English universities are well-known throughout the world for their excellence. Yet, in less than twenty years, Higher Education was reformed. Before 1988, Local Education Authorities was in charge of Higher Education, its funding, its functioning, and of students’ grants of its area. The adoption of the 1988 Education Act under Margaret Thatcher’s government marked the beginning of long series of reforms. The last to date made the headline news because of the students’ manifestations which followed from the bill. Indeed from 1998 to nowadays, the issue deals with the tuition fees – a fee paid for instruction – its legitimacy and its price. This issue is largely controversial even within the Labour party.
Why such shift for prestigious Higher Education system? How the Higher Education was reformed? Why did students’ manifestations follow from the bill?
To figure it out, we are going to focus at first on the creation of a new system in order to then analyse the rising of tuitions fees and the students’ protest and finally we are going to analyse the new students’ hardships.
The creation of a new system “a cost sharing system”
1998 : Turning point
1998 marked a turning point in the history of English education – the Local Education Authorities no longer covered the student scholar fees (ten years before, in 1988) and the students were then involved in the payment of fees for their study.
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Indeed, in 1996 the government commissioned a report on the funding of the Higher Education that is to say, how Higher Education should develop to meet the needs of the UK over the next 20 years. The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education was chaired by Sir Ronald Dearing – Chancellor of the University of Nottingham. The report was published in 1997 and it stated that more than £2 billion would be needed to adapt the Higher Education to the new demands (increasing numbers of students) and needs. The solution proposed was made up with a hundred recommendations. The most important one was the participation of the student on the payment of their own study. The report praised the introduction of the means-tested tuition fees – based on family’s income.
The 1998 Teaching and Higher Education Act was the governmental response to this report. It was enacted under Tony Blair’s government. It introduced the means tested tuition fees as follows:
Student whose family income was inferior to £23,000 per year would not pay tuition fees.
Student whose family income was situated between £23,000 and £35,000 would pay a percentage fees in function of their means.
The tuition fees would be £1,000 per academic year. By setting this mean testing system, 1/3 of students would not have to pay tuition fees.
Yet, the maintenance grants (grants to help students with the living costs) would be replaced by maintenance loans. Students would begin to pay off their loans when they would work and earn at least £10,000 per year.
It met little active opposition from students. But this act created debate within the Labour party itself, some members of the party were strict opponent to the end of the Free Higher Education.
Reason of introduction of tuition fees
But why did the government need to implement such a system? The major reason was the lack of funding in Higher Education. In less than 20 years the Higher Education shifted from an elite system to a mass system. Indeed, the number of students going to university rose from 6% to around 33% between 1962 and 1996. So, universities have to adapt their infrastructures, equipment, and by consequence they needed money. Moreover, the aim of the government was to make it more accessible for all students from all backgrounds with the introduction of mean testing tuition fees.
Creation of top up fees
In 2004 another measure would be adopted by the Labour Party. Despite the former act which created the tuition fees up to £1,000, Tony Blair’s government concluded that the funding of Higher Education was not enough. In this sense, the Labour Party proposed another act in 2004, The Higher Education Act. It enabled universities to set their own tuition fees depending on their own needs of funding: it was called top up fees. It could go up to £3,000 per academic year. These tuition fees could be pay at the end of the degree, it would take the form of a loan – student would pay off this loan when he would have a job and earn more than £15,000 per year. The debt would be written off after 25 years. Another feature was the reintroduction of the maintenance grants in order to help the poorest students (yet students could win private bursaries through the universities’ competitive).
The main objections of the opponents were the expensive fees which created pressure upon students, and they estimated the variable fees as the form of privatisation of Higher Education.
Those measures were a first step to higher education reform. The government was going to take further measures in the forthcoming years.
Tuition fees rising and students protest
By November 2009, Gordon Brown’s government launched a new investigation on Higher Education; it would be a review on fees and university funding. It was chaired by Lord Browne of Madingley and composed of some Vice-Chancellor of Universities such as David Eastwood and Julia King. The Independent Review of The Higher Education Funding and Finance was published on October 2010. It established few principles such as more investment for Higher Education, fair access to all, affordable payments, same treatment for part-time students as full-time students, and underlined that no one should have to pay loans until they start to work.
In order to respect those principles, the major proposals were the following ones:
Universities could charge any fees it seemed necessary, there would be no cap
the up-front fees were removed and replaced by tuition fees loans
No means testing maintenance loans and additional financial support for poorest families (under £60,000) which would be paid back only when the graduate would have an income of at least £21,000 per year. If the graduate’s work stops whatever the reason the repayment stops. The debts would be written off after 30 years.
The government proposal
Meanwhile, the government passed from a labour government to a coalition one with the election of David Cameron as Prime Minister and Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister in May 2010. The government proposal to the Browne Report responded on November 2010 and it included several features. The main one was the rejection of the Browne’s proposal to remove the tuition fees cap, and government proposed to cap the tuition fees to £9,000 per year. As for loans, government aligned itself with the Browne recommendations by declaring that students would begin to pay off once they would earn between £15,000 and £21,000. The MPs had to vote if they agreed or not on this proposal by December.
