The UK Student Protests, Continued

I want to consider two other questions about the tripling of tuition in England’s universities, one cultural, the other economic. First, would the nearly unprecedented political violence—the large protests, the attack on Prince Charles and his wife—ever happen if similar measures were enacted in the U.S.? Or in other developed countries?

It’s an exercise in pure speculation, but in interesting inquiry into the relationship between popular politics and higher education. Additional eyewitness accounts of the protests, most from members of “retinking the U.” continue to trickle in, and they all attest to the scope of participation and the intensity of the outrage.

The protests, as well as the tuition hikes, need to be placed in a broader context.   In countries across Europe the welfare state—far more extensive and (seemingly) more entrenched than in the U.S., is being rapidly dismantled, or, as in the case of Greece and Ireland, instantly destroyed in the wake of financial meltdowns. Thus the scale and intensity of the protests make sense: The students perceive that something they have long taken for granted (i.e., an affordable higher education) has been abruptly and unfairly ripped away from them. Indeed, members of the Liberal Democrat component of the coalition government signed a pact that they would oppose any tuition hikes; when it came time for the vote, half of them caved and voted in favor of the increases.

What would happen in other comparable countries? It’s hard to say because there’s no clear precedent. There were student protests (including building takeovers) in recent years in Ireland, Austria, and Germany, but they were not front-page news because the increases were far less than what we’ve just witnessed in England. French students were involved in great numbers, blockading universities in protests over the raising of the retirement age from 60-62 a couple of months ago. Heaven knows what they would do if the country began charging college tuition. There were protests last year in California over a 32 percent college-tuition increase, but again, 32 percent is not 300 percent.

The potential reaction of U.S. students, were a 300 percent tuition to go into effect, is impossible to predict chiefly because it could never happen. College tuition, as everyone knows, has been increasing—admittedly not all at once, but incrementally and steeply for the last 30 years. reports that while the overall inflation rate in the U.S. increased by 107 percent, inflation in higher education has risen by 467 percent. So, not overnight, but over just 24 years, we have witnessed a tuition increase of more than 400 percent, yet because the increases have been gradual, American students have never taken to the streets in the numbers and with the anger that our British counterparts have.

Indeed, the Chronicle ran a story on December 13 which observed that “nearly 90% of young alumni say that going to college was worth it.” The story, based on a survey by conducted by the American Council on Education, included other stunning (at least to me) revelations:  75 percent said they felt that tuition costs were “fair,” and 52 percent said institutions other than the federal or state governments should be responsible for keeping college affordable.

My second question about the tuition hikes—and I’ll keep my remarks on it much briefer, since its effects would not be felt until well into the future: What if the increases are simply bad economic policy? What if, when all is said and done, the graduating students simply can’t pay back they’re loans? Richard Vedder (up next) compares the U.S. higher-ed financial-aid system (with its multiple sources of funding) to our health-care system, and he’s certainly right. But isn’t the student-loan industry, as it currently exists in the U.S. and will soon exist in England, neatly anticipated by the subprime mortgage industry? The consequences, though they could be years off, are potentially just as ominous.

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