exciting, informative, snarky, and very likely fabricated tales of life as an american expat in london

solidarity with the students: why the protests are so important

by Jen at 1:35 pm on 10.12.2010Comments Off
filed under: rant and rage

over the past few weeks, London has been the scene of several massive student protests, with multiple smaller scale protests and sit-ins also occurring at major cities and schools throughout the country. the largest (and most raucous) of these protests was last night, which sparked violent clashes with the police in Parliament Square, and culminated in an attack on Prince Charles and Camilla’s car as it carried them to an engagement.

what were they protesting? the vote which made policy a trebling/tripling of the cost of a university education over the next several years. the cost of a bachelor’s degree in England has effectively just gone up 200%.

to put this in a bit of context, prior to the mid 1990s, a university education was effectively free for all, subsidised (like healthcare) through taxes. some means-tested tuition fees were brought in after that, but in 2003, the year i arrived in the U.K., the government voted to allow universities to set their own fees, up to a maximum of £3000 ($4700) per year. it has remained at that level until the vote yesterday which will (over the next few years) allow universities to start charging up to £9000 ($14000) per year. (it goes without saying that this is tuition only – books, living costs, etc., are extra.)

additionally, the new policy will abolish the education maintenance allowance. this is a small weekly stipend paid to low-income students from age 16-19 to help make it financially feasible for them to stay in school. this is because in the uk, compulsory secondary education (what americans think of as high school) ends at age 16. after that, students may take up further study (what amounts to vocational education, “college”, and pre-university preparation). however many students may just go straight into work.

right about now, the jaws of many of my american readers are dropping. or, as brits say, they’re gobsmacked. you mean university used to be *free*?? you mean they used to *pay* kids to stay in school?? you mean you could get an oxford or cambridge degree for less than $15000 total??

yes, yes, and yes.

which brings me to the point of this post: many american expats i know online are absolutely astonished that there is this kind of furore over the new fees. not only do many of them think it reeks of a sense of entitlement, but also that a system which comes to mirror that of the US more closely, is actually better – that using loans and scholarships to pay for a university education means that those who go will be more motivated to be successful, and that a degree will be more meaningful.

and although i used to feel somewhat similarly when i arrived in 2003, today i could not disagree more.

when i first got to the uk the year the £3000 “top up fees” were introduced, i could barely contain my disbelief. “they’re complaining about $5K a year for tuition?!? these brits don’t know how good they have it!” coming from a country where going into debt for higher education was an absolute given for almost all students, and where fees at even the less-rigorous state-subsidised schools could easily exceed $20K per year, it seemed to me that the whole uproar was completely disproportionate to the issue.

but as i’ve come to know a bit more about the priorities and political leanings of this country – indeed, as i myself, have become more and more british – i’ve come to understand why it matters so much. and it *does matter*.

the fact is, the U.S. system is broken beyond repair – people can spend a lifetime paying off student loans which hang over their head. the yoke of student debt follows them everywhere they go, in everything they do. it can impact job choices, housing options, credit ratings into perpetuity practically. so I don’t think comparisons with the US are fair.

some americans i’ve run across have said that because a university degree adds a measurable monetary value over one’s entire career in the form of higher salary and better quality of life, those who stand to reap those rewards should foot the funding bill. but the argument that “those who benefit should pay”, ignores the fact that a university degree is fast becoming a default requirement for even entry level jobs. and in a poor economy with high (and rising) unemployment, competition for jobs, both here and in the U.S., even those with degrees are having a hard time getting into work as the competition amongst educated jobseekers gets fiercer. after all, there is a rapidly growing contingent of recent graduates who can’t even afford to move out of their parents household, due to a dearth of available work.

the other thing americans often miss is that the U.K. system is predicated on the belief that (again, like healthcare), education is paid for by all because it benefits all through contributing to a greater societal good. i don’t have kids, or a car, yet i help pay through my taxes for the school and roadways infrastructure because they make the country is better. whether i can quantify it or not, i indirectly derive benefit from lots of things which i may help pay for, but never use myself.

finally, i strongly believe that an education should not be beyond anyone’s means. there is a strong class divide here in the U.K. (and in the U.S.) which according to all measures, continues to get wider. access to education is one of the few equalising forces which can help mitigate the gap between the haves and the have-nots. for the “working class” folk, a trebling of educational costs may not only actually put further education out of reach in real terms, but also acts as a strong disincentive to even pursue other means for those who may see it as a psychological barrier. if you believe that a university education is only something for the better-off, why bother striving for something you don’t think you have a hope of attaining? in a country where the net salaries are already often much lower than those of their american counterparts, this presents a worrisome barrier to those who are already struggling.

and so i find myself i find myself continually amazed at the clashes taking place in front of my eyes. since the election, this country has begun morphing into something i’m entirely unfamiliar with (not having been here during Thatcher’s regime). part of the reason people are so upset, is because the liberal democrats, who won seats in parliament by pledging to oppose fee increases, have done a 180, and are now largely supporting them – in particular, deputy prime minister nick clegg, who signed a pledge on record. so on the one hand, fuckyeah to the protesters, who, although they were unable to prevent the passage of the law, have managed to grip the country’s attention – nothing like teenagers mobilising to the streets to get media coverage! and brave as well, considering many of the police tactics employed against them. these students are passionate about policies which directly impact them. it’s hard to imagine something like this happening in the US, where tuition continues to skyrocket unabated and largely unprotested. the violence and destruction is taking place is deplorable – but as the “kettling” of the demonstrations has shown, when people see all the passageways in front of them being closed off, emotions boil over.

on the other hand, it is depressing as hell to realise that this is just the tip of the iceberg – there are more savage cuts to come, more protests to be fought, and more people to fall by the wayside. in many ways it feels like i’m getting out just in time.

but i know i’m truly British when it feels like i’m deserting the cause by planning to leave.

3 people like this post.
Comments Off

Comments are closed.