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Clashes as students take to streets of London for 'free education' rally

Published 04/11/2015

Students during a Westminster protest calling for the abolition of tuition fees and an end to student debt
Students during a Westminster protest calling for the abolition of tuition fees and an end to student debt
The Government plans to replace maintenance grants with loans

Protesters clashed with police as hundreds of students took to the streets of central London for a rally calling for free education.

Most of the demonstrators were peaceful but a number turned violent as the march passed Government buildings.

The trouble flared when the protest came to a stop outside the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

Dozens of officers from the Metropolitan Police Territorial Support Group moved in and clashed with some demonstrators clad in black and with scarves covering their faces.

Some let off flares and one was thrown towards police.

The protesters burst through the police lines and ran down Victoria Street, cheering and waving flags.

Dozens of police officers gave chase as the marchers darted through central London traffic.

Several young men were arrested and were taken by officers into waiting police vans as the protest came to a halt near Victoria station.

In a statement, Scotland Yard said a "small group of protesters" had thrown paint outside the Home Office and "another group attempted to push their way into the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills building but were prevented by police".

The statement added: "During this spell, a small number of smoke bombs and eggs were thrown at police outside BIS. A cordon was put in place across Victoria Street to prevent disorder. There was no containment in place.

"Officers have made a number of arrests for public order offences."

Earlier, shadow chancellor John McDonnell accused the Government of "betraying" students as he addressed the crowd.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also threw his support behind the protesters by demanding the abolition of tuition fees in a statement read out at the rally.

Thousands of students had braved the rain to attend the demonstration calling for the end of fees, the return of maintenance grants and an end to student debt.

Mr McDonnell was greeted with cheers as he climbed up a small platform to address the students through a megaphone.

He said: "Your generation has been betrayed by this Government in increases to tuition fees, in scrapping the education maintenance allowance and cuts in education.

"Education is a gift from one generation to another, it is not a commodity to be bought and sold.

"For generations now, one generation has handed the baton to the next, they have tried to ensure that the next generation has a better quality of life than the last.

"This Government is betraying you and future generations. You need to oppose it and I'm here in solidarity with that opposition."

Mr Corbyn did not attend the rally but sent a message of support which was read out.

In it he reiterated his proposals to scrap tuition fees and restore the education maintenance grant and urged students to "keep protesting, keep campaigning for justice".

The march is challenging plans to scrap maintenance grants and replace them with loans, which critics warn will plunge the poorest students into thousands of pounds of extra debt.

At present, full-time UK students from families with annual household incomes of £25,000 or less qualify for maintenance grants of £3,387 a year, with smaller amounts awarded according to income.

But under the changes, which come into force in the next academic year, these grants will be replaced by loans which students would start paying back when they earn more than £21,000 a year.

A BIS spokesman said: "This Government is committed to ensuring everyone with the potential to benefit from higher education has the opportunity to do so, regardless of their background.

"It has always been the case that student support provided by government is a contribution to living costs, and institutions themselves offer a range of bursaries, scholarships and grants.

"Our system means that lack of finance should not be a barrier to participation and more funding is available to support living costs than ever before."

One female protester lay in the street, clutching in her head in pain, as demonstrators were kettled near St James'.

Dozens of uniformed officers pushed demonstrators back as they said they were going to provide the stricken woman with medical attention.

A further day of action has been called on November 17, focused on the treatment of international students, migrants and refugees.

Students' unions have also started the process of calling a national ballot for strike action against cuts to maintenance grants and student support.

Any strike action would take place in early February, with warnings of blockades and occupations.

Deborah Hermanns, from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, said: "We know that the fight for free education doesn't end at the end of this demonstration.

"We are not just marching for one day and for the abolition of fees. We are building a movement which can strike to win, just as other movements all over the world have won."

Police later confirmed they had made 12 arrests for public order offences.

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