Student Protests in London: What’s the Basis?
by Rohan Smith | UNC- Chapel Hill
On the 9th of November 2011, thousands of student protestors took to the streets of London to demonstrate against tuition increases that will come into effect with the next academic year. The British government, a coalition between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party, have led the initiative to raise University fees from £3,000 to £9,000 per year for tuition ($4,740 to $14,220 in American dollars). The thought process behind these raises were outlined in a report, titled: Securing A Sustainable Future For Higher Education, An Independent Review Of Higher Education Funding And Student Finance, which was headed up by Lord Browne of Madingley. (To read an alternative version to the Browne Report, follow this link: Alternative White Paper: In Defence of Public Higher Education)
The protestors’ anger at these tuition increases is aimed at a government that is facing a severe national debt and is searching for ways in which to cut public spending. The Browne Report proposes that placing a greater emphasis on private investments (rather than public spending) in Universities can do this and that the increases in fees will not directly affect students in any case because they will not face the charges upfront. Rather, students will pay nothing until they have graduated, and even then only once they are earning over £21,000 per year. It sounds like a reasonable deal, doesn’t it? One begs to ask: what is the big furor about then? If you do not pay these fees upfront and are covered by the government, then surely this is a positive move forward?
Unfortunately, the reality is not as simple as all that. As progressive as it may sound, the proposed move toward a more privatised University system in which there is heightened competition between schools, and prospective students are regarded as consumers of a product, will have dire consequences for the value of education. It pushes the emphasis away from the sacred nature of knowledge and seeks to turn it into just another commodity that can be bought if you have enough money. Proponents of the tuition increases argue that it will have no such effect and that it will simply lead to an increased level of quality across the University system.
The reality is that it will actually lead to greater discrepancies in the standard of Universities. Those institutions that already have an established name and reputation will, without a doubt, receive greater private funding because they will be seen as safer investments while those schools at the other side of the spectrum will fall by the wayside from a lack of private funding and therefore an inability to meet the quality standards expected. In effect it could well lead to a reduction in the number of courses offered at University campuses, which in turn limits the number of students who are able to attend University.
This is the backdrop against which 15,000 students took to the streets on the 9th of November. University in the UK used to be completely free; it was then raised to £1,000 per year and in the last seven years has been increased to over £3,000 per year. While the percentage of the population who attend University has increased over the years, the jump to £9,000 could reverse this trend drastically. Students from low-income backgrounds will be deterred from this price tag and higher education will once again become a privilege of the wealthy. By default this will also increase inequalities based on race and gender. These are issues that cannot be ignored.
The University system in the UK is something worth fighting for, and the students know this. They/we are not willing to stand for the march toward a society that places greater value on capital than it does on human needs and rights. They/we are not willing to watch an education system move backwards in scope and become a marketplace for aggressive competition that could well detract from the value of the education provided across the board. The protests will continue to go on as long as these increased fees remain in place.
I personally stand in solidarity with those students who are against the tuition increases. Coming from an area in London where many do not have the privilege of accessing University for a plethora of socio-economic reasons, I understand the struggle all too well. This is far greater than just an increase in tuition- it is evidence of an underlying disconnect of the ruling class from that of the people they govern. When our politicians and prime ministers overwhelmingly come from very small slices of the demographic makeup of society, the result is a governing body that cannot relate to the struggles that people face on a day-to-day basis if they do not come from a position of privilege. The raise in tuition fees will simply exacerbate this disconnect by further alienating individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds. When speaking about the issues I have outlined here with friends back home, I have found that very few agree with the government’s actions. Everyone I know has the same feeling of dread and disbelief at the implications of these tuition hikes.
It is also interesting to see how the global situation with regard to education seems to have many parallels. Today in North Carolina there were talks going on about the plans to increase in-state tuition at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill by 15.6% and out of state by 6.5%. Why must it be the essential and integral parts of our society that face the brunt of the economic problems that have been created through various fiscal and political faults? The public university is an important part of life, and it is necessary to preserve so that there are opportunities for people from across economic, racial and social spheres. We must fight to preserve its availability to everyone.Rohan Smith is a NextGen Journal Correspondent. He doesn't know exactly what he wants to major in, but he has interests in journalism, creative writing and African Studies. From Great Britain, he is studying at North Carolina for the next four years and is currently playing for their JV basketball team.