Britain exposed the hypocrisy of capitalist democracies before its own people last week as its government rode roughshod over opposition from the country’s students and teachers, ramming through legislation for an unprecedented hike in university fees.
Leaving riot police to answer tens of thousands of students and teachers protesting outside Parliament, the “people’s representatives” in the House of Commons passed a law that allows universities to hike a tuition fee cap from 3,290 to 9000 pound sterling a year.
Most higher education students in the UK are already indebted and families and the fee hike will force families to make a choice between higher education and an even deeper debt trap. No student or teacher group has supported the fee hike and most universities have opposed the move too.
The move is a blatant betrayal because the Liberal Democrats (LibDems) who are a part of the ruling Coalition, campaigned against any fee hike in the lead up to the general elections in May. Many of the protesting students said they voted for the LibDems because of their stand on fee hikes.
But it is only in keeping with the charade of democracy that capitalist States portray, ruthlessly ignoring their people’s will at key moments of crisis for their system. Polls across Britain, the US, Spain and several other countries prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 showed over 80 per cent people in each of these countries opposing the war. The governments of these countries went ahead with the invasion and the war.
The hike in fee cap for universities follows a sustained campaign by the Russell Group of 20 top universities including Cambridge and Oxford to be allowed the freedom to set fees according to the market.
This pressure fed into the plans of both the earlier Labour government and the current Coalition government to use the economic recession as an argument to withdraw the State’s responsibility from higher education.
Even as it offered financial aid packages to big industry struggling from the recession, Gordon Brown’s Labour government in 2009 set up an Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance under Lord Browne of Madingley.
The Browne review suggested exactly what the government and the powerful Russell Group wanted – that public funding for higher education should be reduced, and that universities be allowed to set fees based on the market.
Based on the interim recommendations of the Browne report, the Labour government and the Coalition since coming to power have decided on a massive reduction in budgetary support for higher education. The plan involves reducing the public funding contribution to the finances of British universities from 60 per cent to 40 per cent over five years. The budget cuts target teaching and research, and in particular the humanities and arts.
These cuts then helped in turn further justify the call from varsities for fee hikes. Under public pressure, the government did not leave fees completely to the market, but raised the fee cap almost threefold to 9000 pound sterling.
But why should students and teachers pay for the financial crisis created by a system that clearly does not care to listen to them? As the impact of the blatant betrayal on the people of UK sinks in, this question is bound to be raised by an increasing number of that country’s citizens. The answer will not come from the system that put them in this mess.