If you were a holiday maker staying at the former Novotel at Marsh Mills in Plymouth this weekend you would be forgiven for wondering what the hell was going on. The normal peace and calm was disturbed by the noise and volume of angry students, angry lecturers, trade union members and Labour party members protesting outside the hotel.
The protest lead by members of the University and College Union (UCU) was focused on disturbing the opening session of the Liberal Democrats regional conference on Saturday morning. The protestors were voicing their anger that the region’s Liberal Democrats have let down staff and students in the westcountry’s colleges and universities by supporting plans to treble tuition fees, cut funding for teaching and scrap the EMA.
During the general election campaign all Liberal Democrat MPs pledged to not only vote against a rise in university tuition fees, but to actively campaign for their abolition. Since joining the coalition government, some Liberal Democrat MPs have said they will vote in favour of tripling university fees to £9,000-a-year. This is on top of coalition plans to cut teaching funding which will have a devastating effect on the ability of universities and colleges to provide first-class tuition.
The coalition has also announced it is scrapping college grants called the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). The EMA is a key factor in improving participation in further education and often the difference between students in rural areas being able to travel to, and stay on at, college. The organisers of the protest, the UCU, point to research conducted by the Institute of Fiscal Studies revealed that the EMA increased the proportion of males staying on in full-time education by 7.4 per cent and females by 5.9 per cent. Scrapping it might play well to rich voters who regard the EMA as a bribe, but it will mean fewer people staying on in education at a time when the country needs more people with skills not less.
Saturday’s protest was the first time that the Lib Dems have really had anyone outside their small regional membership notice that they were holding a conference in Plymouth. But notice they did this time. With a heavy Police presence including officers in stab vests filming the protest, the Liberal Democrats should be in no doubt that there is anger at their policy U-turn on fees in Plymouth and the campaign against them and their betrayal of the election promises has only just begun.
Despite the widespread public anger at the Lib Dems’ U-turn on their totemic tution fees pledge the conference is the Legacy International Plymouth International Hotel did not even have higher education funding on its agenda.
UCU regional official and organiser of the protest, Philippa Davey, said: “Many people voted Liberal Democrat at the general election because they liked what the party had to say about education. All Liberal Democrat MPs made a clear commitment to vote against any increase in university tuition fees. Now they have a small amount of power they seem to think it’s acceptable to renege on those promises. We were at their regional conference to make clear that it is not OK to treat the electorate with contempt.”
What was surprising for me was how easy the Liberal Democrats forgot their election pledge on fees once they had a sniff of power. It is unfair to lump all the region’s Lib Dems together though. There is a real sense of genuine anger form normal Lib Dem members entering the conference at the actions of Nick Clegg and Vince Cable on fees, but until they assert their voice and force a change in position, this discontent, however heartfelt, is little more than faux anger. It is time for the region’s Liberal Democrat MPs to stand up and be counted. Each of them made a personal promise to voters – as well as a manifesto commitment – to oppose fees. It is up to them to see whether their deal with Cameron is worth more than their personal promises. Let’s see…
This was the first protest the region has seen outside a Lib Dem conference on fees and cuts, but it won’t be the last.