• September 4, 2015

British Lawmakers Approve Sharp Increase in Tuition at English Universities

As Cuts Hit European Higher Education Hard, Students and Professors Take to the Streets 1

LEON NEAL, AFP, Getty Images

Angry demonstrators clashed with the police in a student protest outside Parliament in London on Thursday, as the coalition government faced its biggest test yet in a vote on proposals to raise university tuition.

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close As Cuts Hit European Higher Education Hard, Students and Professors Take to the Streets 1

LEON NEAL, AFP, Getty Images

Angry demonstrators clashed with the police in a student protest outside Parliament in London on Thursday, as the coalition government faced its biggest test yet in a vote on proposals to raise university tuition.

In a move that drew new rounds of violent protests by students, British lawmakers on Thursday approved a contentious bill to allow universities in England to increase undergraduate tuition to as much as £9,000 a year—or more than $14,000— from the current rate of £3,290.

With the bill's passage in the House of Commons, by a vote of 323 to 302, the coalition government survived the first significant test of its durability.

The increase, which will take effect for the academic year beginning in the fall of 2012, will transform many English universities into the most expensive public institutions in the world. The average tuition and fees at public four-year institutions in the United States for the last academic year, by contrast, was $7,020. For England, the move marks a radical transformation for a system that did not even charge tuition until 1998.

The £9,000 rate is a cap that the government described as an "absolute limit," intended only to be charged by a handful of universities, with most institutions expected to set their tuition closer to a "basic threshold" of £6,000, or $9,450. But according to a report released by the University and College Union on Wednesday, most universities will have to charge an average tuition of close to £7,000 to maintain current revenue levels in the face of sweeping government cuts.

Students from across the country, many of whom spent the last several weeks protesting the plans with occupations of university buildings and city marches, had descended on London in anticipation of the vote. Authorities had intensified the police presence in and around the Palace of Westminster, where Parliament sits, in hopes of avoiding a repetition of the violence that erupted in the wake of a mass demonstration last month against the proposed fee increase and planned cuts in higher-education financing.

Despite the precautions, clashes between protesters and the police erupted after the vote and continued into the evening. At least 12 officers were injured, six seriously, according to Scotland Yard.

In perhaps the most visible incidents as violence spread through the streets of the capital, a car carrying Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, to the theater was attacked by protesters as it drove down Regent Street, one of London's main shopping thoroughfares. The royal couple were unharmed, but made the return journey home after the performance in an armored police truck.

Implications Across British Isles

Students in Scotland will be unaffected by the measure because tuition at universities there is set by the Scottish government. Last week the Welsh Assembly announced that, although tuition at universities there would rise to the same levels as in England, it would subsidize Welsh students studying anywhere in Britain, meaning that they would continue to pay tuition at the current rate of £3,290 even after the increase. The Northern Ireland Assembly is expected to adopt a measure similar to that of Wales.

Despite the variation, students from across the United Kingdom, including Scotland, have been taking part in the protests and demonstrations, in one measure of the scope of opposition to the government's plans and the depth of student anger and frustration.

Thursday's vote in the House of Commons was closer than had been anticipated. The coalition government, which consists of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, came to power after the general election last May with a comfortable 84-member majority, but it won the tuition vote by a margin of just 21 votes. Twenty-one Liberal Democrats, all of whom had signed a pledge before the election to oppose any increase in fees, voted against the policy, as did six Conservatives.

In a written statement released shortly after the vote, Vince Cable, the secretary of state for business, innovation, and skills, whose office oversees universities, emphasized that, under the new measure, "no student will have to pay upfront for tuition, and both parties in the coalition have worked hard to develop a much fairer and progressive graduate-contribution scheme." Graduates will be required to begin paying back their loans only "once they are in high-earning jobs, with significant discounting for those on low and modest incomes."

Reaction to the vote from higher-education groups was swift. The president of Universities UK, which represents all British universities, called it "a turning point in the funding of universities in England," adding that the result in favor of the government's proposals "was crucial to provide financial stability for our universities."

Meanwhile, the main student and faculty unions made clear their anger at the vote. "We've taken to the streets in our thousands, won the arguments and the battle for public opinion," the president of the National Union of Students said in a written statement. "But this is not the end, and our protests and our work have sparked a new wave of activism which will grow stronger by the day."


