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“Please can you be
quiet!” the chairman
thunders at them, with no
apparent effect.
The students will be
only slightly affected by
the draconian city budget.
Their presence here is
easier to understand when
a council member starts
to speak who is from the
Liberal Democratic Party,
which pledged before the
last elections to oppose
a university fee increase
but broke its word after
joining the Conservatives
in the governing coalition.
Nick Clegg, leader of the
Liberal Democrats, and
now deputy prime minister,
has been beaten by students
in effigy and had to have a cordon of security around him at
his own party’s spring conference. (Clegg has said his party’s
reversal was forced by the precarious state of the country’s
finances, and that the only alternative to raising university
fees would have been to increase the already high income tax,
which Conservatives staunchly oppose, or cut spending on
science and other programs.)
The Liberal Democrats are working to get more money for
Manchester, the speaker at the city council meeting insists, but
there’s only so much they can do.
“It’s lucky you’re in the government, then, isn’t it?” a
student in the audience shoots back sarcastically, giving voice
to the sense of betrayal that has motivated him and others like
him to break windows, throw fire extinguishers, and attack the
royals.
What’s happening in England is a referendum on the
hottest philosophical argument in international higher
education, over whether it is a public
good—profiting society at large by
providing an informed, competent and
competitive citizenry—or a private one,
benefiting the students who receive it by
increasing their potential earnings.
Neighboring Ireland, which has
kept its university registration fee
comparatively low in spite of fiscal
pressures arguably even worse than
those in the UK, has so far come down
on the “public good” side of the debate.
American public universities, steadily
raising tuition to offset their own budget
cuts, can’t seem to decide. But England has, at least from
students’ point of view. And they’re not happy about it.
Higher education, says DavidWilletts, the minister of
education, “is clearly both” a public and a private good. “It’s
good for the economy as a whole, and it’s of course good for
social capital,” he said. “But there is a very clear economic
gain for individuals in terms of extra lifetime earnings, and
given that here is this direct financial benefit, it is reasonable
to expect the graduate to pay back the cost of their higher
education.”
No it isn’t, says Charlotte Palmer, a student at Manchester
Metropolitan University, whose mother is a social worker
likely to lose her job. “Education should be a right. But it’s
going back to being something only for the privileged,” she
said. “The money should be taken from bankers and from
people who can afford it.” Raising university fees, said Palmer,
“is indefensible when the bankers are getting six-figure
bonuses.”
Pierced and tattooed, Palmer was speaking over a cigarette
in front of Roscoe Hall at the University of Manchester. Two
lecture halls inside the building—named for Sir Henry Roscoe,
a 19th-century professor of chemistry who was instrumental
inmoving what was then called Queens College to this site,
and who later served as chancellor of the University of London
and a minister of parliament—have been occupied since
February by small groups of students from all over the north
of England in protest of the fee increase. The conversation was
taking place outside because a security guard had thrown out a
journalist at the direction of the university’s press office, which
also later barred a photographer.
“You Are Being Lied To!” blare the posters hanging
from the building’s walls, next to handwritten schedules and
placards. Students man a table draped withmore signs and
piled high with pamphlets, under the gaze of the hyper-vigilant
guards, whose disposition isn’t helped by the fact that, as public
employees, they have seen their pay frozen and overtime
eliminated. (One guard, a student confided, brings them
snacks.)
“It’s really just a right-wing ideological attack,” said Omid
Kashan, a first-
year Manchester
student. “There’s no
other way to look
at it. It’s for the rich.
It’s just another way
to keep the working
people from getting
an education.
There’s an argument
that you never see
the money” until
the bill comes after
graduation. “But it’s
hanging over you.”
Ideological or
not, the imposition
of tuition has
occurred in
England with
breathtaking speed.
Maximum charges
of less than $15,000
may not seem
worth rioting over
when U.S. private
Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, and
now deputy prime minister, says the precarious state
of the country’s finances forced his party to break its
pledge to oppose a university fee increase.
An austerity campaign
is meant to reduce a
record UK peacetime
budget deficit that will
hit $235 billion this
year—11 percent of the
gross domestic product.
Axel Folkes
“It is reasonable to expect the graduate
to pay back the cost of their higher
education,” says David Willetts, the
minister of education.
David Levenson, Black Star, for CrossTalk