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By JonMarcus
Cambridge, England
T
here’s ahush over the courtyards of the ancient
colleges along the River Cam. Even the tourists speak
in whispers. It’s examination week for the brainy young
scholars who populate this famous university town. But it’s
something else, too: It’s the calmbefore the storm.
Like every other university in England andWales,
Cambridge is about to undergo a vast change in the way it does
business. It’s the outcome of a political struggle so contentious
it nearly brought down a government, resulting in a plan so
laden down with compromises that almost no one seems to
like it—including the universities that originally lobbied for it.
And while the government insists that all of this will encourage
more low-income students to go on to higher education, its
many critics expect precisely the opposite outcome.
What accounts for all this drama? Imagine the American
systemof costly and complex university financing and heavy
student debt imposed from scratch on a country where, until
six years ago, tuition was completely free.
While the changes don’t go into law until two years from
this fall, there have already been far-reaching implications. In
order tomeet printing schedules, universities have to decide
by aroundmid-December what they will charge in tuition.
Admissions offices are being flooded with applications from
students who otherwise might have taken a year off to travel
but are scrambling to enroll before the new arrangement takes
effect.
By one year fromnow, an estimated 100,000 additional
students are expected to apply in a deluge that is already being
called “the 2005 effect.” One university division reported
900 applicants for 50 places, somany that the overwhelmed
admissions officers
admitted to having
ultimately chosen
the successful
candidates at
random.
This is one
of several ways
that, rather than
solving problems,
the government’s
controversial plan
has made matters
worse. The number of students in UK universities has already
nearly doubled from 567,000 to 1.1 million in the last 20
years—but funding per student has fallen by exactly half. Less
than one percent of the gross domestic product goes to higher
education in the UK, compared to 2.7 percent in the United
States. A British university spends $9,200 annually to educate
Summer 2004
UK Adopts “Top-Up” Tuition Fees
British Universities prepare to compete in a more “American” system
an undergraduate, while a
top American university
spends more than $36,800.
Yet the number of
university-bound students
in the UK is still rising.
This, along with general
population growth, could
leave British universities
drowning beneath a deluge
of 240,000 additional
applicants per year before
the end of the decade.
Tomake matters worse,
an estimated 30,000
more students from
the ten newly admitted
European Union nations
are expected at these
universities, where they
now qualify for resident
tuition—at a loss to the
universities of an estimated
$42.3 million a year.
The schools say they
need another $10 billion
to cover annual operating
costs. They are also struggling with a nearly $15 billion backlog
of repairs. Salaries, the major faculty union says, have fallen by
40 percent relative to other professions since the 1980s, leaving
them far below those paid by universities in the United States.
Among the world’s top 50 libraries, not a single one is in a
British university.
The government’s complicated strategy for addressing
these problems is colloquially known as “top-up fees.” It will
allow universities to charge tuition of up to $5,520 per year
beginning in 2006, for whichmost students will take out loans
that they will be required to repay after graduation—but only
once their salaries reach $27,600. The principal and interest will
be deducted from their paychecks at a rate of nine percent on
anything they earn above that threshold.
Tomake this idea more palatable, the government has
promised financial aid in the amount of nearly $5,000 each for
low-income students, and has required the universities to add
an additional $520, essentially covering the full cost of tuition
(though low-income students still would presumably take out
loans to cover personal expenses).
If all universities charge the maximum tuition, they’ll
collect an extra $1.8 billion a year. They will then have to
subtract a collective $92 million to pay for required aid to low-
income students, leaving about $1.7 billionmore than they
Opposition to the Blair government’s tuition plan
was intense “because people have always had higher
education for free,” said MP Ian Gibson.
Raising taxes to pay for
universities is considered
politically unpalatable in
a country where people
hold mixed feelings
toward higher education.
Photos by David Levenson, Black Star, for CrossTalk