The new elected Liberal Democrat had been pledged to the National Union of Students to not increase the tuition fees before being elected. Once the report was published, Nick Clegg, leader of Liberal Democrats, claimed that the Browne Report could be “fair and sustainable”. While the coalition government allowed the Liberal Democrats to abstain the vote on this issue, Nick Clegg wrote to his MPs “I am painfully aware of the pledge we all made to voters on tuition fees ahead of the general election. Departing from that pledge will be one of the most difficult decisions of my political career”. He was going to break his pledge.
This bill sparked off some waves of demonstrations throughout the entire country.
On November, 10th, students began to demonstrate against the government bill, and showed their anger towards the expensive rate of fees. It was organized by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU) prior to the government vote in order to convince MPs to not vote in favour of the bill. Those demonstrations took place in several cities such as Cambridge, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds etcâ€¦ but the most important one set up in London. The march in London was composed of more than 50,000 persons, but was overshadowed by violence. Indeed, the demonstration turned into a violent riot when some demonstrators began to attack the headquarters of the Conservative Party – breaking some windows and burning some Nick Clegg’s and David Cameron’s effigies on the roof of the building. David Cameron answered to the media that he would not change his mind on this bill and denounced the extreme violence of this riot.
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Another march was organized on November 2010, 24th by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC). Taking into consideration the event of November, 10th the Metropolitan Police deployed more than 1,000 policemen throughout London. This time, this protest turned into a violent clash between policemen and protesters.
On December, 9th, date of the governmental vote, another protest happened in Trafalgar Square. More than clashes between policemen and rioters, this time some protestors attacked a Royal car transporting Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. The couple was not injured by the attack.
To understand why this protest turned into a violent riot, one has to understand the impact of such a measure on students’ lifestyle.
New students’ hardships
All those changes in less than 20 years largely impacted students’ lifestyle. The tuitions fees are extremely expensive, and could be a curb on student’s choice to go or not at university. Students have to choose between being in debt or to abandon the idea of studying. This is an important feature to take into account especially for the poorest students.
According to The push universities guide (a British organisation which informs students on higher education), the average student debts could hit £53,000 for the students starting their course in 2012. For those who started courses in 2011, it was estimated at £26,100.
The largest students indebted are the Londoners. It is easily understandable considering the expensive cost of living in the city.
For example, a student who wants to pass a degree will have to pay £27,000 just to have access to universities (if the university charges £9,000), then will be in debt of more than £28,000 (the inflation has to be taken into account). If the graduate begins to work and has an income of £19,000, it is estimated that the student will pay off during 30 years before the debt would be written off. So, the student would have paid back around 67% of his debt. If the graduate has an income of £25,000, he will pay off his debt during 18 years. The internal government figures reveal that only one quarter of students will be able to pay off their debt. Therefore, the majority of indebted student will never be able to pay off their loans. If the estimation turns to be accurate, it would underline a huge issue in the created system (millions of pounds would be lost) as well as the inefficiency of the measure taken.
Students have to cope with others difficulties such as the need for a job.
“The number of full-time students with jobs rose by 54% in the last 10 years” stated the Trades Union Congress in 2006. Most of students have to take part time jobs in order to survive because their families cannot afford the cost of the student life and because the maintenance loans do not offer enough money. 61 % of the students who have a part time job come from family with poor background. The average hours of a part time job for a student are 14 hours per week. Such an amount of hours have clearly an impact on their studies: they often miss classes, lectures, which lead to poorer attainments than the others students. Furthermore, those students have less leisure time, less social life than the other students. This phenomenon is not very different from France but the majority of students do not have the financial pressure of beginning their life with such an amount of loans.
Moreover, by creating such a financial pressure, the student’s choice about his job would depend on this income (in order to be able to repay his debt and to afford a high standard of living). Some jobs might be abandoned by the graduates because of their salaries, and could create a new societal problem.
Another feature is that students could not give up after a year to reorientate towards another course of study – an academic year can cost up to £9,000 – to choose a wrong course of study can be very expensive.
To sum up, Higher Education underwent some mains shifts by the last decades, and the end is not yet in sight. Tuitions fees are still a burning issue. Indeed the reforms come into force only this year, in September 2012, that is the reason why we cannot analyse yet the real impact on the society and also there are only estimations. But some shortcomings already appear such as the inefficiency of the Student Loan system, which could lead to another social problem: if the majority of students would not be able to pay off their debts, who would reimburse it?
Moreover, after the breaking pledge of Nick Clegg on the rising of tuition fees – he recognized and apologized publicly in the media only on September 2012 – the deputy prime minister went down in the opinion polls.