Global Backlash Against Education Cuts

Students protest education cuts in Austin, Texas. Courtesy of

The global recession threw governments around the world into fiscal and political crisis. Faced with lower tax revenues and growing budget gaps, many countries sought to cut spending or find new forms of income. Higher education spending in particular has taken a hit, with many countries cutting funds and raising tuition rates to compensate for their losses. This Weekly Focus looks at what has happened to higher education and the response to those actions in England and Chile.

Upon arriving to campus this upcoming fall, students at England’s 129 universities and 186 vocational schools will face sharp increases in tuition, with some schools tripling the fees charged the year before. The increase comes as a result of a sharply-contested law, passed in late 2010, which raises the maximum annual tuition English universities may charge to £9,000 (about $14,000). Universities are free to charge whatever they want, but a majority of schools will be charging the maximum, and all schools are planning on charging £6,000 or more. The law has elicited extensive and occasionally violent student protests which were probably exacerbated by a feeling of alienation from politics. Britain’s Liberal Democrats, who had targeted young voters during the election by publicly pledging to eliminate university tuition fees, ultimately supported their Conservative coalition partners in passing the legislation to raise fees.

To Americans, the outrage over the tuition increase—which does not apply to universities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—may seem overblown, but it is important to recognize that the government has historically financed a large portion of British higher education. In fact, British schools only began charging tuition in 1998, following the passage of the Teaching and Higher Education Act, a highly contentious measure that incurred the wrath of student groups. Initially, students paid up to £1,000 (about £1,300 in today’s pounds) for tuition, which was financed by government loans. Six years later, Tony Blair’s Labour government passed the Higher Education Act 2004. Coinciding with the pattern of heightened controversy surrounding tuition fee increases, a great deal of contentious intra-party bargaining surrounded the plan, which ultimately raised the tuition cap to £3,000 (about $5,500 at the time).

The austerity measures that followed the 2008 recession hit all parts of government spending, including England’s universities. Looking for a way to cut spending but maintain the quality of their higher education system, the government commissioned a report to find a solution. Published in late 2010, the report, among other things, suggested eliminating the tuition cap. This led to the passage of the most recent legislation, mentioned above. And this legislation could have the opposite impact people were expecting. It does not look like the higher fees are discouraging young Britons from going to college, and the plan could actually cost the government more money in the short term; because the government originates all student loans, it will have to cover the costs of the tuition increases, at least initially. The government and students in Britain are likely to struggle over this issue for years to come

Students in Chile have also faced difficulties regarding higher education in recent years. Chile is home to some of the highest quality education in South America. Two of its major universities, the Catholic University of Chile and the University of Chile are among the top five best Latin American universities. However, the system has massive inequality even at the high school level. The average student goes to underfunded public high schools or subsidized charter schools while the brightest students are sent to the prestigious and public National Academy.

Throughout the past year, various grievances over secondary and higher education in Chile have led to student protests, among the largest the nation has seen since the end of Pinochet's dictatorship in the 1980s. A central factor among these complaints is the discontent with the current for-profit system which was instituted by Pinochet; only around 45% of Chilean high school students are educated in public institutions. While this does not affect university students as much, the abolition of this primarily  private education system has been the protestors’ foremost desire. Even at the higher level of education, Chile has had incredibly low levels of public funding, and essentially no system of student grants or loans. To make matters worse, the cost of university in Chile is proportionally the world’s highest, with a year’s tuition costing 40% of the average annual salary. This, combined with limited job prospects for graduates, has galvanized student protest groups to advocate change, led by the charismatic Communist undergrad Camila Vallejo of the University of Chile.

After the earlier protests last May, there have been some state concessions, including a fund for stabilizing education costs and legalizing some of the more contentious for-profit activities, the latter move further incensing students. Following more protests, the presidency released additional reforms, most notably a constitutional amendment which provided a right to universal education, and ended local control over public secondary education. This second compromise, while welcomed, failed to meet the major demands of the protestors, namely the end of profiteering in education. So far, the students continue to strike and march under the belief that the government still sees education as a commercial consumer good rather than a right. As students in Britain have reacted to the increasing cost of education due to government regulations loosening, students in Chile are trying to force the government to take a more active role in reducing the price of education.