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Protest rounds off a national week of action against the privatisation of the student loan book, called by the Student Assembly Against Austerity

Students protest in central London. Photo by Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Friday traffic was brought to a standstill in parts of central London as around 100 people marched through the city streets to stop the sell off of student debt. The group, mainly students, carried red boxes representing 'the burden of debt' from the Bloomsbury university campus and through central London to stage a 'debt-in' outside the government’s Department for Business Innovation and Skills, the department which plans to push the privatisation through.

The event was held on the last day of a national week of action against the privatisation of the student loan book, called by the Student Assembly Against Austerity. After the government already privatised student loans taken out before 1998 at a massive loss to the public purse, George Osborne confirmed in December that the government is committed to selling off student loans taken out from 1998-2012, to private companies. If this goes ahead, all students and graduates with any student debt remaining could face repaying loans for many more years as interest rates are likely to soar. This proposal is tantamount to a retrospective hike in tuition fees.

“Student debt is too high, we won’t let you privatise!” shouted protesters, to the rhythm of the lively Samba band from SOAS university. While the issue is a complicated one to communicate, the event gave campaigners a chance to get the message out clearly, and it worked. Passersby, including Hassan, a young man from London, joined protesters along the way. “I'm going to uni next year and this will effect me too. I don't want to graduate with a mortgage sized debt around my neck!”, said Hassan. The protest was even joined by indebted graduates employed at the Department of Business Innovation and Skills itself. But soaring student debt is not the only issue raised by the privatisation of the loan book.

“Loans that would be repaid to the government and reinvested in education, will now be shovelled into the pockets of private companies instead,' said Marienna Pope Weidemann, a student at SOAS, protesting the changes.

"The 1% don't want us to have an education that allows us to lead a self-directed existence. All the 1% want is for us to go to school and subordinate ourselves to being exploited in the call centre, in the office... This is about more than student loans, it's about the kind of society we want to live in,” said Samir Dathi, former student at SOAS.

Lindsey German of Stop The War Coalition addressed the rally, drawing links between the government onslaught to education, which also includes a staff pay freeze, and the government's austerity programme in general. “We spend more on the military every year than on education, and that is a disgrace,” she said. “This is not austerity for the rich, it's not austerity for the arms companies, it's austerity for working people, for poor people, for students.”

“The government wants you to believe you can't succeed in what you're doing, but you can succeed,” she said, addressing the students' protest attempts. A representative of Young European Greens agreed that pressure from students had the potential to reverse the government's decision, and reminded protesters of where citizens in other countries have successfully  forced governments to make education more fair, such as the abolition of tuition fees in Germany.

 

Often the UK government's reason for letting the price of education fall on the shoulders of students is that there is simply no money in the public coffers. But protesters pointed out that the government can plug the deficit in the education budget without having to turn to selling off debt. For example, France has recently made a 1 billion euro tax claim against Google. A similar tactic to boost the budget by the UK government could enable it to fund an education centred on the pursuit of knowledge, and make student debt a thing of the past.

Upcoming events from the People's Assembly Against Austerity:

  • 22nd February: Women's Assembly Against Austerity, Conway Hall, London
  • 19 March: Budget Day – ‘Britain needs a pay rise’ Demonstrations, protests and actions across the country
  • 21st June: People's Assembly National Assembly. Venue to be announced.
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