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This Week in The Lancet

  • Volume 377 1719 (2011)
  • May 21, 2011

Rising tuition fees push education further away from the poor

“Be young, shut up”

In many countries around the world, postgraduate education is dysfunctional: highly expensive or only available in urban centres. It is now practically out of bounds to the less well-off. Up until now, the United Kingdom was fortunate enough to have a high quality education system provided on an (approximately) ‘equal opportunity’ basis.

But, for how much longer will the UK system be regarded as truly equitable? In a move arguably far more radical than that of 2005, the UK government has decided to further threaten access to postgraduate education by announcing a major tuition fee increase. From the maximum £3,500 currently paid by students, the fees could spike to £9,000 by 2012 – a near threefold increase. Which is a sudden jump considering postgraduate used to be free online a few years ago.

Universities in the UK have been lobbying for several months for this increase, allegedly arguing that they could not remain internationally competitive without it. Of course, such proposition is deeply divisive; aspiring national students can only be led to wonder whether sacrificing their accessibility to education for the benefit of international students or prestige is a sacrifice they are, or should be, ready to make.

There is also no doubt that the recent massive budgetary cuts of David Cameron’s government are partly linked to the current push for higher tuition fees. By threatening the sustainability of the postgraduate education system, these cuts leave little choice but to raise the share students are expected to pay. But is such a shift in the responsibility to defray the costs of postgraduate education a fair one?

Alan Bennett’s gift of his full archive to Oxford University is but an example that the return on investment of providing affordable education can pay off for society in the long term:

“I was educated at Oxford at Exeter College and I was fortunate in my time because my education was entirely free… I see this gift, such as it is, as some small recompense both to the University and also, though it is unfashionable to say this, to the state … or Nanny state as it is disparagingly called.”

Alan Bennett

Unsurprisingly, many students from all around the country are 180px-Students_demonstration_Athens_Greece_2007in uproar about these increases and protests are being carried out all over the country – from Oxford, to Leeds, Belfast and London. The National Union of Students (NUS) has already been reported saying that such protests mark the beginning of a sustained political battle over tuition fees. A large scale protest is scheduled for Wednesday Nov 10 in London.

Not surprisingly, the augmentation of fees is expected to lead to a sharp increase in university applications in the coming year, as prospective students try to enrol before the new tuition fees are enacted.

One University College of London student thinks that a way to ensure that aspiring students from low socio-economic backgrounds are not marginalised under the new regime, would be to increase the number of available scholarships:

“It is imperative that those prospective students who study at undergraduate level and beyond all have equal chances to do so. If the fees increase, more should be done to fund bright students from less advantaged backgrounds to increase social mobility. It can by no means become elitist. We must not lose our good reputation for not having withstood astronomical, American-style college fees.”

Miss A Scott (human rights Msc at UCL)

Worldwide, countries with the largest student intake include the United States of America, India and China. Interestingly, postgraduate education systems are run very differently in each of these countries. The USA’s system is expensive, exorbitantly so, for students: with universities such as Harvard costing around £25000, debts of upwards a hundred thousand dollars are not rare. Meanwhile, the cost per student to attend an Indian university is only £400, faring even better than the £2000 Chinese students must pay per year for tuition. In the case of India however, these low tuition fees are not sufficiently counterbalanced by higher government subsidies: the country in fact gives the least per student to its universities out of any country in the world, according to UNESCO. As a result the quality of teaching was reported to be on the decline in 2007 by India’s Prime Minister himself.

The UK is certainly not the only nation in the world where postgraduate education is rapidly becoming unaffordable. Additionally, the repercussions this new increase will have on access may seem moderate in comparison to what is being observed in other countries. For this reason, The Lancet Student would like to hear your views about the British increase. Do you think,  like Minister of State for Universities and Science David Willets suggested, that the new increase will be a “good deal for students”? Do you think that increased funding packages will ensure, as allegedly happened in 2006, that equitable access will be preserved? And what is the situation like in your country? Tell us below how you and your peers manage to afford education back home.


The Lancet Student

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