By Christine Lai
Tuition hikes and budget cuts are affecting not only the students and communities of American universities but also international institutions of higher education. While I was studying abroad in London, the English government began to consider a number of proposals that would detrimentally change the face and cost of education. On Oct. 12, 2010, Lord Browne of Madingley released the Browne Review, which sought the elimination of the cap fees or limits set on how much universities could charge on tuition fees. Although there were extensive protests, the House of Commons passed the proposal with some negotiations and as a result there was a substantial raise in tuition fees from the current cap of £3,290 a year to three times that amount — £9,000 a year. The 32% tuition increase (from $7,788 to $10,302) the University of California students have experienced is less dramatic; however, the transformation in value, access and quality of higher education is the same among both American and British universities.
There has been a quick shift in the price of higher education in the United Kingdom within the past couple of months as well as within the past decade. In 1954, local authorities gave maintenance grants and paid the full cost of higher education. By 1990, maintenance grants were no longer given — and in 1997 under the direction of Sir Ron Dearing, the government began implementing tuition fees of £1,000. Seven years later in 2004, the Higher Education Act introduced top-up fees, which allowed universities to charge up to £3,000 for tuition. Finally, with the passage of this year’s bill, which allows a maximum of £9,000 a year for an undergraduate term, the price of English higher education has risen astronomically, multiplying nine times within the past twenty years.
The sharp and sudden jump in the price of education in the United States parallels the situation in England. Under the legislation of another Brown, California’s newest governor Jerry Brown, the UC system has been forced to face cuts of $500 million, a 16.4% drop in support for state funded education. Student tuition will exceed state contributions for the first time in UC history, in direct opposition with California’s Master Plan for Higher Education. The Master Plan was implemented in 1960 and stated that UC institutions would be primarily state supported with a priority of admissions given to students of California. Within the past twenty years, the UC system has disregarded the main provisions of the Master Plan and instead has opted for increased privatization of state universities and a raise in fees. The current price of tuition at UC schools averages $27,136 per year, according to the UC website.
In the United Kingdom, student activism is much more prevalent than in the United States. One night as I was walking home from class, I noticed a large number of police officers awaiting the student protestors in one of London’s busiest locations, Trafalgar Square. With hard helmets, shields, batons and reflective vests, the British police seemed ready for anger, violence and riot from students. In addition, student sit-ins are taken extremely seriously, as exhibited through the sit-in at the University of Kent. In early December, students at the University of Kent began a month-long sit-in in the university’s Senate building, where they could come and go as they pleased. After several days, the administration decided to bar anyone who left the building from re-entering, to disconnect the Internet, and to turn off the heat. The students continued to stay there and a court order was necessary to remove them. Activism has led to a more politically conscious student body within the British university community.
Because UC students are all on separate campuses and cannot mobilize as easily as students in London, a collective student protest was harder to achieve. Still, each UC campus has about 30,000 students and only a small percentage of students opted out of class to participate in any student activism in response to fee increases earlier this year. The campus police at UCSD did not seem afraid of the potential for student violence, unlike in the United Kingdom. And although students disrupted classes, the message of urgency to oppose the UC Regents did not resonate enough to effect change. American students, especially those of the UC, should look to British students to realize the amount of power they have.
A critical question arises as the cost of college increases: will charging students more money provide a better education? In the case of American universities like the UCs, the increases in tuition fees are accompanied by unfavorable provisions like increases in class size, decreases in the options and spaces of classes, and professor furloughs. For British institutions, the rise in the cost of tuition for middle-class students is supposed to lead to better access for poorer students. However the tripling of fees here in California will realize the threat of a two-tiered university system: one set of colleges for the affluent, and another set for the rest of the population. Further consequences on the quality of education will inevitably occur as such a system develops. Institutions funded by an exclusive group of wealthier students will have more money and thus more resources to use, keeping class sizes small and the quality of education intact. Lower-tier universities will be forced to accommodate more students to compensate for their lack of funding, which will result in increased class sizes and fewer resources per student. In addition, admissions processes will be altered by the emphasis on funding. Merit and intelligence will be ignored compared to money. The divides between the rich and poor — or literally, those who have a high-quality education and those who do not — will become even sharper if fees continue to increase, in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
Photo courtesy of Bob Bob.