Friday, November 12, 2010

UK Tuition Hike Spurs Protests

NYT: Protest in London Turns Violent
Financial Times: London Street Protest Turns Violent
WSJ: UK Students Protest Higher Tuition Fees
BBC: Q&A: University Funding

In an effort to curb Government spending and balance the budget, the UK Government has proposed to cut funding for higher education by 40%. These cuts include the elimination of teaching grants in all areas except for science and math. Under the new proposal, a tuition hike that will be implemented in 2012 will cover these costs. The education cuts are part of a larger UK spending plan to cut $130 billion by 2015.

The proposal will allow universities to charge £6,000 to £9,000 ($9,600 to $14,400) in tuition per year. This is a significant increase from the current caps on university tuition, which is £3,290 ($5,264) per year. The hike is even more significant in light of the fact that until the late 1990s, college tuition was free. It wasn't until the Labor Government introduced tuition fees in 1997, requiring all students to pay £1,000 in tuition fees per year of study, that British students had to pay anything at all to attend a university. Under the new plan, the Government will continue to loan students money to cover tuition costs; graduates will have to start paying their loans once they earn £21,000 or more per year, up from £15,000; and graduates will be required to pay up to 9% of their monthly income towards their student loan debts. The interest rate at which the repayments will be made, currently at 1.5%, will be raised according to a progressive tapering system: interest rates will not increase at all for anyone making less than £21,000, but will increase to 3% or more for those making more than £41,000.

The Government has traditionally subsidized higher education in the UK and many students are protesting this transition with great fervor. An estimated 52,000 people came together near Parliament on Wednesday to protest the new education proposals. Fourteen people, including seven police officers, were injured, and thirty-five were arrested. The protests turned violent when the protesters attempted to storm the Milbank Building that houses the Conservative Party. Protesting students set fires, smashed windows, fought police, and eventually made their way to the roof of the Milbank building, from which they threw down water, paper, and even a fire extinguisher, onto crowds of people below.

The protest was organized by the National Union of Students and the University and College Union, the academics' trade union, and was intended to be peaceful. NUS president Aaron Porter claimed that a "small minority" undermined the efforts of the rest of the group that sought to maintain a peaceful protest. Porter and others argued that the violence would undermine their message. One vice-chancellor from a London university making this point stated "[the protest] could not have gone better for the Government. George Osborne [the current Chancellor of the Exchequer] will be delighted."

Discussion questions: Given the state of the economy in the UK, are the protesters overreacting to the Government's decision to increase tuition? What could the UK do to avoid increasing costs for students?

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