The script is so well-rehearsed now that I hesitate to repeat it: the vast majority are peaceful protesters, infiltrated by vandals who soak up the attention. Many of the protesters yesterday looked like they’d get a cab straight back home to their Notting Hill trust-fund houses. This is not 1968 or the Poll Tax riots: it’s some produced-for-television protest at cuts which are 3.3 per cent over four years. Milder even than the now-forgotten post-1976 cuts.
Yes, there’s a budget deficit to fix – but did the universities budget really have to take such a knock? The Lib Dem error, in my view, is accepting the Tory pledge not to cut the wasteful NHS budget. Had its budget been shaved by the same amount as other government departments, there would be no need to cut the uni budget. The axe could have been wielded more evenly. The lesson from Canada’s cuts was that there should be no protected departments: if you protect a budget as massive as that of the NHS (which accounts for a quarter of departmental spending), then you concentrate pain elsewhere. Someone – in Britain’s case, undergraduates – gets it in the neck.
That said, British university funding is an anomaly. Look at the websites of the top ten world universities and those of Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial jump out with the tiny amount they are able to charge undergraduates. The elite American unis are about £30k each.
I am from that lucky generation that didn’t pay university tuition fees, and I’d hate to have a £36,000 bill for my four years at Glasgow. So I can’t help but have sympathy with the students who’re about to pick up this bill. I didn’t sympathise with the poll tax protesters, but as I fought my way home last night (my office looks on to the seiged Treasury), I couln’t help but think: the students do have a point.