Well it is all kicking off in London today on the student demonstration. And about time too. The other week, Britain’s new(ish) Coalition government announced plans to hike university tuition fees up to £9,000 per year.
Understandably, students are livid, especially since one half of the coalition, the Liberal Democrats, explicitly stated that they would not increase tuition fees. Indeed all the sitting Libdem MPs in Parliament signed a pledge not to increase the cost of higher education.
Any cynic worth his salt would be unsurprised at the backstabbing actions of a handful of lying toadying do-anything-for-a-vote Libdems. But the general national feeling seems to be, as Old Rope reads it at least, one of “We expect this shit from the Tories, but not you”.
Now it is all going off in Larndan town as 52,000 students (NUS estimate, you can half it for the TBC police estimate) hit the capital. Conservative HQ has been occupied, some bonfires lit and a few windows smashed. Boohoo. It’ll make the news and the real story, “lying politicians shaft the public again”, will be lost in a wave of clumsy cameraphone footage and TV journo hack hyperbole.
To put the fees hike into some sort of rough perspective, for non-students/graduates or non-UK readers, here are a few notes about higher education in Britain…
Universities in the UK are, theoretically, public. After World War II, Local Education Authorities (LEAs) in Britain paid tuition fees on behalf of students in their area. Following the Education Act 1962 they were also legally obliged to pay them a maintenance grant as well, theoretically allowing students from less privileged backgrounds the opportunity to go to university.
In 1998, following the report by Sir Ron Dearing, Tony Blair’s supposedly Labour government sold its principals down the river and introduced tuition fees to students. Again, to the seasoned cynic, Blair’s centre-left credentials were already zero, indeed his raison d’être was to remould the party into something the middle and upper-classes would vote for. But the abolition of free Higher Education even peeved the middle classes, a bit.
Furthermore the student maintenance grant was abolished and replaced with loans, to be provided via a non-departmental government body, The Student Loans Company. The income of each student’s parents was assessed and the absolute poorest exempted from the costs.
Fees were set at £1,000 per year, rising with inflation.
The maintenance loans were to be repaid once students had graduated and were earning over £15,000 per year, at a rate of 9% of income.
In 2004, despite having promised to the contrary in their 2001 manifesto, Blair’s Labour government introduced “Top-up” fees in England and Wales, bumping the cost of studying to £3,000 per year. The Bill caused a stink in Parliament, prompted backbench rebellion, and it scraped through by a mere 5 votes despite the government’s huge majority in the house. The vote was even more controversial since 46 Scottish Labour MPs, whose students were unaffected by the legislation, voted in favour of the Act.
The same old stench of shit was wafting through the House of Commons.
By the 2005/6 academic year, the Student Loans Company was providing £2.79 billion in loans to 1,080,000 students. A generation of young people enslaved by debt before they had even entered the slimy hands of wage-labour.
She willnee work Cap’n!
Leaving aside any political opinions on charging for “public” education, least of all by politicians who got it for free, the system was intrinsically flawed from the off.
There was, of course, no obligation for parents to pay the fees even if they were assessed as being in a position to do so. Some students were therefore saddled with the cost of the fees, paid out of their loan, then forced to borrow yet more to pay their living costs.
Additionally, the government got a wake-up call when, after several years, it became apparent that insufficient graduates were earning over £15,000 a year and therefore not repaying their loans. The limit was duly dropped to the measly £10,000 (currently about the minimum you can earn working full-time with the national minimum wage, though admittedly the NMW was lower at this time).
Graduates were leaving with large debts they would be paying off for decades to come. Though the “Top-up” fees from 2006-onwards did not have to be paid up-front, it meant that the long-term debts were increased. The newly announced system will treble the cost of the fees alone.
Back of the class
Though tuition fees are much higher in some countries, notably the US, my European and Latin-American friends laugh at the notion that in Britain we pay for public universities.
As with all the other public expenditure cuts being wreaked by the government this is little more than a thinly veiled ideological manoeuvre. The Tories are slashing spending as a matter of principal and, by the same token, are more than happy to re-engineer Higher Education to benefit the privileged and wealthy. Good on the students who are taking to the streets to reject these measures.
Update (21.30 BST, that’s 18.30 in Argentina baby!)
This video is from the BBC site. Interesting to hear a fairly articulate student (novel in itself these days) being allowed to talk freely on air and call for direct action (not, it should be noted, violence). Hope the embedding of the video works below