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."