Welcome to British Higher Education "Apartheid"

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 12/02/2010 12:04:00 AM
Ah, student protests turning into violence. These have now happened on three separate occasions in the UK: November 10 featured the break-in of Conservative headquarters. November 24 had more of the same in the general vicinity. There's a distinctly Sixties whiff about them as 153 protesters were arrested while protesting at Trafalgar Square on Tuesday. What's more, these incidences are going on all over England. Now, British higher education is arguably the world's next best after that of the United States. However, dire financial times may have direr consequences for universities in the UK than those in the US. Why? Simple: nearly all higher education institutions worth their salt in the UK are public institutions, while there are far more private ones in the US. Hence, when the coalition government goes on a budget-cutting spree here, next to none worthy of note are exempted...in England. So even if cash-strapped American states reel in spending on their public universities--most notably California--it doesn't affect the likes of Ivy League universities or their ilk.

Followers of British politics know that the legislative processes in the UK have been undergoing "devolution" since 1999 that transfers rulemaking to the national [England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland] level. That is, the likes of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament have more discretion over any number of matters--including education, particularly higher education. (For overseas readers, the Beeb has a neat primer on what areas have and have not been devolved such as national security.) This peculiarity of British politics is making for interesting times when it comes to the cost of attending university.

As you most probably know, the coalition is implementing measures moving towards the removal of caps on university fees. Not so long ago, university students were bellyaching about the ceiling being raised to £3000-some a year. Now, the coalition is in the process of removing ceilings altogether and charging home students the same as non-EU students, i.e., the full fare of £9000 and above. This change has been particularly challenging for the Liberal Democrat minority coalition partners. They bear the brunt since, prior to the elections several signed off on a pledge not to raise tuition fees. The interesting thing, however, is that the Welsh and the Scots are not following suit. So, not only are English students aggrieved by these fee rises, but they feel hard done by since others in the UK will not have them. Cue education "apartheid":
Thousands of students clashed with police in London in the third major protest against the fee rises, with children as young as 10 joining the marchers. Further demonstrations took place in Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol...A group of up to 200 people was eventually surrounded in Trafalgar Square and refused to leave. Graffiti was daubed on public statues and fires lit at the base of Nelson's Column as missiles were thrown at riot police.

Meanwhile it emerged that the English face a university education "apartheid" after Welsh students were told they would be exempt from a sharp rise in tuition fees. The Welsh Assembly government announced that it would heavily subsidise the degree courses of about 90,000 students each year, even if they studied at universities in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

It means that Welsh students will pay about £3,200 a year to attend university, while the English will be charged up to £9,000 under Coalition reforms. English students taking courses at Welsh universities will still have to pay full fees. The disclosure led to claims last night that English taxpayers would effectively be subsidising cheaper courses for Welsh undergraduates.

At present, the Welsh Assembly receives an annual grant of £15 billion from the Treasury to fund devolved services including health, education and housing. Spending per head was about £5,500 this year, compared with £4,800 in England. The Welsh announcement coincided with growing conflict in the Coalition over higher education policy...

Yesterday, Leighton Andrews, the Welsh Education Minister, said universities in Wales would be able to increase tuition fees to £9,000, but students from the country would not be expected to bear the extra cost. Instead, they will pay the same fees in 2012 as they did this year, with the Welsh administration subsidising courses.

"The public purse will continue to subsidise higher education for Welsh domiciled students," said Mr Andrews. "Higher education should be on the basis of the individual's potential to benefit and not on the basis of what they can afford to pay." He claimed the fee reforms would be funded by cutting the direct teaching grant for Welsh universities. Some 69,690 Welsh students currently study in their home country and another 18,475 in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
But wait, it gets even better--if you're a Scottish student, that is. For, they may yet to continue with current policies that allow Scottish students free attendance to university:
The threat of a tuition fee "apartheid" affecting English students is heightened by the situation in Scotland. Scottish students do not pay tuition fees, although a discussion document on possible reforms to the system will be published in coming weeks.
So the English will effectively be subsidizing Welsh students, the charge goes. Their universities will maintain fees near the $3000 level. Consider that Welsh institutions include some of the UK's best alike Aberystwyth and Cardiff and that's a pretty good deal. Meanwhile, it's sweeter still if the Scots keep their universities free for Scottish students or raise them slightly. St. Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow, etc. are undoubtedly quality institutions.

Apartheid thus takes two forms: First, it's your misfortune being English and being at or near the age for applying to university just when fee rises will come into effect. Second, English taxpayers may actually be subsidizing other nation's students. It's not-so-fun stuff, and it certainly points out challenges in devolution. While meant to increase local discretion, it does have the potential to raise equity issues of who gets what education when and where.

Methinks the nagging question is why jobs are hard to come by for newly-minted graduates. It should be the focus of attention rather than going to obtain a university degree that doesn't necessarily promise employment thereafter.