Squeezing Blood from a Stone – A Brief History of Tuition Fees in the UK

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So it’s finally happened, after seeing repeated ‘higher job prospects’ statements leading to frustrating job searching for years at a time, after feeling the pressure of coursework and not seeing it pay off, after seeing course fees soar up over £9,000 a year; the head of Universities UK, Professor Sir Christopher Snowden has admitted that Universities are “Not just for getting a Job”. And as you’d expect, coming from one of Britain’s top academics: that’s a harsh blow against higher education everywhere.


Now for a bit of a history lesson, how did we reach the point that university became centred on making money? This writer believes that it started in 1998, when the Teaching and Higher Education Act came into play and saw the introduction of tuition fees at up to £1000 a year. Now at the time the less privileged (those with families earning under £23,000 a year) would be exempt from the fees altogether, with those with families earning above this threshold paying more based on how much they earned, capping out at the full £1000 at £35,000 a year. At the time this move saw widespread controversy as the academic world worried that this would lead to a business model of education in the country, which would likely not end well. How right they were. Of course, this was just a precursor of what was to come.


Despite the promise by the Secretary of State, David Blunkett, that top-up fees were not an option and that it would only rise in line with inflation (hitting what should have been £1225 in 2007), it quickly became apparent how this wasn’t to be the case. Following the creation of the Scottish Parliament within the UK, the Labour and Liberal Democrat Parties formed a coalition and this saw the introduction of doubled tuition fees at £2000 a year for Scottish Students as part of the Liberal Democrat Manifesto. This came into play in 2001 but was abolished in 2008, making education in Scotland free once again. However, these first moves came about to inspire moves in politics across the borders in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.



In 2003, Labour Education Secretary Charles Clarke proposed tuition fees of up to £3000 a year, to great controversy and in contradiction to the previous Manifesto statements (and statements by Blunkett) stating that top-up fees would never be an option. Sadly, through dirty claws and the gnashing of political teeth the bill passed and saw tuition fees triple, with more being added on in line with inflation. This was a dark day for education in the Western World as some of the most respected universities in the world took on a purely business model and began to sully their own names, forcing less privileged students to take out loans in order to cover the cost, often leading to extensive debts. But that still wasn’t the worst of it and things were about to take an even more sinister turn.


In 2010, the Liberal Democrat party won great support on what appeared to be the honest face of party leader Nick Clegg. Clegg appeared to be passionate about promises to freeze or abolish tuition fees, citing them as ‘wrong’ and that the key to fixing debt is not more debt. At the same time, the country had seen the damage in many sectors that Labour had caused and subsequently began to switch to their close competitor, the Conservative Party. Even though the latter was known as elitist in terms of class and status quo, the two parties formed a coalition and came into power.  This is where empty promises became apparent as the coalition government moved, instead of abolishing tuition fees as promised: to triple them to £9,000 a year, again, allowing them to rise in line with inflation. Despite widespread protesting and even rioting resulting in bottles being thrown through government buildings’ windows and over 150 arrests being made, the top-up fees were approved and students began devoting their entire lives to paying off debts of over £30,000. The darkest day for education had come, but today, one has to wonder, has this just begun?



This writer feels that despite the tuition fee rises, the business model in British Academia will not hold and as frustration mounts from a lack of jobs found after acquiring a degree, or sometimes finding a position but discovering one is severely underpaid in their line of work, can you really blame students for being put off of higher education? “Trying to measure everything by the X number of pounds it’s going to get you, that’s not the right way of doing it.” Well that’s all well and good Sir Snowden, and as we all know: “knowledge is power”, but try telling that to the individual or family living on the breadline, unable to afford heating and having to survive on government and/or charity hand outs.


Truly appalling, universities in the country now thrive on the business model instated in the United States some time ago (when less than twenty years ago the UK’s Education was free) and they have the nerve to tell their students NOT to look at earning enough to barely scrape by on? Of course, the government raising these fees hasn’t helped the country at all; not only is the country’s debt mounting and rising with each year, largely due to student debt through the new raised university fees, but also there is less money is actually being spent by the government on improving education within the country.


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[Source: Wikipedia - Tuition Fees in the United Kingdom]
[Source: The Independent - Universities are 'not just for getting a job' says one of Britain's leading academics]