Protestors tell Willetts: “We are not passive, we are not apathetic”

Image credit: Photo: Amy Provan

David Willetts, the Conservative Science and Universities minister was met by protesters inside and out when he addressed the Cambridge Union today. Despite reportedly assigning 250 tickets for the event, only 40-50 students turned up, roughly the same number as were protesting outside.

Defending the raising of tuitions fees, and highlighting the importance of university education both publicly and privately were key features of Willetts’s speech. He considers fees a “fair and progressive way of financing education” that is “essentially a graduate contribution scheme to the cost of education they are getting”.

Soon after Willetts started speaking, two Cambridge Defend Education supporters held up a ‘f**k off Willetts’ sign while Protesters’ chants from outside could be heard from inside the chamber, casting their shadow over the event.

Although their peers cheered the two students’ exit of the Union, Tom Byrne from Clare College called their act “a misguided tactic, rude, and uncalled for.”

Responding to the possibility of students being put off going to university by high fees, Willets expressed that “if any young person thought that they couldn’t afford to go to university then that would be a tragedy”. Though he emphasised that his “modest budget for informing people of reality” may explain why certain students were put off university immediately after the policy was implemented.

The talk also touched on students’ rights in relation to education, “many parts of the decision you take and the rights that you have, do resemble those of consumers”. Willetts argued that fees thus “empower” students. “Students are entitled to say to university management ‘I’m entitled to £9000 worth of education.’”

Dr Drew Milne, an English faculty member who addressed the protestors spoke passionately against treating higher education in this way. He accused the current government of attempting to “demoralise and weaken the ways in which [public universities] might work” and promoting a “private interest based university system designed for profit”.

Willett’s decision to address the Cambridge Union was by “no accident”, according to Jia Hui Lee, the CUSU education officer, when he addressed the protesters. He emphasised that Willetts spoke “in a private member’s club protected by police” the very people who were shown last term to spy on students who were trying to make their voices heard.

Cambridge Defend Education told The Cambridge Student that: “His [Willetts’s] appearance in Cambridge is taking place behind closed doors, available only to those who pay £175 for the privilege of being a member of a private society. This conversation needs to happen publicly.”

Yet Oliver Jackson, Press Officer for the Cambridge Union explained to TCS: “We invited David Willetts because we wanted to give our members the chance to challenge the person responsible for their university funding.

“It's unfortunate that there are some people who felt that the best way to challenge Mr Willetts was to protest against him outside the Union rather than interrogating him inside…”

Victoria Brown, a John’s student who attended the debate, agreed describing it as “a shame” that so few students turned up to hear Willetts speak. “I thought he was willing to speak to people that disagreed, yet he was overshadowed by the lack of people and the protests.”

Explaining the decision of CDE to express their dissatisfaction in very public protests, Laurence Rowly-Abel declared: “[Willetts] needs to see and not be allowed to forget the fact that students are really angry about this, and people are not going to stand here and accept them quietly.

“What they rely on is passivity and the most important thing I think we can do is show that we are not passive, we are not apathetic.”

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