was by others who have come out and used this opportunity to hijack a peaceful protest.” The NUS is attempting to unseat Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament who go back on pre-election pledges they made to oppose any rise in tuition fees. The government expects the costs of teaching other courses to be funded by those payments. Ministers, however, insist their plans offer a “fair deal for students.”

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Students are enraged by the government’s plans to hike tuition fees in 2012, along with higher education funding being cut by 40%. Teaching grants are in danger of being all but wiped out, except for science and math.  “Education is a social good that we should be investing in — we need free education for a better society,” said Emily Whitby, a student from Manchester University in a statement to the press. “The government‘s plans to astronomically hike up tuition fees is a dangerous attack on social mobility and public services. This isn‘t a time for polite lobbying. This is a time for action.”