Thursday, 11 November 2010

UK tuition increases spark student riot

Fury over the conservative government’s decision to raise university tuition fees as part of its massive spending cuts program boiled over into the streets of London today, culminating in violent clashes at the Conservative Party headquarters at 30 Millbank. What started as a peaceful student protest quickly spun out of control, as demonstrators smashed the windows of the headquarters, poured into the lobby, and scaled the roof. They lit fires, smashed cars and refused to move from the street outside the building. It was unprecedented for a student protest in modern British history, and was the first major violent demonstration against Prime Minister David Cameron’s austerity package.

The protests center around a proposal by Cameron’s government to allow universities to charge students between £6,000 ($9,600) and £9,000 ($14,400) in tuition per year. Currently, tuition fees are capped at £3,290($5,264). These fees may seem low by Americans standards, where university education can cost around $40,000 a year. But they are part of a general shift in the UK that has been a long time in coming. For over a decade, the English education system has been drifting away from the state-funded European model and toward the mass-education American model. In just 15 years, students in the UK will have gone from paying £0 for a four year university education in 1997 to £60,000 in 2012. It’s no wonder students are angry.

In most countries in Europe, tuition fees are completely covered by the state. The trade-off for this free education is that university is reserved for the best and brightest, and is much more specialized than in the United States. Not everyone gets to go to university, and those that do study highly specialized programs (unlike in the US where most people enter university before declaring a major). For instance in France, only 10% of 18-24 year olds were enrolled in higher education in 2009. In the United States, 40% of 18-24 year olds were in higher education that year. European education systems are also much more centralized and are run by the state. In contrast, American universities are largely private, and the best schools are privately run. The United States doesn’t even regulate its private universities.

The UK has always been on the European model of education, until Tony Blair came along with his education reforms in the late 1990’s. His Labour party had a headline goal of increasing the number of young adults enrolled in university to 50%, and the government set about founding a slew of notoriously low-quality new universities across the country. At the time, the old joke went that Tony Blair would put a lectern in a library and call it a university. But as a result of the policy, the rate of university attendance in the UK has steadily increased since the 1990's.

Of course the huge uptick in the number of people attending university meant that the state could no longer afford to pay for all students’ education. So in 1998 the government introduced tuition fees in England (Scotland on the other hand has no tuition fees for Scottish students because they have their own education policy). Between 1998 and 2006 English students paid an amount between £0-£1,250 a year based on their family’s income level. This amount was raised to £3,290 a year in 2006, without consideration of a family’s income (though grants could be obtained on the basis of hardship). Now, the fee is set to rise again. Students are now asking, when will the rises end? When Tony Blair first brought in these education reforms the original amount was presented as a permanent amount. £1,250 was going to be the maximum that would ne necessary for students to pay in exchange for an expansion of university education to more people. This turned out to be a massive miscalculation.

It’s not hard to see that the English higher education system is quickly starting to resemble its American counterpart. If tuition keeps rising at this rate it won’t be long until British students are paying £40,000 a year for university as well. More and more British students enter university simply for the sake of going, without having a specific career-oriented program. This is a concept perfectly at home in the US, but unheard of in Europe. And as more and more students are shoved off to worthless universities, the value of a university degree continues to deteriorate. So you have an increased cost for a product that at the same time is being massively devalued.

Given that the EU job market is an open one, the fact that English students with £60,000 in student debt will be competing in an open labour market with counterparts on the continent who have no student debt will put them at a serious disadvantage. And right now English students have little reassurance that their tuition won’t just keep increasing. A violent riot over tuition increases may seem strange to some, but it makes perfect sense in the context of what’s happened to the university system in England over the past decade.

Tonight the British commentators are all speculating over whether today’s protests portend a return to the violent protests of the Thatcher years. Street demonstrations are generally considered a very un-British thing (it’s the type of things those frogs across the channel get up to after all!), but could the sheer size of the problems facing the UK change all that? Is this the new politics? Only time will tell, but today’s violence could mark just the tip of the iceberg.

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