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1. fiscalwiz - December 09, 2010 at 05:11 pm

Here's the deal: there are two options for covering the costs of higher education. Either the primary beneficiaries pay (the students who are getting the education) or somebody else pays. THe somebody else -- in this case, the taxpayers of the UK -- have said we aren't interested in paying for your education. Unlike primary and secondary education, the primary beneficiaries of university education are those getting the education, not society as a whole. Society as a whole, meaning the taxpayers of the UK, have said "no thanks" to continuing the regular subsidization. (And they are continuing considerable subsidization through the payment delay system, by the way.) The sugar plum fairy isn't available to pay the bills -- it's either the students or the taxpayers. And the taxpayers have said Nope.

2. theseus - December 09, 2010 at 05:26 pm

"Unlike primary and secondary education, the primary beneficiaries of university education are those getting the education, not society as a whole."

I couldn't agree less. I think this is horrendous for the UK - it is going to restrict higher education to those who come from more comfortably-off families and that, in the long term, is an absolute disaster for society as a whole in the UK. I am so sorry I voted for the Lib Dems in the last election. This is a government that nobody actually voted for.

3. vdolgopolov - December 09, 2010 at 06:18 pm

@fiscalwiz and @theseus: You both have valid points. Economists have long recognized that higher education (and education in general) benefits both the person educated, who is the primary beneficiary of its future benefits, but also benefits the society at large, as education has a large positive externality effect. So, making sure that the society contributes to the cost of education ensures optimal allocation of economic resources and diminishes underproduction of education that would happen in a free market.

At the same time, how much of a subsidy should the society make, provided that the primary beneficiary is still the person being educated?

I am worried that the UK students will become overburdened with educational debt, just like we overburden our higher education graduates in the US.

At the same time, the scheme of income-based repayment reeks of adverse selection present in such cases - students who know they will make higher incomes (MBAs, doctors, accountants) will not choose to participate in those; while art and humanities majors would.

4. daveapostles - December 10, 2010 at 06:43 am

Dearing Commission: tripartite benefit: the individual; society; and business. There is a fairer way to distribute the costs than this Coalition has selected. Fiscalwiz is inaccurate, because the LibDems were elected on the premiss that they would vote against any increase in fees. There is no mandate for this programme. Taxpayers have not given their verdict.

Secondly, the increase in fees is only necessary because the Coalition cut the teaching grant by 80%. Undergraduates were already contributing towards the costs through tuition fees. Had the teaching grant not been cut by 80% (more than any other departmental unit - and it had already been cut by £1bn by Mandelson), the level of fees need only have been increased in line with rpi. A better solution, nonetheless, would have been to reduce the fee to £2k and seek other income streams. One obvious one would be no salary increases for academic staff for five years (since 60% of the £3k fee income stream had been diverted into salaries), but allowing for the living wage for non-academic staff. Another means would be to reduce the levels of administration and management (and the salary levels associated with them). Another means would be to reform Oxbridge. Another income source could be a £1k or £2k levy on graduates who are alive who had received a free education (like myself) to be invested in a hypothecated sinking fund for bursaries.

So, those who should exercise some humility should be: the VCs of the RG and 94 Group who clamoured for more funding through fees, predicting that a fee-level of £7k would not deter applications, which led to the Coalition deciding to cut funding and replace it by this sort of level of fee; and the UCU which consistently demanded higher salaries without considering how that would affect the undergraduate population.

So, what does a minimum fee of £6k mean really? It means that someone working for 40 hours a week on the minimum wage is the equivalent of attending university: £12000 salary = £6000 fee + at least £3000 accommodation + sundries. Doesn't really help to work part-time then?

5. jhwarner - December 10, 2010 at 04:32 pm

I think that this measure is less an indictment of higher education as a whole and more fundamentally a recognition of the need for fiscal restraint. We shouldn't forget that this is one of many "austerity measures." Schools are not the only places seeing cuts. The British Navy for instance has been all but eliminated. The higher tuition has been brought on by necessity, not an animosity towards education.

6. social_scientist - December 10, 2010 at 08:40 pm

@ Fiscalwiz: why don't we make ALL public education pay as you go? If the parents don't have enought money to pay tuition for elementary school, then their kids can't go? If they can't fend for themselves, then better to die and decrease the surplus population (with apologies to Charles Dickens)!

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