Students were recently staging protests and walk-outs in order to illustrate their opposition against the proposed increases in tuition fees for higher education courses and the abolition of educational maintenance allowances (EMA) for college students.

(The above video – but with subtitles / narration is shown at the bottom of this article.)

On the 30th November, the students were mostly calm and placid – the worst behaviour that most achieved either involved starting off amusing, but slightly rude chants or burning their placards with their friends lighters.

Many of the protestors were still quite new to situations involving large crowds and still unsure of how to handle themselves in such situations. There was a tendency for the behaviour of the crowd to change quickly – with regular stampedes towards Police lines. The students needed a target for their excess energy – and the Police were the obvious target.

There were some people mixed in with the student protestors who seemed to have a favourite pastime for destroying shop windows or bus shelters, setting off fireworks at / or throwing missiles at the Police. This, along with a tendancy for the students to splinter into small groups and run off down side streets, added an extra dimension for the Police to think about when controlling the students.

There have been some accusations that the Police were too strict in their handling of the protestors, especially with the employment of a crowd control technique known as kettling.

This technique is used to break a crowd into the individual components – single people. The controlled destruction of the crowd inhibits irrational or dangerous spontaneous mass behaviour. Any individual is usually calmer by themselves than as a part of a crowd.

At no time in the above protest were the students held against their will. They were kettled twice – but always allowed to move as individuals or pairs to where ever they wanted.

The Police often got as excited as the screaming, charging, students themselves. This has unfortunately led to the production of several pictures of officers punching and hitting what appear to be defenceless children.

The Demand for Education
Numbers of students attending higher education have exploded (more so in the middle of a recession), whilst funding for each student has crumbled. So while class sizes have also grown larger, lecturers are shared between more students and the lecturers are often tempted to foreign climates by higher wages.

Despite these inhibitions, British universities have a top class completion rate for their courses and publish the the best research in the world.

Overstretched and underfunded – but the universities are apparently coping well. In a time of protests and austerity, it is important that university funding must be protected – despite the government’s temptation to reduce absolutely everything.

These institutions aren’t just black holes into which money is poured so Professors can have their Whiskey breaks in between lectures and their students can aspire to become like the Professors. A university does more than just put graduates and journal papers back into the community.

A random university can cost £100m to operate. The weight of this massive bill on the public purse is lightened by the fact that the university generates £700m of activity in the community and is involved in the employment of 6500 people.

The Cost of Education
It appears that both students and the larger community are hungry for education. But who would foot the £100m bill? After all, where there are winners – there are also losers.

Means-tested contributions towards university tuition fees were introduced over a decade ago in 1998. The maximum means-tested fee of £1000 was only 25% of the total tuition fees of an average course.

Just over a decade ago, 39% of students had to pay the full fees and 42% of students had no fee to pay at all. The government would pay the remainder or the entire tuition fee bill for the student. The cost-of-living was covered by obtaining a five figure student loan – to be paid back when the student was employed and earning a comfortable wage of more than £15,000 per year.

From 2006 – alongside the means-tested tuition fees, non-repayable cost-of-living grants were introduced to make university completely free for those students from low-income backgrounds.

Living costs grants are still obtainable in 2010/11 where almost £3000 can be obtained every year to support university students from households earning less than a total £25,000. No grants are obtainable for households earning more than £50,020 as it assumed these wealthier wage earners can easily fund their offspring for three years.

Poor or rich, the £3000 grant barely covers rent and household bills so most students engage in £4000 worth of part-time work every year while at university.

The maximum cost of tuition fees for 2010/11 is £3,290. Provisional data suggests that around 75% of students (up from 39% in 1998) will be expected to make the full contribution. It is of some consolation that all students regardless of household income can now obtain a loan to cover these tuition costs.

A decade ago, students were getting loans to cover their own living costs of beer, pizza and pasta. Now students are forced to get loans to ensure that there will be staff to teach them in those early morning lectures. The students are being designed to protect the universities.

Education could be free – but unfortunately someone still needs to pay the bill of the teachers. If the student isn’t the one to pay the bill – then who is? Maybe wealthy people should pay the bill?

Protecting the Growing Money Tree
Currently, it appears that the government prefers to plant seeds into the empty and fluff inhabited pockets of the students themselves to fund the universities. After all, it is the university graduates who will one day be the more wealthy individuals – earning an extra £100,000 over their college graduate friends.

