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Thursday, Nov 18, 2010, 3:06 pm

UK Protests Get Rowdy After ‘Free-Market’ University Reforms Proposed

By David Szydloski
Last week, English protesters, many of whom were university students, received a lot of attention for a large rally at the Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank Tower in London. Most of the attention focused on those who broke windows and climbed to the roof of the building, but the 52,000 gathered at the rally had good reason to be angry.

On October 21, 2010, an independent education review committee headed by Lord Browne—the former CEO of BP—proposed many changes to the British education system. The stated goal was to "balance of contributions to universities by taxpayers, students, graduates and employers." Indeed, there is widespread concern about changes in the education system, which made it a major issue in the 2010 British Elections.

The basic thrust of the proposed cuts is that the Tory-led coalition (with the Liberal Democratic Party) wants to introduce "free-market reforms" into the British education system. Here are some of the proposals:

Raise the £3,250 ($5,185) fee cap for university tuition and allow universities to charge up to £9,000 ($14,350) annually. The idea is that universities who charge more than 6,000 would then have to compensate the higher charge with additional payments to the government to support the higher cost of scholarships for lower income students. Though this could open the doors for a small group of individuals, it would likely drastically reduce the number of students from the working and middle classes who will go to university.

Make cuts to university teaching budgets of around 40% over the next five years and remove all teaching grants, except for science and mathematics.

Set interest rates on student loans to "accrue 2.2 per cent interest above the Government’s rate of borrowing."


Many people who supported the Liberal-Democratic party in the 2010 elections feel especially betrayed. The party, led by Nick Clegg, adamantly opposed any tuition increases as part of their election platform-- Nick Clegg saying at the time that increasing the cap on tuition to £7,000 would be "a disaster". In fact, the party's pre-election manifesto state that the Lib-Dems support "scrapping tuition fees" altogether because of the financial burden they put on students and families.

The Lib-Dem's position on tuition was partially responsible for a large number of Lib-Dem support by students, which helped them claim many Labor seats and join Tories in a coalition government. Now, Liberal Democrats have completely reversed their campaign promise, disregarding many of the people who put them into power in the first place. (Though a few Lib-Dems have bucked their party leadership and do not support tuition increases.) Of course, the support of a few MPs will not stop the students from chanting "Nick Clegg / we know you / you're a fucking Tory too."

Aside from November 10 protests, there have been other attempts to show the government just how much opposition exists to the cuts. Some students have occupied university buildings. The major education unions in the country, the NUT (National Union of Teachers), the NUS (National Union of Students), and the UCU (University and College Union) are putting in all their effort to argue against the cuts.

Clegg wants a vote on the cuts before Christmas. Whatever happens during that time, it is clear that protests over austerity measures in Britain are just beginning.
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