Raffaello Pantucci

April 9, 2007

I stumbled in late, muttering apologies to the professor as I raced to grab the first seat that I could find. I heard him mutter something snarky about my delay as he shuffled his papers. It sounded like an ultimatum, but since I hadn’t heard it, the deterrent effect was lost.

As I tried to decipher what he was saying and how it was relevant to me, I started to notice the constant ringing in the background that was refusing to go away. Unfortunately, there was no window except for a skylight looking up to an unsurprisingly grey and wet British sky. I could hear chanting about wanting something. Then it transformed into a new rendition of “Jingle Bells” with some creative lyrics that I couldn’t understand. The professor woke himself up with a start and class went on, seemingly oblivious to the dramatic protest going on downstairs.

The reason for this general lack of interest was not a communal deafness, but a general assumption that the protest was simply the latest expression of the perennial British student complaint: fees. Unlike the United States, where students go to university with the presupposition that they are going to have to stump up thousands of dollars in loans or the better part of their parents’ patrimony to get an education, British students, until relatively recently, enjoyed the privilege of letting everyone’s parents pay for their education through taxes.

That is until British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived on the scene, first assiduously courting the student vote, then callously turning on students to start imposing fees on them. This was done in a very careful and gradualist manner, first only asking the students to pay £1,000-odd per term and getting their Local Education Authority to pay the rest. This was also matched by the creation of a student loans company that would offer all students a generous sum per term on very favorable loan terms. (The more economically-minded parents amongst my affluent peers would get their kids to take the loan out simply because it was too good an offer to turn down.)

Why would Blair want to take away Britain’s state-funded education? The cost of running a university is going up. Students want nicer and more modern accommodations and computing facilities. Competing on a global scale, universities need to offer the facilities and resources for cutting-edge research and studies in order to attract and pay top-notch faculty and students from inside and outside the United Kingdom. As being a research institution becomes more important for prestige in a competitive education market, the existing system of being largely state-funded and lacking a United States-style long-term “endowment” simply can’t foot the bill. With the Blair government unwilling to raise taxes, education must compete with services such as the National Health Care for a fixed amount of Treasury funding. The result is a funding gap, which the government has decided to fill with student fees.

This was met, however, with a strong response from the students. Massive protests were put on, and anybody wandering through a British university campus is faced by the regular spectacle of obsessive woolly-jumpered people aggressively waving petitions demanding government retraction.

Pshaw, Americans might say. Considering how small the amount is in comparison to what U.S. students are expected to pay, this can seem like quintessential Euro-welfare state molly-coddling. But complaints in the United Kingdom come from a different perspective: We never used to have to pay, and as a result, higher education was available to anyone who wanted it. Since the changes, there has been a drop in attendance of kids from lower income brackets who are not willing or able to face the debt.

Interestingly however, at the same time as the government has been pushing the higher fees, they have also been pushing to increase the number of university and further-education graduates. This has been done through a carefully measured latticework of, amongst other things, making connections between employers and institutions of higher education, creating more opportunities and diplomas. Also the generally increased prosperity in the United Kingdom has helped the middle class grow. Also, more students are academically prepared for university thanks to the push to improve lower education standards that Labour has been promoting since it came to power in 1997. So next time you find yourself talking to a young stranger in the United Kingdom, there is a stronger chance that you will be able to have a complex conversation about the feminist tendencies in Chaucerian versus Shakespearian verse.

But you are left facing with an amusing conundrum: The education is more expensive, yet at the same time the value of the qualification has gone down, since more people have them. The result is that the level of education in the general population is elevated. However, what is lost is the value of the initial degree. If everyone has it, then to set yourself apart you have to pursue a higher degree and pay more money. If money is a concern to you, then chances are you won’t bother. Your average domestic master’s student in the United Kingdom pays roughly £5,000 to get the degree. Foreigners have the honor of paying double that, but for Americans who face an almost $40,000 bill to get the same degree from a U.S. university, the British alternative is still a substantial savings and most programs that last two years in the United States are only one year in the United Kingdom. At any rate, higher degrees are a considerable extra expense beyond undergraduate education.

So the democratizing intention at the core of the government’s initial thought is lost, since only the rich will be able or inclined to pay the extra pounds for the extra qualification to elevate themselves above the hoi polloi brandishing their now worthless bachelor’s degrees. In fact the only material benefit to them will be to lump them with a debt they did not necessarily need to incur in the first place. The government will have bumped up the general public’s education level and gotten them to pay for the privilege of having it done to them.

So what is to be done? The government has never said that it is going to back down and suddenly make university free again. Quite the opposite, they have hinted that they will continue to gradually raise fees in such a way that British universities are able to afford to become world-class research institutions. The protesters initially got a great deal of support, but as the public and media gradually got accustomed to the notion of paying for school, the subject slipped from the public eye. Of course, every September the cause is reinvigorated when a new batch of idealists stumble in to this nation’s universities to be convinced by activist professors (and suspicious-looking older students) into joining the protest against fees. But they all still pay, and more of them keep coming and graduating with an average of £13,252 in debt. (That number may well rise to over £20,000 for students entering now with the higher fees already in place.) The situation has devolved to the point that the protest has melted into the general corpus complaints that occupy the mind and time of the average student: “Want a cause? Protest about the fact that you are paying for the privilege to get a worthless qualification!”

At this point, I am already paying for my second degree. Given the rate of my course (three classes for a grand total of three and a half hours per week; the rest of the time I am off supposedly reading), I am not entirely sure I am getting my value for money. I guess I’ll start saving for my Ph.D. now.

Raffaello Pantucci is a postgraduate student at Kings College in London, advising any Americans to follow in his footsteps if they can.