The Backdrop to the Current UK Tuition Crisis

I wanted to take a short break from my review of the new conservative critique of higher education to discuss the current situation in England. The detour is relevant because it goes directly to the question that’s at the heart of the two books I’ve been examining (by Jackson Toby and, soon, fellow Innovations blogger, Richard Vedder), namely whether higher education should be an entitlement—a civic responsibility—or some other kind of largely private social entity?

I’m guessing that every academic has by now seen the horrified expression on the face of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, as angry students stormed the Rolls Royce in which she and Prince Charles were riding to the London Palladium Theater just a few nights ago. The Prince apparently kept a cool head: According to one observer, he pushed his wife to the floor and kept waving and giving the thumbs-up, even as the protesters continued to pelt the car with sticks and bottles. Though the targets of the attack were certainly oddly chosen, the cause of the protest was a recent vote in the House of Commons to triple the cost of college tuition in England.

The backstory, which triggered political violence in the UK unprecedented since the 1960s, is well worth exploring. Until 1998, English universities, much like U.S. land grant institutions when they were founded, charged no tuition. Then the British government began charging slightly more than ₤1,100 a year. Then they made an even more drastic increase, to ₤3,000 a year.

On December 9, though, the House of Commons, after an intense five-hour debate, voted 323-302 to approve a plan to increase university fees threefold, to ₤9,000. So the protests are hardly surprising. The plan mirrors the recommendations of the Browne Report, officially titled Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education, released on October 12 of this year.

The U.S. has gradually been shifting in its understanding of higher education from entitlement to free-standing enterprise, by gradually shifting the responsibility for paying for college from states and institutions to students. The House of Commons vote, assuming it’s ratified by the House of Lords next week, will continue the British habit of making this transition in big leaps.

Granted, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison: English students pay no tuition up front, and only begin repaying their student loans once they’re earning middle-class salaries. But the drastic funding difference in England between college as an institution in 1998, and college as an institution just 12 years later, is astonishing. It used to be an entitlement, clearly a component of England’s welfare state. Now it’s certainly not.

So what are the implications for the U.S.? I’m a lifelong horse-racing bettor, so my credo is, “Often wrong, always certain. This leads me to make what some would consider reckless speculations, but what better way to arrive at possible truths?  Here’s my biggest fear: In the current economic climate, many states may choose to adopt an English approach to university funding. If the conservative momentum of American politics continues, such measures are more and more likely. An example: the current annual in-state tuition at Ohio State University increases by several percent year after year. But imagine if it tripled overnight? So many fewer Ohio state high-school graduates would end up in the state’s university system. Will that happen? I doubt it.  American universities ratchet up tuition gradually, but in these times, who knows?

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