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Next Thursday, December 9th, the British Parliament will vote on plans to raise university tuition fees to GBP 9,000. It may not sound like much to Americans used to tuition as high as $30,000, but British students, who are used to minimal fees, have been up in arms for the past few weeks. And both student groups and academic trade unions are already organizing nationwide protests on the day before the vote. A massive rally is being planned to take place outside of Westminster Palace on the day of the vote itself.
This will be the latest round of student actions against the government, which has been looking at different ways to cut its fiscal deficit—including reducing the reliance of British universities on public funds.
To some observers, these protests are little more than the expressions of pampered students with too little coursework, too much pocket money, and a penchant for pulp violence. Yet, more generally, they are also a symptom of a state-induced moral crisis, the result of decades of welfare-state policies that have eroded the ideas of self-reliance, personal responsibility, proportion and restraint—all noble (but nearly forgotten) British virtues.
But perhaps a brief recapitulation is in order.
The student mobilizations planned for next week are a follow-up to protests and mobilizations that have taken place during the past few weeks. The first wave of protests took place on November 10th, when 50,000 students (and some junior faculty) marched toward Westminster. Events that day quickly turned violent and when the mob reached the headquarters of the Conservative Party, students broke through police barricades and vandalized the building. More than a dozen people were injured and at one point a fire extinguisher was thrown at police from the roof. Property damage ran into the hundreds of thousands of pounds. Outside, the increasingly surly mob burned effigies of Prime Minister David Cameron (Conservative) and his Deputy, Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat).
On that day, Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students (NUS), a left-wing student group, announced that this was “only the beginning”. Inciting the crowd further, he had called for “an unparalleled response” to the government’s plans and promised a “new wave of action”. That second wave of action took place on November 24th in London and at universities across the country.
At issue are proposed changes in higher education funding as suggested in an independent review prepared by Lord [John] Browne of Madingley, the former CEO of BP. The report included vague—yet fiscally conservative—recommendations for reducing the budget deficit by changing the funding of higher education.
Separately, as announced by Michael Gove (Conservative), Secretary of State for Education, the government is considering other contentious actions, such as cutting the Education Maintenance Allowance, a scheme that pays young people to attend classes and study, and the abolition of AimHigher, a program designed to widen participation of under-represented groups in higher education by raising “aspirations and motivation”, strengthening “progression routes into higher education” and improving the “motivation and self-esteem” of young people.
But it is the possibility of a tripling of undergraduate tuition fees at British universities that has most raised the ire of students. Currently, Brits and EU residents pay less than £3,300 per year in tuition. (A few years ago there were no fees at all.) Scotland and Wales fall somewhat outside of the debate: Scotland still has no tuition fees and a Welshman attending university in Wales pays nominal annual fees of around £1,200.
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