[Photo by Ella Chappell]y
BY LAURA WESTERMAN For the last three months I’ve been constantly clicking through the BBC website reading column inch after column inch of news about the tuition fee battle in my home country while studying for a year abroad at Temple University, where the out-of-state student population pays up to $27,000 per year to study. The ongoing fight against the tuition fee increase in the U.K. over this period has provoked an intense political stand-off between politicians and British students. As you may recall, back on December 9th of last year thousands of students and protesters flocked to Parliament Square in central London to challenge their government’s proposal to increase higher education tuition fees from approximately £3,300 per annum to £9,000 beginning in September 2012, a proposal that would almost triple the cost for students to attend university.
The recent appointment of Conservative MP David Cameron as Prime Minister has inevitably altered government priorities. This, coupled with the country’s economic instability and right wing influence, has also forced the majority of the left wing Liberal Democrats (a party whom I supported in the general election in May of last year) to discontinue their efforts to reduce tuition fee costs; the majority of Liberal Democrat MPs still in opposition in December dramatically decreased from 83 to 21 according to voting statistics. Whilst I am aware that the country needs to gradually rebuild its economy following the recession, I fail to fully comprehend why the fees must triple and why the majority of the Liberal Democrats have suddenly purged themselves of any sympathy for students. The cuts being made to major programs such as Arts and Humanities, which may well cut as much as 80% of government funding for higher education, also illustrate how the government is slowly losing recognition of what is really important for the U.K. and its citizens.
As a U.K. citizen and student, I am enraged at this proposal and incensed at the prospect that poorer students will be less likely to afford a university degree when the proposed fees are finally implemented. Whilst the government does stress that universities are required to protect access for poorer students (and loans would not have to be re-paid until the student earns at least £21,000 per annum after graduation) I have no doubt that the increase in fees will discourage many from gaining a higher education.
Despite the need for direct action to challenge government authority, the violent riots in central London on December 9th were a rather juvenile response to the rise in fees: window-smashing, the pulling down of fences in Parliament Square, the vandalizing of government buildings and statues, assaults on mounted policemen trying to restrain the rowdy crowds and even an attack on Prince Charles’ car as he was driven to the Royal Variety Performance with the Duchess of Cornwall. Whilst the royal couple was unharmed despite the paint missiles lobbed their way and a cracked car window, the protesters’ cause was tainted by their actions. Twelve officers and 43 protesters were injured that day and 34 protesters were arrested. Whilst I fully support protests that will help in swaying the government’s decision, the violence was unnecessary and students lost the respect of the MPs that were making the final verdict. Many considered the police to be acting in a totalitarian way, but the violence proved that they really did need their shields as a form of protection against the masses.
Compared to the US, U.K. students have had it pretty easy. Regardless of my own frustration, I recognize that the U.K.’s current tuition fees have been relatively low-priced in comparison the other side of the Atlantic. As an exchange student in Philadelphia, I am continually intrigued to hear different perspectives on the American education system and after striking up conversations of that nature, many students reluctantly accept the astounding fees and the far-from-flawless education structure. Should the U.K. student population really be complaining when you consider that in-state tuition in Pennsylvania currently runs as high as $15,000 a year (approximately $1,500 more than U.K. students will be forced to pay when the proposed tuition hikes go into effect in 2012)?
After supporting an education system in the U.K. that benefited students and encouraged people from all backgrounds to attend university, students are disappointed in their government’s decision. As a student, I do feel betrayed, but realize that there are education systems worldwide that charge their students twice as much as U.K. tuition fees. After hearing about the riots in London directly from my best friend who joined the crowds in opposition to the increase, it is evident that students do not fully understand the policies that will be implemented. While reacting against government decisions and voicing opinions is far from irrational, U.K. students need to take a step back and consider the country as a whole and form a decision based on whether they think the education system will benefit from the increase. Tripling the tuition fees is a step too far in my opinion, but a recognition that there is a worldwide student struggle for access to higher education, and that in most countries students already pay far more than their counterparts in the U.K. might make that bitter pill a little easier to swallow.