Ahead of the May general elections in the UK, Liberal Democrat leader — and soon-to-be British deputy prime minister – Nick Clegg said the UK faced Greek-style “economic, political and social disruption” if the new government could not “find a way to persuade people” to accept drastic public spending cuts. He made a lot of people laugh then. Last week, a large group of students took over the complex housing the headquarters of the Conservative Party, the senior partner in the coalition government, to protest the sharp rise in university tuition fees triggered by the cuts Clegg had spoken about. Nobody’s laughing now.
Greece is acutely familiar with student protests and arguments about the cost of tertiary education but there are several elements to the British youngsters’ action that should make Greeks sit up and think.
About 50,000 students took to London’s streets last Wednesday to protest the Conservative-Liberal government’s decision to raise the ceiling on annual university fees from about 3,000 pounds (3,500 euros) a year to 9,000 pounds (10,600 euros). Students were enraged first of all by the enormity of the rise – to put things into perspective, graduates in the late 1990s didn’t have to pay a penny for tuition. Just over a decade later, they face the prospect of leaving university with debts of almost 30,000 pounds (35,000) euros. The British government’s scheme to allow graduates to pay this through an extra tax that will be levied once they find permanent employment is little comfort to today’s teenagers and 20-somethings: Given the current economic conditions, the prospects of finding such a job are diminishing rapidly. The coalition government’s public spending cuts will lead to almost 500,000 civil servants losing their jobs over the next few years and the situation in the private sector is not encouraging either.
In Greece, the prospect of discussing any kind of financial contribution by university and technical college (TEI) students toward their fees was impossible at the best of times, let alone now that the education budget is being slashed. Here, however, the argument is dominated by sanctimonious academics and bloody-minded student groups who refuse to accept that scant funding is just one of many problems afflicting Greek institutions, none of which made the list of the world’s top 200 universities published by The Times last week. The British students’ fight seems more inspiring compared to the entrenchment of those who hold tertiary education hostage in Greece, as it’s about competing for a better future rather than refusing to let go of a mediocre past.
The British complain, for instance, that they’re being asked to pay three times as much for their education at a time when the state, which last year provided 8 billion pounds (9.4 billion euros) of funding for universities, is slashing its investment in the sector. In other words, they’ll have to pay more for an inferior product. So, it’s difficult for young people to accept they have to do their bit for fiscal discipline. “There is an appetite for financial rigor, so long as it reinforces recognizable moral principles,” claims Charles Moore of the pro-Conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper, but there doesn’t seem to be anything very moral or principled about putting tertiary education – one of the main arteries pumping new blood to the heart of the economy – beyond the reach of the less wealthy.
It can only be galling for students struggling to put themselves through university to hear Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne, claim: “We’re all in this together” when they talk about their drastic cuts. The students ask: How can Cameron, Osborne or any of the 22 of 29 cabinet ministers who are millionaires feel any solidarity with those who have to deal with the impact of their austerity measures? Echoing the feeling of complete detachment between politicians and the public that has become familiar in Greece, British daily The Independent wrote in its editorial of the student protest: “The fury on display seemed to contain other strands, such as a sense of ‘them and us,’ and the conviction that direct action was the only way to convey the desired message to those in power.”
Despite the siege of Conservative Pary headquarters, the main target of the students’ anger was Clegg, who had warned of a fierce reaction to unfair cuts but seemed incapable of heeding his own advice. Students were enraged by the Lib Dem leader, because he made tuition fees one of the top issues in his election campaign. He promised he would “implacably oppose” any attempt to increase the cost of studying but his supposed principled stand buckled soon after the students helped put him in office. Last week’s protest was the just the beginning of an effort to remind Clegg and his colleagues of elected officials’ obligations. “This was the first step in holding politicians to account and using the democratic powers in our control in order to win our case,” said Aaron Porter, the head of the National Union of Students (NUS).
The NUS has indicated it will adopt a so-called “decapitation” strategy, which will see students target the constituencies of Clegg and other Liberal Democrats in the run-up to the next elections with the aim of unseating them. It’s in their embracing of the potency of democracy and their determination to invert the pyramid, so the real power lies with those who cast the ballots, not those who amass them, that the British students demand Greeks’ attention. Greek voters got a taste last Sunday of what it feels like to no longer accept politicking, when independent candidates Giorgos Kaminis and Yiannis Boutaris were elected mayors of Athens and Thessaloniki, respectively. Although they were endorsed by PASOK, the ruling party’s support was so feeble it actually helped both men appear true lone riders promising a different set of values rather than members of the traditional political herd who are bound by commitments to the party.
The British students, aided by the verve of youth, have reacted to betrayal in an instant. For Greek voters, disorientated and disenfranchised by blind party allegiances and years of broken promises, the process has been much slower. Yet the victories of Kaminis and Boutaris are signs that a new way of thinking can emerge: one that dispenses with the constraints of the past and the fear of the unknown and which imbues voters with the belief that they have the power to punish the layabouts, the liars and the crooks. So, the British students and the Greek people face the same challenge: to find a way of soaking up this moment of enlightment and harnessing the power of democracy. If they manage it, they could have the last laugh.