"The muffled rumblings of a gathering, the scene of students holding banners and standing in the narrow street just outside my school became a temporary distraction from the drone of my afternoon lesson." Elaine Toh witnesses a protest in London, UK.

“Free Education for All” – students protest in London

TOC International guest writer, Elaine Toh, who is doing her MPhil/PhD in London, witnessed the protest and gives her personal take on it. (Article updated)

Elaine Toh

The muffled rumblings of a gathering, the scene of students holding banners and standing in the narrow street just outside my school became a temporary distraction from the drone of my afternoon lesson. My tutor was quickly ignored (to his dismay!) as curious yet easily distracted students in my class left our seats to witness the hullabaloo outside. Apparently, a large number of students were protesting . 

As a Singaporean, what was interesting to me were the messages on some of the placards consisting of angry vulgarity, ironically painted in childish red scrawls. Is this freedom of speech at its best? I also wondered about the sudden hive of activity at that street while walking to school that day. There were more students than usual. Many were manning booths lined along half of that street with plentiful handouts for the interested passers-by. For the brave souls who had stopped to take a brochure, they were treated to a polite but animated verbal defense of the issue that these passionate students were concerned about. 

Civil Demonstrations

Despite the large crowds that had gathered by noon, I was particularly struck by the peaceful manner the demonstration was conducted in (being a typical “sua-ku” Singaporean). I then understood the rationale for that lone police van parked by the nearby road that I had encountered on my walk to school earlier. Several  British policemen dressed in their distinctive luminous yellow jackets stood by and watched the proceedings.

Based on my previous encounters with public demonstrations and protests in the British capital, most were conducted in a civil and peaceful manner. Policemen were present as a security measure rather than a law-enforcing deterrent but they seldom had to intervene. When overzealous protesters brandished threatening objects like metal pipes or wooden poles, they would be quickly surrendered to the police when they were asked to. If such events took place on a large scale, roads may be cordoned off, traffic diverted and public announcements on both the TV and the radio made a few days in advance. But after the protest and the chanting of slogans or intended messages have ended, life in the city reverts to its normal humdrum once again. 

Free Education for All

What were these students campaigning for? Their posters read, “Free Education for All”. Aren’t these students being too idealistic, I wondered? The student organizers of the protest believe that education is a right not a privilege . Instead of paying fees, students should be given a living grant, they say. Cost of funding education would then come from the rich instead.

For the pragmatic me, my consideration would be if education is free, then governments would have to dish out large sums of money to build schools, employ teachers and administrators and buy all the equipment necessary for schools to function. Where would all these money come from? Taxpayers? Government Investments? Our national reserves? 

Should living grants be paid to the students for being alive? Or are they asking for the government to pay them to attend school? Well, if the UK were a developing country, it would be a good idea since it would improve literacy rates of the general population. But the UK is one of the most developed countries in the European Union. Perhaps the living grant would alleviate problems of a different nature such as truancy?

But as an educator at heart, I do agree with their rationale of our universal rights to education but to tax the richer upper class to fund education for the masses? Hmm…now that is an interesting line of argument and belief system applied to the education context, even though it is not a new social idea. But isn’t it like punishing the rich for being wealthy and for amassing their fortune?

Summer is Protest Season

According to my tutor, summer seems to be a popular time of the year for protests and demonstrations. It seems true to some extent, see (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article4198462.ece), (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article3811692.ece) and (http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/transport/article3987723.ece) for some examples of strikes which took place in the summer of 2008. 

With the current credit crunch and economic downturn, the frequency of such events may increase dramatically. So, visit London in summer 2009 … anybody? 



Picture from The Guardian.

Some reports on the protest: