TOPICS > Education

In U.K., More Demonstrations Appear Likely After Tuition Tripling

December 10, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Protests intensified in London after legislation passed to triple university tuition fees. Margaret Warner gets the latest on the protests, what's behind them and what's next with Ned Temko from The Observer.
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MARGARET WARNER: The plan to triple college tuition fees is part of a broad budget rebalancing program now being put in place by Britain’s Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, and his coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats.

The measure passed the House of Commons yesterday, but with significant defections from Liberals.

For more on all this, we turn to Ned Temko, a writer for The Observer, a London newspaper.

And, Ned Temko, welcome. First of all, briefly, what is the main focus of these investigations that were launched today?

NED TEMKO, The Observer: Well, there are two areas they are looking into. One, the narrow one is how on earth Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, and his wife Camilla, the duchess of Cornwall, found themselves in their official Rolls-Royce being pelted with paint, people baying for their heads, and royal protection officers, some of whom are armed, left to try and scurry their way out of danger, and somehow keep an obviously serious clash from becoming more serious yet, and possibly causing bloodshed.

So, that — that’s one narrow focus — more broadly, how these demonstrations turned violent for the third straight time, and particularly accusations from across the political spectrum that, not just a tiny minority, but a significant number of these demonstrators or people who infiltrated the demonstration were bent on violence, and on the protesters’ side, accusations that the police either overreacted or used the wrong tactics to police these events.

So, both of those investigations, I think, will — will go forward now as a matter of urgency.

MARGARET WARNER: So, was this protest unusual for London — to have in the streets of London? And was it over the tuition hikes or more broadly over this austerity program?

NED TEMKO: Well, no, the immediate focus has been over these tuition hikes. And this is the third straight regular demonstration by these student groups. And they’re getting more and more angry as the legislation gets closer to coming into law, but against the background, as you say, of overall austerity measures, the most radical budget cut program, something like 83 billion pounds in total, since the Second World War.

So, it’s all kind of a politically perfect storm. And there’s every prospect of more demonstrations in the weeks and months ahead.

MARGARET WARNER: So, just give us a couple of examples of how tough at least these cuts are going to be. Isn’t the government talking about basically cutting something like 20 percent out of the federal budget over four years?

NED TEMKO: Yes. And it’s a hugely ambitious austerity program.

It’s not across the board. There are some areas that have been ring-fenced. One of them is the National Health Service, for instance. Overseas aid has been ring-fenced. And they have actually done a kind of arithmetical formula to at least add to primary and early schools education over those four years. But, by and large…

MARGARET WARNER: But for the most part…

NED TEMKO: For the most part.

And the focus is on public sector jobs. And that is where the main axe is going to fall. What is interesting is that, so far, even though there is a lot of fear, a lot of people are concerned, I suppose, in principle, there hasn’t been any major immediate effect, because the cuts haven’t really started to take effect yet.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, where are the public opinion polls on this? As I recall, I mean, David Cameron ran for office saying this kind of thing had to be done. Has the public stuck with him on the idea of needing these measures?

NED TEMKO: By and large, yes. And that’s what is so fascinating. Obviously, there has been some slippage in the polls for the Conservatives over the last couple of months, particularly since the major budget cut announcements in October.

But the main victim in the polls has been the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the coalition, because they are kind of squeezed in between. And their poll numbers are really taking a nosedive. But, by and large, Cameron’s ratings remain high. And, even more significant, if you kind of bore into the detail of these polls, the Conservatives are still enjoying a fairly healthy lead as the party most trusted to deal with the economy.

So, there does seem to be a broad acceptance that this kind of major action to deal with the budget deficit and the public debt is absolutely necessary.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you mentioned that the biggest hits are going to be felt by people who are employed by the government. I think they are talking about cutting a half-a-million out of, what is it, six million jobs.

Do the people you’re talking to in government, or law enforcement, or politics, do they think that you could see serious protests from the unions, for instance, when those cuts start hitting, or no?

NED TEMKO: I think there is a fear. And, certainly, the unions are gearing up to basically spearhead public opposition to these cuts.

The great unknown, really, is the degree to which the private sector will take up the slack in these jobs, because there is a precedent in the ’80s, for instance, for a significant cutback in the public sector. And the public sector, the payroll has been hugely increased under 13 years of Labor Party rules.

So, it’s not as if there isn’t some scope for efficiency savings. But the real thing that the government is counting on, which, by the way, the early indications have been encouraging to them, is that a significant growth in public sector — in — rather, in private sector employment will at least take up some of this slack and ease the pain a bit.

MARGARET WARNER: Ned, we are just about out of time, but, quickly, before we go, has there been any criticism of Prince Charles and Camilla for wading into these protesters in full evening regalia with jewels and in and a Rolls-Royce, when they were protesting…

NED TEMKO: No, no, no.

MARGARET WARNER: No?

(LAUGHTER)

NED TEMKO: This is England.

No, I mean, not everybody is a real royalist here, not least because some people were saying “Off with your heads” as the mob approached them. But, by and large, most Britons, and even in the most kind of extreme radio call-in voices, there is — there is sympathy for the plight of Charles and Camilla.

And, after all, this is a constitutional monarchy, and they don’t make the policy. They are basically — their job is to go in Rolls-Royces and in jewels.

(LAUGHTER)

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Ned Temko of The Observer in London, thank you so much.

NED TEMKO: Thank you.