The Next Page / They say they want a REVOLUTION: Inside today's British student uprising

Across Europe, the entitlement system of free college tuition and social welfare is breaking down in the face of fiscal reality. In Britain, the cuts are broad and deep. Students are raising hell. And Jon Offredo is there.


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NEWCASTLE, Britain -- Don't tell these kids they are bourgeois.

They're from varied backgrounds. Some might come from wealthier families than others, and some might have expensive rain boots, but don't mistake them for petulant teenagers and angsty twentysomethings.

Smart, organized, motivated, politically minded and very much willing to push the envelope -- these 60 kids occupied a lecture hall at Newcastle University for 18 days, last Sunday ending one of more than 20 occupations across the U.K. They are among tens of thousands of students who have typified the largely peaceful movement happening across Britain.

It's in reaction to the U.K. government's austerity cuts that would triple the cost of tuition, eliminate key education programs and nearly wipe out all state funding to arts and humanities programs. And what is happening here isn't unique in Europe. Students in Italy are fighting against cuts and the recent, but narrow, vote of confidence for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In Greece, riots and demonstrations are practically a mainstay after massive austerity measures were taken by the government.

British students are just the latest to join the mobilization across Europe. As the variation of graffiti, signs and general thought goes, "France first, then Greece -- and now us."


A total 180

They were supposed to be the X-Factor generation -- tuned into gossip and out of politics.

No one expected the mass movement that came after Lord Browne, former chief executive of BP, released the findings of his report -- '"Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education in the UK" -- in October. It added education to the public sectors getting mauled by the new Tory government in coalition with Liberal Democrats.

Nick Clegg -- deputy prime minister, Lib Dem leader and the protesters' public enemy No. 1 -- had pledged to abolish tuition fees before he entered the coalition government. In an absolute reversal that's now the topic of many student chants, he decided to endorse what some protesters argue is the beginning of a two-tiered higher education system driven by business (and not that dissimilar to the one I spent four years going through in America).

And the action has not just been from university students, but students as young as those in elementary school.

One student from Newcastle who had a scuffle with riot cops in London earlier this month told me the recent action shattered the stereotype of apathetic British students. He said that as we watched protesters trying to smash through the Treasury windows with cylinder blocks.

We were a stone's throw from a Parliament cordoned off by police. The shine from Big Ben was coupled with a police helicopter spotlight sweeping across the crowd of several thousand students. Cherry bombs and firecrackers went off a short distance away as students clashed with cops. A drum corps kept a steady beat to keep everyone going.

He didn't get a chance to expand on the thought, though. A line of riot cops looked like they were going to start charging. For the past few hours we had been "kettled" (contained) by hundreds of police in Parliament Square. We remained kettled for several more hours after police ushered us to the Westminster Bridge stretching over the Thames.

The Millennium Eye stared down as hundreds of students did the hokey-pokey, conga-lined and sang Christmas carols to the cops that finally let them go at 11:30 p.m.


Meanwhile, back in Newcastle ...

After 18 days of sleeping in the cold and on fold-down lecture room seats, these students from Newcastle are as hardcore as the closest occupation (which was in Edinburgh. But actually Edinburgh had showers and a bed. So the kids here were more hardcore. No one was really keeping count, though).

Some have sleeping bags, others have somebody else's sleeping bag. But when shivers and chills are the norm because the heat was curiously broken, it doesn't really matter whose it is and where it might have been before. Just don't let the rightful owner find out.

For these 60 students who occupied the Fine Art lecture hall at Newcastle against the will of the administration, it's not necessarily their future they were fighting for -- it's for their brothers, sisters, future kids, nieces, nephews and friends.

The temperature at night is irrelevant, as is the threat of disciplinary action. These kids are serious and willing to subsist on hummus, pita bread and pizza, and brave the smell of feet and of food kept in a colder room next to the foyer.


'A glorified sleepover'? We don't think so.

One of the criticisms the Newcastle University administration levied at the occupation was that it was just a "glorified sleepover."

Like being called bourgeois, it did nothing but incite and inspire.

An element of it is true. It's hard to deny the sometimes-serious, other-times relaxed and goofy atmosphere that comes with sleeping in the same space for over 15 days with people who have become close friends.

During the day students were busy organizing direct action, tweeting, writing blog entries, communicating with the press and holding alternative lectures.

