With the Conservative government announcing new cuts next month, protesters hit the streets en masse as a warning.
British student leaders have condemned government plans to allow universities to raise tuition fees in line with inflation, among other changes.
At a protest in London on Saturday, the National Union of Students (NUS) and the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), which represents lecturers, said they would not comply with any attempt to implement the ruling Conservative Party’s Higher Education bill.
The new measures would rank universities against a framework that included graduate employment rates and a survey of student satisfaction, allowing those that perform well to raise fees.
The move would also make it easier for profit-making institutions to obtain university status.
Officials believe that the plans would improve the competitiveness of British universities and give students more value for money, but the NUS president Malia Bouattia said the legislation was an attempt to privatise education.
“It’s incredible to feel the strength of our movement uniting in the face of this government’s attempts to privatise our education,” Bouattia told protesters gathered near parliament.
“The struggle for an open, accessible, and critical education, is crucial in determining what tomorrow will look like,” she added.
The NUS believes that the government measures would put at risk university departments from which graduates traditionally had lower job prospects, such as in the arts and humanities.
Bouattia put the number of those attending the march at 15,000 but police sources put the figure at less than 5,000.
The last major student protests in the UK took place in 2010 after the newly elected Conservative-led coalition government trebled university fees from $3,700 to $11,000.
Many of those attending Saturday’s protests were only just starting high school when that fee hike took place.
Alice Dermody-Palmer, an 18-year-old planning to study history and politics at university next year, said the government had its priorities wrong in making education more expensive for students.
“We [students] think it’s not fair that we are made to pay for education to the level that we are,” Dermody-Palmer said.
“Cuts to our schools mean that we’re not getting the education that we’re entitled to have.”
The teenager warned that she probably could not pay back the debt she would leave university with.
“I’m just never going to pay it off and there are so many other debts … the chances of me owning a house are so minimal that it feels like everything is closing for our generation and it’s not fair.”
Danny Nasr, the student union president of Goldsmiths, University of London, said that although many existing university students would escape paying higher fees, they wanted to stand in solidarity with future students.
“When [Goldsmiths] were raising fees, we had 400 students outside protesting,” Nasr said.
“They recognise that it might not be for them but it’s about the idea of solidarity … standing in the face of injustice when it comes to accessing education for future generations.”
The UK has some of the highest tuition fees in the world, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development .