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to choose the cheaper. “In an ideal world they should pick the
best institution they can get into,” rather than the cheapest,
Callender said.
Points like these drove much of the political opposition to
top-up fees. Already facing intense criticismof his decision to
go to war in Iraq, PrimeMinister Tony Blair postponed the
vote from early December until January, concerned he didn’t
have the votes to pass the idea andmindful that, if he lost, he
faced the prospect of a full-scale vote of no confidence. When
the roll call ended in January and the smoke cleared, many of
his own party members had bolted, but Blair still won by the
razor-thinmargin of 316 to 311.
An alternative measure that would have increased income
taxes on the highest-earning Britons also was proposed, but
raising taxes to pay for universities was considered politically
unpalatable in a country where people holdmixed feelings
toward higher education. “There’s no doubt about it that in
Britain, higher education is not a popular thing,” said Ian
Gibson, a Labour MP who opposed Blair. “Most people haven’t
been in it, and they think it’s for the snotty kids. People are
more concerned about transport, hospitals and other things.
We don’t talk about class in this country, but this is about class.”
Even though it was difficult to push through, raising
students’ share of university costs was less politically risky. Only
39 percent of students voted in the last election, a far smaller
proportion than in the population at large (a good thing for
Blair, considering that support among students for his Labour
Party has dropped to a four-year low). Still, Blair is widely
expected by political observers to face a backlash frommiddle-
class parents after the new tuition system takes effect.
On the university side, the lobbying was dominated by
the so-called Russell Group of universities, the elite schools
including Oxford and Cambridge that had the most to gain
from allowing tuition to be set at different levels.
Still, the outcome of the decision was in question until the
vote. Seventy-two of his fellow Labour Party ministers voted
against Blair, one of the biggest political revolts by members of
a prime minister’s own party inmore than 50 years. As for the
intensity of the debate, “I guess it’s because people have always
had higher education for free in this country,” said Gibson.
The comparison with the American systemwas a
prominent part of the discussion. The
asked critically: “Crudely put, are English universities to go
down the American path or not?” Opponents imported
Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s labor secretary and now a professor
of social and economic policy at Brandeis University, to say
that market forces had “corrupted” U.S. higher education and
widened social divisions.
Yet by April, when opponents including Gibson offered an
amendment that would have allowed universities to increase
their tuition to a slightly lower $4,600 a year, and not to vary it,
Blair’s margin had widened. That proposal was defeated, 316 to
288, and Gibson was derided publicly as “a bad loser” by fellow
Labourite Barry Sheerman.
Gibson’s own anger still simmers. In the end, he said,
“supporters had to be mollified andmollified andmollified as
the proposal seemed headed to defeat. When you look at the
money coming in (to the universities), it’s hardly anything.
Tony Blair made the variable fee thing his job, or else.”
This leads to the next controversy: Now that
the precedent has been set, will universities try
to raise their tuition beyond the new $5,520
limit? As another of its concessions to win votes,
the government at the last minute promised
that the universities would not be allowed
to raise their prices without parliamentary
approval. Skepticism runs rampant. “It’s
definitely a helpful gesture by the government,
but this is a government that said it wasn’t going
to introduce top-up fees in the first place,”
pointed out Gillian Slater, vice chancellor
of Bournemouth University in the south of
England, one of a small number of university
officials who broke ranks and publicly raised
objections to elements of the top-up fee plan.
Slater thinks top universities will soon begin to charge some
$18,400 to $27,600 a year, making it possible for only the very
rich to attend—or the very poor on full scholarships. “Once we
concede the principal of variable fees, then the pressure to raise
that cap will be very strong indeed,” she said.
Bournemouth, whose tidy campus sits at the edge of a quiet
seaside retirement community, expects to charge the full $5,520
when the new fees take effect. That will add between $9.2
million and $11million to a budget of about $120million—not
a particularly substantial increase. And, said Slater, “It is
certainly going to cost quite a lot in the administering.”
About 1,300 of Bournemouth’s 15,000 students are foreign,
a proportion Slater said adds an important measure of diversity
in an era of globalization. But non-EU foreign students also pay
much higher tuition, something UK universities are already
eyeing as they look for more ways tomake up their persistent
budget shortfalls. About 130 foreign students produce as much
revenue as more than 1,300 UK and EU students.
“I’m always wary when vice chancellors start speaking
of trying to become global
institutions when they’re talking
about student numbers,” said
Ben Brinded, the student
president at Cambridge, which
has 3,500 foreign students. “It’s
important that we attract a
foreign student population, but
what I would be very wary of is
a quota.”
Of course, it sounded like a
quota when Oxford, in a memo
that was leaked to a newspaper,
instructed its admissions
officers to cut the number of
British students accepted by
one percent a year over the next
five years so it could increase
the number of higher-paying
foreign students. The number
of non-EU students at British
universities overall has already
grown by nearly 50 percent over
the last six years, compared to
British universities
will be allowed for
the first time to
charge different
tuitions depending
on the perceived
value of their
Gillian Slater, vice chancellor of Bournemouth
University, fears the new policy will lead to only
the very rich attending “top universities.”