Most workdays ended with a massive meeting, usually lasting at least an hour and most of the time well beyond that. No one was the leader of the occupation. Everyone was equally as important and dabbled in work groups like media, action, cooking, entertainment and security. Nothing was done without a democratic vote, which is decided not by ballot, but jazz hands.

Post 11 p.m., when a meeting is over, it's hard not to be drained of energy and there was no real political reasoning or discourse left. The ukeleles, banjos, drums, guitars, board games, trivia and charades were all ushered in when everyone's political mind was checking out.

Even the most active of the activists needs sleeping in a sleeper.
And to them the next day could be the great leap forward.

I borrowed and modified that last two sentences from a Billy Bragg song, but he probably wouldn't mind. He e-mailed the occupation with his support.

Noam Chomsky did, too.

And when that sort of support trickles in, it's hard for students not to be amped. But the prospect of another night on the floor or wedged between seats is still pretty bleak, especially when there's the option of leaving to a comfy bed and a cozy duvet.

Since students occupied the Fine Art building in early November, they turned the lecture hall, attached foyers and small hallway into their own. The goal was something like the utopia fashioned by French students in 1968. This was their chance to go down in the textbooks.

To the thousands of kids who turned out at demonstrations they organized, the many lecturers who stopped by to show support and the unions that showed solidarity -- these kids were an inspiration, and the goal to recreate '68 was achieved.


Two cities, four rivers

While Newcastle and Pittsburgh are an ocean apart, they are not that different. Both cities have a post-industrial past. Newcastle was once a huge hub for coal mining; Pittsburgh, for steel. Both have undergone a transformation in recent years as the industries have waned and the labor exported.

Like Pittsburgh and its surrounding area, Newcastle has embraced the arts and high-tech. And both cities have several universities in them or around the region.

Yet the British tuition fee increase, when it goes into effect in 2012, will still keep tuition lower than my one year of undergraduate at West Virginia University.

It's not a game of who's got the higher tuition, because that's a competition no one wants to win. But it is stunning to think that British students nationwide were galvanized at the drop of a hat. While Parliament passed the increase in due course, students certainly had an effect -- the law passed by the tight margin of 21 votes.

As an American, I was raised to expect high tuition. While me parents were saving for college costs well before I was born, the parents of my friends in Newcastle were going to college for free. University is seen as a right, not a privilege, here. It was free before and it could be free again, or at least fairer. Education is still free in Scotland.

That notion is a bit mind-bending to me, who always saw education as a service, and then tuition as a fee for the service. I never thought of it as a right. I understood that I paid tuition based on a tax bracket, my parents' income and a free market and learned to live within those constraints, albeit in debt.

So for someone who saw tuition spiked by a few percentage points several times over four years at WVU, the idea of an occupation and waves of mass demonstrations was both incomprehensible and inspiring.


Going out with glitter

Eighteen days after the occupation began, students were sloshing paint on each other's faces, dumping glitter in hair, blowing kazoos, waving noisemakers and putting the finishing touches on banners.

None of the demands they presented to the administration were met. Parliament had passed the vote to triple tuition and the peaceful demonstration of thousands of students were replaced by headlines of Prince Charles and Camilla being ambushed in their Rolls-Royce on the way to the theater.

Hanging heads in defeat and wondering what could have been was not the call for the day. For over a half of a month, these kids turned this occupied space into their own.

They had plotted a variety of actions: The fat-cat suit and the 9,000 fake 1-pound notes. A lie-in. The occupation of the city council chambers. A funeral procession for education and several well-organized and well-attended demonstrations that even the police commended them for.

They had lecturers deliver alternative courses, held gigs, had arts and crafts. They built a society that, just a mere 24 hours after vacating, left everyone who slept on the cushions or floor with a wistful longing to return.

And even if it smelled of feet, those were the feet of friends -- and the lasting smell of a winter of discontent that had just begun.


Jon Offredo ( jonoffredo.com ), a former Post-Gazette intern and recent graduate of West Virginia University, is a graduate student in International Multimedia Journalism at Newcastle University in Britain. Photographer Lindsay Mackenzie ( lindsaymackenzie.com ) is also a graduate student at Newcastle. The Next Page is different every week: John Allison, jallison @post-gazette.com , 412-263-1915


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