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Anything but apathetic

Unite Community joins student protest against gov’t cuts
Hajera Blagg, Thursday, November 5th, 2015

Thousands of young people from across the country gathered in London yesterday (November 4) to protest government plans to slash maintenance grants, a move that would further shut the door on working class students already buckling under the pressure of rising tuition fees and skyrocketing living costs.

Unite Community members were out in full force.

“We had a coach of 50 from Durham and Newcastle Universities alone, and there were loads of Unite Community members from all parts of the country – from Bristol, the Northwest, Sheffield and all over,” said Unite Community regional coordinator John Coan.

“We arrived in the morning and stayed all day long, handing out leaflets and explaining to passers-by why we were there – to stand up for education as a human right.”

News reports highlighted a minor scuffle with police caused by no more than a handful of protestors, but Coan noted that day was an entirely positive experience for the thousands of peaceful students who were there to get their message across to politicians.

“It’s a real shame that the protest was so misrepresented in the media,” he said. “Of the thousands of students there yesterday, there were only a few who caused any trouble. But what else can you expect from the media? They’re not interested in talking about the real issues. The vast, vast majority were peaceful and decent young people who were passionate about education.”

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell spoke at the protest, addressing the thousands gathered at the rally in central London over a megaphone.

“Your generation has been betrayed by this government in increases to tuition fees, in scrapping the education maintenance allowance and cuts in education,” McDonnell said. “For generations now, one generation has handed the baton on to the next. It’s time to ensure that the next generation has a better quality of life than the last.”

Coan hailed McDonnell’s support at the protest.

“He really hit the nail on the head when he said that education is a human right and not a commodity to be bought and sold.”


Shackled with debt
Currently, full-time students in the UK whose household incomes are £25,000 or less qualify for maintenance grants worth more than £3,300 each year. These grants are tapered down for higher household incomes with a cut-off income of £42,620.


If government proposals go through, maintenance grants will be scrapped entirely next year and will be replaced by loans, plunging young people deeper into debt.

One recent study UNITElive highlighted last month found that an average young person’s debt to income ratio is 70 per cent. This means that for every £10 that a person aged between 17 and 24 earns, a jaw-dropping £7 is spent repaying debts.

Coan argued that cutting maintenance grants will have a “massive impact on working class students, many of whom come from immigrant families”.

“We’ve found that more than a third of all students now say they could not afford university without these grants,” he said.

“Even with grants we’re already seeing a huge divide between wealthy and working class students,” Coan added. “That’s because in cities like, for example, Durham, the cost of living is going through the roof. Some of the students I spoke to from Durham said in the past year alone the cost of living in the halls has gone up by £500.

“This has a huge impact on working class young people who choose to go to university, because while some of their wealthier classmates can study without taking on a single grant or loan, those from poorer backgrounds have to work nights at pubs or do double shifts at Tesco’s just to get by.”

Coan encouraged students to get involved with Unite Community, which, he said, recruited dozens of new members at the protest.

“Unite Community gives young people a wide variety of tools to help them build community-based campaigns,” he said. “We offer lots of different training courses, mentoring, as well as logistical and practical support for their own campaigns. One example is a student campaign to end zero-hours contracts at universities – these contracts disproportionately affect young people.”

Most of all, Coan said he was inspired by the dozens of young people he met who travelled all the way from the Northeast to stand up for their right to an education.

“Older people tend to see young people as apathetic and lazy,” he said. “But it was incredibly inspiring to be on the coach with such driven young people. Mind you these are students – and they woke up at 4am, travelled hundreds of miles and dedicated the entire day, more than 20 hours, to make sure their voices were heard. There’s nothing apathetic about these young students – they’re passionate, politically engaged and some of the most decent people I’ve ever met.”

Are you a student interested in joining Unite Community? Find out more here.




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