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The price of learning: rising tuition fees in the United Kingdom

Published: Thursday, February 24, 2011

Updated: Thursday, February 24, 2011 06:02

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MCT

As a result of new legislation, college students in the United Kingdom will be required to pay higher tuition fees starting in the fall of 2012. While 2011 tuition rates for universities will cost students up to £3,375 (approximately $5,500) annually, the new policies will nearly double most tuition to £6,000 per year and allow some universities to charge £9,000 per year in exceptional cases.

The tuition increases have set off waves of protests and debate throughout the country, as students and politicians try to cope with conflicting interests in an unstable economy.

The higher education finance reform is just one example of unfavorable politicking coming out of the Houses of Parliament. Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg have led a coalition government that has also cut spending for youth centers, housing and support services and the National Health Service (NHS) in the past few months. The Value Added Tax (VAT) on all goods was raised in early January from 17.5 percent to 20 percent.

The objectives are clear: either save money with less government spending or increase returns through higher taxes and fees. In tough economic times, such objectives are more than reasonable. However, forcing university students to pay double or triple their current tuition fees is poor policy because it puts a tremendous strain on the very people needed to bring specialized skills and new ideas into the volatile U.K. economy.

In actuality, while increased tuition fees may bring short−term financial gains to universities in the U.K., there are long−term effects that could severely harm the region's economic future. Greater tuition will inevitably drive qualified students away from higher education in the U.K. because it is unaffordable. Alternative paths such as studying abroad in countries with cheaper tuition or bypassing college altogether will heighten the damage. Fewer skilled workers will ultimately lead to slower economic development and less innovation. Those who do pay the higher costs will be saddled with larger debt due to exorbitant student loans.

We can already see some of the effects: As a result of potential debt, 8,000 more people applied to U.K. universities for the 2011 academic year than in the previous year, likely with the hope of avoiding the tuition hikes starting in 2012.

To a college student from America, paying the equivalent of $14,600 for a year of tuition may not appear to be worthy of such outrage. Yet this price does not include costs for living accommodations and meals. Many U.K. universities do not offer meal plans. Students must therefore buy groceries or eat at restaurants, both of which can be costly. Adding in other expenses such as textbooks, transportation and spending money, a year at a university in the United Kingdom is similar in price to the annual costs at many U.S. colleges. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the total cost of a year at a British university is still significantly dwarfed by the more exorbitant price tags at certain private U.S. institutions, such as New York University, Sarah Lawrence College and our very own Tufts, which charge upwards of $50,000 per year.

Regardless of whether one examines tuition prices in the United States or in the United Kingdom, the question remains: Should higher education be treated as a business enterprise or as an affordable way for people to develop intellectually?

The problem is quickly becoming a global one. The 2008 economic crash triggered by the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis decimated national economies around the world. It is twisted logic, but it makes sense politically and financially for governments or private institutions to raise higher−education tuition. In the global economy, a college degree has become a necessity, and students around the world will continue to pay expensive fees so that they can compete for the best jobs after graduation. But just because increased tuition is an easy solution does not mean it is the correct solution.

Instead of cutting funding for higher education and forcing students to pay more, the British government should spend more on education and make it a priority for its political agenda. The government could strengthen educational infrastructure within the country by giving money to schools for newer facilities, better technology and more extracurricular activities. Additionally, increased funding for higher teacher's salaries would provide an incentive for the brightest minds to become educators.

While Parliament has ignored making significant improvements to education, the government has spent close to £10 billion pounds (about $16 billion) on the war in Iraq since 2003.

Not only does the new education reform set a bad precedent, but it also exemplifies how the British system of higher education is moving in the wrong direction. On Dec. 10, 2010, more than 180 protesters were arrested in London's West End during tuition−fee riots. A few of the protestors attacked a car carrying Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, Duchess of Cornwall, as the demonstrations quickly got out of hand. Students continue to protest throughout London and have fought back against the education finance reform.

Though the government is under no obligation to appease the students of the United Kingdom, members of Parliament should be cognizant of the growing tension and disconnect between politicians and students. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil."

Maybe Parliament could learn a thing or two.

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