There can be no excuse for the behavior of a minority of student protestors in Britain, who battled police, smashed windows and attacked a car carrying Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, this week. The legislation they opposed, a tripling of university tuition fees, is bad public policy, both myopic and unfair.
It only squeaked through Parliament after multiple defections from the government’s junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats. Its support by the remaining Liberal Democrats, led by Nick Clegg, the party leader, cannot be easily justified.
Opposing these tuition increases was a central plank of the Liberal Democrats’ election program last spring. Since joining the coalition government, Mr. Clegg has been far too willing to endorse the Conservative’s harsh austerity program, which imposes five-year across-the-board spending cuts of nearly 20 percent.
It takes some of its cruelest bites out of higher education, an investment in future growth that should have been spared but wasn’t. Funds for undergraduate teaching, for example, will be cut by 80 percent. Higher tuition fees will have to plug the gap.
The new legislation raises the cap on university tuition fees from $4,800 per year to $14,500 a year by 2012. While the fees may still look good to some Americans (they are about half the average level of American private universities but nearly double the average charged by public universities here), the increase is too much, too fast and would not be needed without the arbitrary spending cuts.
The law requires students to repay these fees only after they graduate, with payments calibrated to future earnings. That adds a progressive twist.
But educators warn that the poor and middle-class students who have finally gained access to British universities in recent decades will be squeezed out again by the prospect of decades of future indebtedness. Compounding the problem, government payments meant to allow students from poorer families to finish high school are also being phased out.
Britain’s crisis-swollen budget deficits, like America’s, need to be brought down as the economy recovers. The cutting must be done wisely, protecting investments in the economic future, like education. The sacrifices must be equitably shared. By any of those terms, this new policy is an utter failure.