Tuition fee rises are big news in the UK. Thousands of students came out onto the streets in London in November during a peaceful official student demonstration. However, a large number became angry, and thousands of students at the end of that protest expressed their anger by making an occupation of Tory Party headquarters at Millbank.
UK government policy since the coalition government of the Conservatives and Liberals was formed in May, has done nothing but succeed in creating militancy. In addition, the fees which have been announced amount to a complete Liberal policy reversal since their election campaign featured strongly in promises to reduce or remove student fees, not increase them as is now planned.
Under the new policies, UK Universities will be permitted to charge more than before, by a wide margin up to a ceiling of GBP 9,000, but the government has stressed that these will be ‘exceptional cases’. In order to charge more than GBP 6,000, institutions ‘will have to show how they will spend some of the additional income making progress in widening participation and fair access’. Universities will face financial penalties if they do not meet this condition.
Universities that charge anything above this would have to pay a rising levy on each further GBP 1,000. This levy will, if this measure is passed by the parliament, go to the government and act to deter universities from charging higher fees.
In addition to the fee issue the government has been showcasing new policies on which courses will in future receive subsidies and this policy will seek to reduce subsidy on the more frivolous seeming courses. Against this, many are pointing out that education is not just about what society needs in order to function, it should also be about exploring what the student is interested in.
Many are saying that the policy will fail to give better value, because education isn’t a quantifiable or a tangible good, so simplistically setting the value of it relative to its price is just wrong and one big area where little evidence and opinion reigns. Education is measured in units, in numbers of lectures attended, in numbers of pages devoted to papers, number of pages read. Many of the student protestors would say that this mirrors the gross and vulgar consumerism in the society at large. It fails to value the real world benefits of a huge variety courses across the spectrum of the arts, by seeking that everything will be reduced to a lowest common denominator, the cost.
Such student action has not been seen in the UK since Thatcherism and Reaganomics changed the political scene completely when they broke the back of the trade union movement. Doing so increased social division, and greatly reduced the Welfare State. The doctrine in that era in the UK was that the population should be allowed to swim or sink. That appeared extreme to many at the time, and New Labour (under Blair and then Brown) reinstated many of the benefits with time. However, the militants are now pointing out that in their view, these attacks are not just deeper but broader.