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British Austerity Battle Takes Up "Facts on Fees"

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, December 10 2010

Tories in the British government are rather chuffed with the response to their online campaign called "Fact on Fees," an attempt to push the conservative take on tuition increases for universities in the UK.

And even those in Britain who don't agree with the policy matter at hand are grudgingly impressed with the way that the Conservative Party preformed in what observers say is the biggest back and forth in digital politics to take place since general election in May that put a coalition of Tories and Lib Dems in power.

"Memo to Cowley Street -- we need to step up our game on comms," tweeted Newcastle Lib Dem councillor Greg Stone, "see attached for ideas," and linking to the FactsOnFees.com site. Cowley Street is a reference to his party's headquarters. Dominic Campbell, a new media strategist who has worked with Labour in the past, tweeted praise: "nice comms whether u agree with policy or not." And the campaign got the benefit of celebrity, with rugby star Ugo Monye tweeting out a link to the site with the note, "Check this out." The factsonfees hashtag has also gained considerable traction.

A Tory staffer judges that the success of the effort is traced back in part to the fact that the site is focused on the policy debate, rather than the Conservative brand. The website focuses on 10 common myths about tuition increase ("Myth 6: "The poor won't be able to go to uni") and combats them with easily digestible information chunks ("Fact: With no upfront fees, no-one should be put off going to university on financial grounds.") The UK Parliament did, indeed, pass the rate hikes.

But the hikes' legislative passage hasn't dimmed the pushback by protesters, who Reuters reports, are poised for future engagement after some having provoked a strong reaction by the Duchess of Cornwell yesterday. (One protestor can be heard yelling in the video footage in the linked piece, "Off with their heads! Off with their heads!") Protestors earlier trashed Tory headquarters over the tuition increases, and the austerity measures of which they are part.

As Boing Boing noted, protestors in London have attempted to use mobile mapping via Google Maps to avoid police "kettling" during the protests. Ushahidi's Patrick Meier has suggested that such "maptivism" is better done with tools like Ushahidi's CrowdMap and GroundCrew that were built with similar purposes in mind. The Guardian has an interactive map showing how the protests went.

Conservatives have aimed their message about the acceptability of the increases straight at uni students, distributing a Facts on Fees flier on campuses [pdf] that include a barcode-esque QR code that code be scanned with a mobile phone to connect up with more information on the hikes.

One sign that the Conservatives' "Facts on Fees" online/offline campaign has served its purpose? Opponents have launched a counter campaign modeled on the original. Meet the recently-launched Real Facts on Fees. The site is focused on providing what its creators say is the fuller picture of the Tory take on the tuition increases, with "the maths to prove it."