December 10th, 2010
A cat may look at a king and a student may kick at a prince. This week tabloids all over the UK shouted about the “attack” by student protesters on the car carrying Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, as they made their way to a royal performance. The picture speaks volumes, doesn’t it? Camilla probably hasn’t looked this frightened since she heard that Charles was about to marry a virgin named Diana. As for Charles, well, he wears the look of the Royally Indignant. He’s been through worse.
What prompted the swarming of the Royal Rolls was, indeed, a student protest, one launched this week by the passing of a bill in Parliament approving the tripling of university fees up to to 9,000 pounds ($14,000) a year. I assume parliamentarians anticipated some backlash. You can’t triple tuition fees and expect peace and quiet. But perhaps no one anticipated the sheer amount of rage students would feel about what went down in the House of Commons. And you can imagine how the sight of a velvet-garbed Duchess and a black-tied Prince in a large shiny car vehicle would inflame already furious, cash-strapped students. Some papers in the UK insisted on calling the protesters a “mob,” and I suppose it’s a fair description of what people look like when they are vandalizing shops and extending the middle finger to a royal couple, not to mention doing unspeakable things to a statue of Sir Winston Churchill, but it’s not the most neutral journalistic term, is it?
Besides, it all detracts from the real issue, which is a huge tuition fee hike, and the effects of such a hike on those who will have to bear the costs. I should add that in the aftermath of the protests, reports—and videos—of police brutality are surfacing faster than you could say “G-20 Summit.” Of course, as the world knows, Britain is experiencing a perfect economic storm, as are other European nations, and the relatively untested Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition running the country are claiming the necessity of making deep sacrificial cuts to the public sector, including the post-secondary education system. So it is that cost of an education will now be transferred from the exchequer and the taxpayer to students, graduates and their families. That the government can no longer afford the system has been made clear. But is tripling tuition fees the answer? It strikes one as being patently counter-intuitive. As nations become more developed, more skilled graduates are needed, or so the world has been clamoring for a decade. How can such a hike help realizing that objective?
The UK has gone a long way from state-funded education. The system is starting to resemble the US model, where access to education still largely favours a privileged class. Is education a right or a privilege? Students would argue that in the UK it is slipping from one to the other.
We can read the situation in Britain as the canary in the mine, or so people were saying at the Council of Graduate Schools meetings I recently attended in Washington. Putting the burden of an education on the consumer, so to speak, is moving us more and more towards the idea of education as a service, one regulated by the free market, and those who can best survive in it.
We can see the early signs of this drift closer to home in Quebec, which is shouldering a multi-billion-dollar deficit, where a tuition hike is now legally bound to come into effect by 2012, although it’s not clear how much such an amount will be. Quebec university Principals and Rectors have been crying for such hikes because they can’t afford to run their plants with the grants they currently get from government, and so clearly something’s got to give. Earlier this week about a thousand protesters marched peacefully at a conference on education in Quebec City. But as the reality and extent of the charges become clearer we might expect far more boisterous protests. In a province with a reputation for singularly corrupt government(s), it is hard to swallow the argument that students need to contribute to balancing the books, or pay for the sins of their fathers.
It’s not all black and white. The leaders of the Quebec universities need more funding and they are apparently not going to get it from a pretty broke government. Their only route as they see it is to charge extra fees. But surely something is rotten in the state of the State when corruption (look at the construction industry there, for starters), free market greed, and general mismanagement of the treasury end up deflecting the costs of education to students and families. Education hasn’t caused the Quebec’s poor economic climate.
There are many who see it otherwise, of course. The debate about who should pay for education has been waging for years. Many on the Free Education side of the argument point to Norway and other national models, where education is largely covered by the State, and there are no billion-dollar-deficits hanging over the heads of citizens. How is it that we seem to be moving backwards—to a system that puts the burden of payment on those who can least afford it? We haven’t heard the last of this issue, to be sure.
A silver lining for Newfoundland? Overnight, the UK has become a large recruitment pool. Can Quebec be far behind?