Waving placards with slogans including "Where’s your (arts and) humanity?" "Knowledge: £9,000 per annum," and "Students are broke: the system is broken," demonstrators marched from Whitehall, through Westminster and along Millbank.
The protest, which took place under the banner "Fund Our Future: Stop Education Cuts," rang out with the chant: "No ifs, no buts, no education cuts."
It was organized by the University and College Union and the National Union of Students, with estimates of the number of participants varying from 25,000 to over 50,000.
In one flashpoint, a group of protesters forced their way into the Conservative Party headquarters in Millbank Tower, resulting in the evacuation of workers from the building and clashes between police and demonstrators. It is not known whether those who broke into the building are students.
The day of action followed the government’s decision to cut the higher education budget by 40 percent, with funding for teaching bearing the brunt of the retrenchment. The cuts have led to accusations that the government has effectively privatized arts and humanities courses, which in future will have to secure all their funding from fees. The government has also announced its intention to replace the current cap on fees, which stands at £3,290, with a two-tier cap of £6,000 or £9,000.
Students have been particularly enraged by the proposals as all Liberal Democrat MPs in the coalition government signed a National Union of Students pledge before the election promising to oppose any increase in fees.
Speaking during the march, Patrick Turner, a lecturer in education studies at London Metropolitan University, told Times Higher Education he was protesting against “the whole set of proposals, the whole approach to higher education. It is the privatization of higher education, the idea is that higher education is something you do as an individual to ensure one's employability rather than a public good. A civilized society requires highly educated citizens. The removal of block grant from the humanities, arts and social sciences is a profound act of cultural vandalism."
Another protester, Hilary Fishwick, a third-year English literature student at Bolton University, said: "I’m here for the children that are growing up now, our children. I voted Lib Dem and look what has happened. I feel angry, like we’ve been had over. It is like daylight robbery."
At a press conference before the march, Aaron Porter, the NUS president, said that the union would use "right-to-recall" legislation planned by the government to put pressure on Liberal Democratic MPs who were considering breaking the pledge.
He described the protest as a response to "an unprecedented attack on our education system, cuts that will undoubtedly lead to the dismantling of our further and higher education sectors. What I have been overwhelmed by is the sense by which students and staff are coming together to show our opposition to this. I think this will be a landmark in a much bigger campaign.... I see this as a campaign that is in Westminster today but goes out into local constituencies tomorrow."
Among the Liberal Democrats likely to find themselves targeted include the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and the party’s former universities spokesman Stephen Williams.
Alan Whitaker, from the UCU, said: "If anybody imagines that universities are going to get any more money from the tripling of tuition fees then they are wrong because at the same time tuition fees have been trebled, the teaching grant to universities has been cut.
"The net result is going to be no gain and possibly even a loss. What is happening is a massive shift of the cost of university education from the state to the student and that is something that we regard as absolutely deplorable."
He said that one of the impacts of transferring the costs of education to students themselves was that students would look for courses that led to "lucrative" jobs.
"The problem with that is that it means an awful lot of courses that, on the face of it, don’t appear to be particularly job-specific are not going to appear as attractive to students in the coming years," he said.