U.K. Students Protest Rise In University Fees

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Tens of thousands of students have marched through the streets of London in Britain's largest protest so far against the government's new austerity program. The march was specifically organized to protest the tripling of university tuition fees, with many students saying the increase would mark the end of opportunity for children from poorer families. Although largely peaceful, some of the protesters tussled with police and broke windows in the headquarters of the Conservative Party, the senior partner in Britain's coalition government.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In London today, tens of thousands of students and their professors marched through the middle of the city in a protest that eventually turned violent. They were demonstrating against the British government's plans to raise university tuition fees and cut teaching budgets.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

(Soundbite of political demonstration)

PHILIP REEVES: This demonstration took Britain by surprise. No one expected such a big crowd to take to London's streets. No one expected trouble. Organizers say the turnout was more than 50,000.

Most of the students, professors and others who came to vent their anger did so peacefully. But one group broke off from the main rally. They smashed windows and set fires. They got into a tall building that includes the headquarters of the Conservative Party that heads the coalition government and took over the roof.

London's metropolitan police commissioner described the day's events as an embarrassment for the city and its police. He admitted his force hadn't anticipated violence.

The main organizer of the march was the National Union of Students, led by its president Aaron Porter.

Mr. AARON PORTER (President, National Union of Students): I absolutely condemn the small minority of students and others that have gone off for this splinter demonstration. This was not part of the plan.

REEVES: Britain has been largely untouched by the massive protests against government austerity cuts that have swept some parts of Europe. This is its largest demonstration since the government unveiled a program last month of huge spending cuts.

Opponents to those cuts are now mobilizing. The students are protesting plans to raise university tuition fees by up to three times, to more than $14,000 a year. The government's also cutting teaching budgets by 40 percent.

The authorities said only ten people were injured and several dozen arrested, yet this protest is significant for other reasons: It signals Britain may be returning to an era of confrontation of a kind it hasn't seen since Margaret Thatcher was in power.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

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