I started university in autumn 1998. The heady days when Blair was still popular. Only not among my intake of students, for we were the first ones to pay tuition fees – £1000 a year then.

This will be the thin end of the wedge we said at the time, once higher education is no longer free then there will be no way back. So it has proven.

I paid fees in my first year (I wasn’t even aware there was a don’t pay movement as a wide eyed fresher) and resisted paying as long as I could in my second year, by which time the thrust of the argument had been lost. Strangely the 1999 website I made for fees protests, complete with my college e-mail address, is still online.

This is my favorite photo from the protests in Oxford at that time – taken in autumn 1999 as far as I’m aware, scanned from the original photo so I have no precise date. It sums up the energy and the anger very much in evidence yesterday too.

What, I wonder, did we achieve then?

The NUS – dominated by Labour Students – backed fees at that time, and critique of Aaron Porter at the moment strikes me as rather familiar. We managed to get some national press coverage for the cause – I remember a front page spread in the Daily Telegraph and a bunch of protests that nagged at the university authorities. Among my other protest pictures from the time I can identify many people who are still close friends, and others who have achieved political power. But what did we change?

I wonder whether we should have got really angry back then. Done the equivalent of smashing up Millbank? I don’t know. Would I have personally dared to be in the middle of it? Where would I have been in the equivalent of Laurie Penny’s report? Or was this just the anarchist edge that has dominated student protests over the years, a point underlined by Luke Akehurst today (who was probably himself selling out on fees as a Labour student in the 1990s)?

So I view all of this with some sort of melancholy solidarity. We’ve lost, and the coalition is hammering the last nails into the coffin, a death that Labour started in the 1990s. Back a decade ago we had naively hoped we could have stopped it. Not so.

Photo: jonworth-eu “1999 Student Fees Protest, Oxford” November 1999 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution


  1. Hmm, there’s a difference between chairing meetings and being ready to not pay. So perhaps transformation into political activist hadn’t happened?

    Good point on the issue of not having to pay up front.

    On the funding point – now having seen how universities work (and don’t work) in other European countries I’ve just ended up more confused about how I would actually solve all of this. That’s a topic for another post sometime.

  2. Mary Stevens


    Thanks for posting all of this. I have heard several commentators say over the last couple of days that these were the first protests since the 1960s, which I knew to be rubbish (and I remember people saying almost exactly the same thing back in 1998). I am staggered to discover I appear to have been press and publicity offer for SAFE – a role to which I’m sure I was thoroughly ill-suited. And you were never a wide-eyed fresher; the first time I met you you were already chairing a meeting! I am also 100% sure neither you nor I would ever have smashed up Millbank; but I know who would have done (and it that respect I agree with the analysis about the anarchist edge).

    More seriously, I’ve often thought about what we did or did not achieve. Rather like my recent trip to Copenhagen, the most enduring legacy for me has been some inspiring and long-standing friendships. I think there’s a chance lots of us would have met anyway and I am often struck by the irony of how a radical network could, if I so wished, now become a very useful ‘political class’ networking tool. But those friendships and connections do matter; they have certainly made me more ambitious to take action in one way or another to seek change, and not to settle for an un-engaged life (whatever the complexities of that might be).

    One basic and fundamental achievement was, I think, pushing the Government to iron out some of the most obvious iniquities. Nobody today is asked for the cash upfront. I remember cases of young women whose parents were means-tested and considered able to pay but who refused and of LGBT students whose parents refused to pay when they came out. Happily neither of those scenarios are possible today (I don’t think).

    But I do also agree with Justin that we failed to address the critical issue of how to fund universities appropriately. I, for one, wanted to see some form of graduate tax but I remember the dominant view that universities should be wholly funded from income tax almost always won the day. The argument against a graduate tax today is that universities need the money now, and a tax can’t provide that. But if something along those lines had been introduced 10 years ago that argument might not be so compelling.

    One of the reasons (not the only one) I no longer work in a University is that I did not want a career teaching only the very very fortunate few who would be able to afford the luxury of studying humanities/languages. The current proposals I think make that prospect a certainty.

  3. Justin

    Melancholy is probably the right way to describe it. It’s always difficult to properly remember your feelings and emotions back that far, but I do think I believed that protests and rational argument might cause the government to change tack. I can now see how unlikely that was and how unlikely it is again now.

    But I remain convinced that the protests were (and are) the right thing to do (tho’ for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t support the violent occupation and damage at Millbank and see no reason why those involved should not face prosecution).

    I’m not able to feel as strongly about the issue now though. As the years pass, my ability to see shades of grey where once there was only black and white seems to improve. Our universities are woefully underfunded when compared with the top US universities and need to be able to compete, whether on salaries for academics or on facilities. Public funding can’t achieve that, even if it were to continue at the current levels. So what is the answer if not higher fees?

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