Students in Britain are staging a massive protest against huge fee hikes and staggering cuts to government aid to higher education.

  • The country’s National Union of Students estimates that as many as fifty thousand student activists are marching in London at this hour.
  • Some 200 students took over the lobby of the Conservative Party’s national headquarters earlier today. Police sources report two cops were injured in clearing the lobby, and protesters remain on the HQ grounds.
  • Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democratic Party leader who accepted a senior post in a Conservative-led coalition government earlier this year, has cancelled a planned speaking visit to Oxford University next week. Clegg campaigned on a platform of opposition to student fee hikes, and has been blasted by students for abandoning that position since joining the new administration.

Updates below…

2:30 PM London Time | The Guardian says some twenty student protesters have forced their way back into the Conservative Party HQ after that building was cleared by police. Reports on Twitter say that UK news media are showing footage of a large and growing bonfire outside the HQ building.

3:30 PM London Time | Students are “occupying” the roof of the Conservative Party Headquarters building, according to the Guardian. Their website now carries a photo of a banner hung from that roof reading “FIGHT EVERY CUT — DEFEND EDUCATION.” A reporter on the scene earlier stated that some of those on the roof were throwing objects down at the police below, leading protesters on the ground to begin chanting “stop throwing shit!” The president of Britain’s National Union of Students has repudiated the riot.

3:45 PM London Time | Some background. The Labour Party was in power in Britain for more than a decade until turned out in elections held earlier this year. Labour finished second in a tight three-way race in those elections, and the other two parties — the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives — formed a coalition government, with the right-wing Conservatives taking the lead role. (The Conservatives are also known as the Tories.)

The new coalition announced massive budget cuts throughout Britain’s government last month, including the complete elimination of some university subsidies. Higher education in Britain has traditionally been extremely cheap for British students, but under the new budget tuition fees are slated to rise to as much as $15,000 a year.

The occupation currently underway is at the Conservative Party headquarters building in London, known as Millbank. Millbank and #demo2010, the official hashtag of today’s demonstrations, are both trending topics on Twitter in the UK right now.

4:00 PM London Time | Thanks to a follower on Twitter for a link to this analysis of the government’s “Browne Report” on higher education, the centerpiece of the plan being protested today. Here’s the key passage from the introduction:

Essentially, Browne is contending that we should no longer think of higher education as the provision of a public good, articulated through educational judgment and largely financed by public funds (in recent years supplemented by a relatively small fee element). Instead, we should think of it as a lightly regulated market in which consumer demand, in the form of student choice, is sovereign in determining what is offered by service providers (i.e. universities). The single most radical recommendation in the report, by quite a long way, is the almost complete withdrawal of the present annual block grant that government makes to universities to underwrite their teaching, currently around £3.9 billion. This is more than simply a ‘cut’, even a draconian one: it signals a redefinition of higher education and the retreat of the state from financial responsibility for it.

This approach should be familiar to anyone who’s been following developments in US public higher education recently.

5:00 PM London Time | Reports from Twitter suggest things are calming down at Millbank, though there’s still a large crowd gathered. It’s not clear what’s happened with the the demonstrators on the roof and inside the building. Police are reporting that eight people have been injured, other accounts say most of those were demonstrators.