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.