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.
No one should be surprised that the government is looking for ways to reduce its fiscal debt. Britain, like other advanced economies, is currently experiencing the most difficult economic environment in decades. The latest estimates from the Office for Budget Responsibility, an independent panel set up by Her Majesty’s Treasury, cut GDP growth forecasts and estimated a staggering budget deficit of GBP 148.5 billion.
But British students—most of whom have been raised on a steady diet of entitlement programs—seem not to appreciate the fiscal straits through which their once proud country is navigating. What British undergraduates pay now is negligible, especially when compared to the actual per capita cost of education. Most seem to care only about maintaining their subsidized education, a testament to the long-term effects that a paternalistic system can have on a society. Accustomed to cradle-to-grave government assistance, people raised in such societies easily lose appreciation for individual effort, forget the meaning of sacrifice and become resistant to the idea of self-reliance.
Much of this was apparent during the protests of November 24th last week. Many students spoke of injustices. “Our rights are being impeded upon,” said one. Another one told the BBC: “[t]his is what happens when they oppress students for so long!” (His pressed clothes and robust countenance raised serious questions about his understanding of the real meaning of oppression.) Billed in London as a “carnival of resistance”, another protestor’s comments belied the seriousness of events when she said, “[h]opefully, it will be a nice, fun way to express our anger!”
Throughout the day, it was clear that the vast majority of protestors weren’t angry in the traditional sense. They were merely looking for excitement and the feeling of belonging to something bigger and greater than themselves. In fact, at times the whole gathering looked more like a dance party: giggling teen girls—some of them well made up—flirted with hoodie-wearing boys, while behind them, hip-hop rhythms blasted from large sound systems.
Student leaders have repeatedly tried to compare their actions to the 1968 student uprising at the Sorbonne. But the only thing these nouveaux student protestors have in common with their French forerunners is that they all seem to come from comfortable backgrounds. These are the spoiled fruits of an age of government largesse.
Still, they put on a good show for the media. On last Wednesday’s day of action, small bonfires were started on the streets of London (using traffic cones), while a police van was attacked outside of Whitehall. There were reports of simultaneous protests in Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Warwick and Edinburgh. At Cambridge, protestors vaulted over the gates to get to University administration buildings. At Oxford, students occupied the famed Bodleian Library, while outside, others held signs that read: “F**K [sic] Fees! Free education now!”
In London, students marched down to the offices of the Liberal Democrats, whose leader, Nick Clegg, is accused of having reneged on a promise to abolish tuition fees. Faced with the anger of the mobs, Clegg apologized profusely saying, “I hate in politics … to make promises that you then find you can’t keep”
One wonders if officials like Clegg could have done a better job of explaining the reason for the proposed changes. Unfortunately, some of the very officials who should have been speaking out against the protestors instead gave them support. Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter and president of Universities UK (an industry association), expressed sympathy for the student protestors, saying that “[we] absolutely support their right to do this … they care about the future.”
Really? Do those who were not protesting and breaking windows not care about the future? Are the students who stayed in their rooms to study indifferent to the ‘plight’ of their classmates? Of course not. It just means that there are still a few sober souls in the British academy who understand that their primary responsibility is to study, and who are likely to feel grateful that they have the opportunity to study at a venerable institution like Durham or Oxford.
In a more competitive economy like the U.S., students typically take on part-time jobs, scrimp and save, take out loans—or rely on their parents—if they need funding. But when one is raised in a welfare state economy like Britain’s, where education, health and housing are provided for by the government as a matter of ‘social justice’, the importance of real effort—and the value of the things obtained through hard work, personal initiative and, yes, sacrifice—is lost. Britain is reaping what it has sowed: a generation of disgruntled students who feel entitled to a free university education because they consider it a ‘right’ rather than a privilege.
Johann Vaduz is a graduate student of the University of Oxford. Mariano Navarro is a graduate student of the University of Leiden and works in Vienna.