British Parliament Approves Controversial Tuition Hikes

BY Larisa Epatko  December 9, 2010 at 1:03 PM EDT


Riot police rush to corral students who broke through barricades in London’s Parliament Square. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Surrounded by student protests outside, British lawmakers voted Thursday to triple the university tuition fee cap in a move meant to help stabilize the country’s ailing economy.

Thousands of students marched to the Parliament building in the bitter cold, carrying signs and shouting “education is not for sale.” In other spots around the country, students staged demonstrations and sit-ins.

The coalition government proposed the tuition increases as the first round of austerity measures, which also are expected to include streamlining the welfare system and possible cuts to housing benefits.

The proposal would increase the maximum university tuition fee from 3,000 pounds, or about $4,700 a year, to 9,000 pounds, or about $14,000.

“To Americans, the fees being discussed sound trivial,” said Michael Goldfarb, GlobalPost’s correspondent in London. “But the principal at work for the (British) students is that it’s commercializing education.”

He said the changes are having a galvanizing effect on many students. The Washington Post reports on how the austerity measures are rousing “a generation raised on the celebrity culture of soccer-wife reality shows and bubblegum music to a level of student activism that almost no one here thought possible a few months ago.”

The government is proposing that education remain free while the students are in school, but once they graduate and start earning over 21,000 pounds a year, or about $35,000, then they must pay back the tuition fees and the interest on the loan, Goldfarb explained.

The proposal also is viewed as a test of the coalition government, particularly Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who, like other Liberal Democrat candidates, campaigned on not raising tuition fees.

Clegg and Business Secretary Vince Cable, a Liberal Democrat who handles university funding, said they hadn’t seen the books when they made the pledges, but now that they have formed the coalition and seen the debt and deficit situation, they have no choice, said Goldfarb.

“I think the question has to be is this just young people with nothing to lose, doing what students have been doing for decades, which is protesting about something and when all is said and done, they go home and back to school. Or is this just the first step, and will the coalition’s austerity plans face this kind of street protest step-by-step?”

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