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Posts Tagged ‘tuition fees’

Students are not amused (Nick Clegg and David Cameron, Crown Copyright)

In a speech today at liberal-friendly think tank Centre Forum, David Cameron accused Labour of the worst kind of opportunism for not having outlined a detailed alternative policy on tuition fees. That charge, “the worst kind of opportunism” is leveled more accurately at Cameron’s LibDem coalition partners. The LibDems can’t be called Janus-faced only because they will face in three directions at once in Thursday’s vote on increasing tuition fees – LibDem ministers will vote in favor, some LibDem MPs will abstain, and still other LibDem MPs will vote against.

Pre-election, Nick Clegg declared, “I believe it is time for promises to be kept.” The Clegg that inveighed against the broken promises from Tories and Labour has disappeared. In place of the Clegg who pledged to oppose tuition fees on the campaign trail, we have a Clegg in government raising tuition fees considerably. Does this LibDem reversal in government count as opportunism as well? LibDem’s cratering credibility means students aren’t buying the coalition line on increasing fees as creating a fairer and more progressive higher education system. Frankly, I don’t blame them. The LibDem’s turnabout is as dramatic as a Green Party winning office and announcing that all that global warming stuff doesn’t really matter, and furthermore, it’s time for coal subsidies.

Observing the values in English higher education exposes some of the flaws in the US system. Specifically England because the UK Parliament has control only over higher education in England, not Northern Ireland, Wales, or Scotland; at the moment, only the English system is facing the tuition rise. England is heading down a path which the US has already advanced. Higher education is shifting from a social good towards being a private good. In the US this shift is evidenced by the erosion in the value of Pell Grants and the steady withdrawal of state support for public universities. Instead of acting as a ladder for increased social mobility, both US and English higher education systems leave considerable gaps in the lowest rungs. With the coalition government’s intended path, England moves towards widening these gaps, securing the position of the already advantaged.

A more market driven system – as Cameron said in his Q&A – is the aim. Never mind the larger benefits to society of a highly educated citizenry. I’ll close by quoting Michele Tolela Myers’ excellent piece, A Student is Not an Input:

A business professor told a group of us at one recent conference that to run a successful organization you had better make decisions on the basis of being ”best in the world,” and if you couldn’t be best in the world in something, then you outsourced the function or got rid of the unit that didn’t measure up. Have we really come to believe that we can only measure ourselves in relation to others, and that value and goodness are only measured against something outside the self? Do we really want to teach our children that life is all about beating the competition?

As we in the academy begin to use business-speak fluently, we become accustomed to thinking in commercialized terms about education. We talk no longer as public intellectuals, but as entrepreneurs. And we thus encourage instead of fight the disturbing trend that makes education a consumer good rather than a public good. If we think this way, our decisions will be driven, at least in part, by consumers’ tastes. Are we ready to think that we should only teach what students want or be driven out of business?

The Philosopher in Meditation, Rembrandt (1632)

Physics is hard, it is costly, it is undersubscribed. Should it be taught only in engineering schools? I don’t think so. Should we not teach math because everyone can get a cheap calculator? Should we stop teaching foreign languages because English has become the international language? And what about the arts, literature, philosophy? Many might think them impractical. 

I think we have a responsibility to insist that education is more than learning job skills, that it is also the bedrock of a democracy. I think we must be very careful that in the race to become wealthier, more prestigious, and to be ranked Number One, we don’t lose sight of the real purpose of education, which is to make people free — to give them the grounding they need to think for themselves and participate as intelligent members of a free society. Obsolete or naive? I surely hope not.

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The Tory-LibDem coalition inspires the youth of Britain. (London protester in November, DailyRecord)

Revenge, specifically of the students. This week the UK Parliament will vote on university tuition fees for England. Prior to the election the Liberal Democrats touted their strident opposition to all university tuition fees. Every LibDem MP signed the National Union of Students’ pledge,

I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative. (NUS)

Julian Huppert (left) and Nick Clegg (right) holding their NUS Pledges (NUS Photo)

LibDems campaigned on university campuses, consequently winning some university seats with students’ votes (of the three major parties, the LibDems had the position furthest to the left on tuition fees). For instance, they won Norwich South by 310 votes. This moment in the campaign – LibDem candidates for parliament signing the NUS pledge – parallels George H. W. Bush’s, “Read my lips, no new taxes.” A simple, explicit commitment that can easily be gauged by the public.

Fast forward to today. LibDems have entered a coalition government with the Conservatives. LibDem ministers plan to vote in favor of an increase in tuition fees from about £3,000 per year to a maximum of £9,000 a year beginning in 2012. The Russell Group, the UK’s Ivy League equivalent, are all almost guaranteed to charge the top rate of £9,000 a year. Most universities are expected to raise their fees to the £6,000 a year level. (The government has cut the teaching grant to universities by 80%, tuition fees are replacing government funds (BBC.)

LibDems have argued they’ve included all manner of softeners in the tuition rise – fees are not paid up front, currently only after graduates’ earnings exceed £15,000 a year are fees eligible to be repaid, the new policy raises that threshold for earnings to £21,000 a year, a national scholarship scheme will be established, students who were on free school meals will get up to two years of their fees waived. These commitments are all laudable, but students have the pledges of every sitting LibDem MP. LibDem leader Nick Clegg and other now-senior LibDem government ministers posed for photos with their signed pledges before the election (NUS photo gallery). Furthermore, the pledges weren’t signed years ago, LibDems campaigned on this pledge to students this year. Altogether, these softening measures have not proved satisfactory to students.

Fees will shortly double or triple despite LibDems promise to vote otherwise, thus the protests, marches, and sit ins. LibDem routinely receive poor receptions from young people on Question Time, the weekly town hall-style debating program; not to mention the LibDem panelist’s reception at the Young Voters’ Question Time in late November, train wreck is a kind description. The LibDems are likely to split three ways on this week’s vote on tuition fees, government ministers voting for, some abstaining, and some voting against. The MP from Norwich South, with the 310 vote margin of victory, will be voting against (Guardian). A Guardian commenter dryly noted, 310 votes tend to concentrate the mind.

the Most Beautiful Thing in the World, Damien Hirst (Household gloss paint with butterfly wings, 2003)

This coalition could spell disaster for the LibDems. Tuition fees are a vivid example of dramatic LibDem reversal, but by no means the only one. Complicity in dramatic budget cuts will also stand out in the minds of left-leaning voters who imagined the LibDems as a progressive party.

I’ll close with one of the more staid student protest chants,

Shame. Shame.
Shame on you.
Shame on you for turning blue.

(The UK has precisely the opposite color signifiers for party identity – in the US blue is Democrat and red is Republican, in the UK blue is Conservative and red is Labour. The LibDems are orange.)

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