When hundreds of angry students smash the windows and break into the UK Conservative Party’s headquarters in London, something must be really wrong — after all, England is a country famous for its ostensibly orderly behaviour and polite, stiff upper-lipped manners. Slashing higher education funding — a move that would make UK universities the least funded in the entire Organisation for Economic Development Co-operation and Development — tipped the balance of patience. 50.000 students took to the streets of the British capital on Wednesday to make their voices heard. The coalition government is tripling tuition fees for universities (which are all public). The London School of Economics is seriously considering going private after having spent billions of taxpayers’ money to purchase buildings in the neighbourhood; after all, it is not allowed to make a bottom-line profit of more than a few percent as a public university. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that those whose younger sisters and brothers will end up with decades of large, mortgage-style debts are enraged — they can see the future of public education crumbling in front of them.
Before the elections, every single Member of Parliament for the Liberal Democrats — the third largest party and the coalition government partner of the Conservative Party — promised to vote against any increase in tuition fees. They even discussed abolishing tuition fees altogether. Now they sing a different tune; they tell the electorate that the new system is “progressive and fair” when exactly the opposite is the case — the new system is stagnant, exploitative and blatantly unfair.
Many students argue that shifting the burden of payment from the government to the student is necessary if Britain is to compete with the best American universities. This is false. Since total spending on higher education is significantly dropping, it doesn’t make sense that universities will improve as a result of the proposed funding changes. More importantly, the very same argument was put forward in 1998 when tuition fees were first introduced in Britain. Until then, attending university was free and financed through a progressive taxation scheme — many continental European countries are now doing the same. Shifting the cost burden from (indirect) income taxation to (direct) consumption tax is an increase in the marketisation of education and will deter students from lower socio-economic backgrounds from attending college, especially those perceived as elite: Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics, Imperial College London and so on. These universities already have horrible track-records in attracting poorer students — they will do even more poorly when tuition fees increase. London Metropolitan University, a young inner-city institution, has more black students than the entire the UK’s 20 ‘top’ universities. British ethnic minorities are being pushed out of the system; they will feel the detrimental effects of the new cuts and tuition fee increases more than any other group of students. A recent study showed that young people in rich neighbourhoods are five times more likely to go to university than those in the poorest.
An ironic side-effect that the UK Treasury seems to have overlooked is that, since the government provides student loans to cover tuition fees, the state’s frozen holdings will triple along with its tripling of fees. In other words, the plan that was intended to inject money into the hands of the government will have the opposite effect. The loan scheme is essentially a progressive tax scheme — except without the benefits of opening university doors for poor students.
It has been a long time since England has seen angry protesters lighting fires in the streets, breaking windows, and destroying property. Yet, the action is justified. These cuts are wide-ranging and will profoundly damage Britains system of higher education system. When it comes to the treasury purse, the government has decided to renew Trident — an unnecessary, Cold War-reminiscent nuclear warhead program that costs more than four times as much as the education cuts. It is question of priorities. Other countries have ring-fenced higher education; they understand that the future of the Western European economy is technology and innovation. This comes from a premimum on higher education spending. Britain will be severely punished for this cynical, misguided approach in generations to come. As some students occupy lecture halls and university buildings, others march in the streets. This might be the beginning of the first British student movement for decades — and it is wholly justified.