The government appear to prefer the idea of fluffy pockets so much that Westminster recently debated on whether to increase the average annual bill of tuition fees to £6000 for most universities, leaving the average graduate with debts of at least £18,000 (some may charge up to £9000 every year). The motion was presented to parliament on the afternoon of Thursday 9th December 2010, after which the members voted on whether to implement the proposed tuition fee increases.

The government voted in favour of raising tuition fees with a majority of 21 MPs, 323 were in favour with 302 against.

There was also a proposal to increase the wage threshold for the tuition fee loan repayments from £15,000 to £21,000 (repayments are calculated as 9% on anything above the threshold). The proposed threshold increase would reduce annual payments on an £18,000 loan from £900 to £360 for a graduate earning £25,000 per year. It may take longer to pay off, but the repayments would only be £30 a month.

After all taxes have been deducted, a graduate paying back their student loan would receive £1522.85 a month, compared to their equivalent lower-earning college friend who would get £1461.00.

The graduate would still be receiving an extra £61.85 every month, along with the free health benefits.

Education remains free at the point of entry, leaving other barriers such as social stigma for the student from a low income household to overcome.

Transferring the cost of tuition to the student is the correct way to safeguard university funding. As Robin Hood may have once said – ‘Let’s steal from the rich people of the future to give to the poor! Repayments for the loans aren’t a burden because no repayment is required if the student only earns enough to survive’.

How Much Support Do The Students Have In The Current Economic Climate?
It is unlikely that the student would be in this derelict position, but there are millions of people who do depend on the government to survive. The government spends over £6000 per second on protecting the welfare of the poorest people.

The government will have spent £697bn during 2010/11, but only managed to collect £548bn from taxes and National Insurance. The remaining £149bn was created from public sector net borrowing.

The £697bn was used to cover the costs of welfare (28% or £195bn), ‘other costs’, debt interest and defence (24% or £167bn), health (23% or £160bn), education (13% or £91bn) law and order (5% or £35bn), housing and environment (4% or £28bn) and transport (3% or £21bn).

In a recent spending review, the government announced a set of austerity measures across the board. It was noted that the overall teaching budget for higher education which excluded research funding, would be cut by 40% to £4.2bn over the next four years.
The only option that the universities have is to raise tuition fees to recover the loss of funding from the government. They are being forced into a corner.

Regardless of household income, a system of grants and loans are currently in place that ensures (financially at least) a chance of university for all.

As long as students don’t mind writing impressively long I.O.Us.

Can More Funds Be Raised To Pay For Tuition?
There is some argument that students shouldn’t be charged for their education and the tuition fee funds should come out of the finite public purse. There may be some room for an adjustment on how the above bill is divided, but welfare, health, law and order, housing and environment all require funds to cover ever increasing costs.

Rather than charging graduates a tax through increasing tuition fees repayable through a means tested loan, maybe the government should just increase levels of tax for everyone to pay for university tuition? Total tax revenue (as a percentage of GDP) is 39% for the UK but 50% for Denmark – and university education is free in Denmark.

But to even consider taxation as an option, the population needs to be working and earning money. The UK has an unemployment rate of 7.9% compared to 3.3% in Denmark. Unemployed people use a lot of tax revenue.

The UK government could create jobs to increase the tax revenue, before increasing the tax rate and tuition fees. How are jobs created? That could be considered the Holy Grail a successful economy.

Could jobs be created through educating a population? Education creates a demand for jobs through the production of new goods, services and technologies. Surely on this basis, tax revenue should be poured into supporting education as the tax can be collected from the students once they graduate and get good jobs.

The same argument could also be used for welfare and even defence. Give support to people who are unemployed to try and get them back into employment. Create a war for whatever reason – as long as people are employed to make bombs.

How can extra funds be raised? There are suggestions that money needs to be spent in order to make money – but where should the money be spent?

The Social Stigma Of Attending University
If there is concern as to why poorer people don’t attend university as much as other income groups, then more attention needs to be given to breaking down the social stigma of such a lifestyle – rather than simply saying the tuition fee loans will scare people away.

From the personal experience of the author of this article, people from lower income backgrounds place an emphasis on earning money as soon as possible after leaving school. The university student is usually seen as someone who has chosen to ‘take it easy’ for a few years and live off the state.

Lower-income peers see the university student as someone who is a drain on government resources. These same peers think that the government should be spending less money on higher education and more money on welfare (recessions take unskilled jobs first), healthcare (lower income groups tend to use more NHS resources) or education (which enables individuals to get to a level to enable them to consider university).

Maybe the government hopes to engage those from a lower-income background by cutting the funding for those who will inevitably end up being the more wealthy people of society?