Britain's students up in arms about rising cost of learning (Feature)
By Anna Tomforde Dec 9, 2010, 2:06 GMT
London - 'I don't know what my future is any more,' says Mollie White, a 16-year-old schoolgirl who has joined nationwide student protests in Britain against a planned steep rise in tuition fees.
Like many of her fellow-pupils, Mollie fears that, if the fees go up, she won't be able to go to university.
In London, and many major cities, high school pupils have swelled the ranks of university students whose anger has erupted in the biggest wave of student activism for years.
The scale of the protests has caught the Conservative-Liberal coalition government by surprise, and could prove to become its first major test since gaining power in May.
Ahead of a fresh round of demonstrations, sit-ins and occupations planned for Thursday, police have warned parents to 'keep their children away' from demonstrations which, they claim, could be 'hijacked by violent youths.'
Last month, children as young as 12, wearing their school uniforms, were caught up in street protests in London and other cities, where some were fenced in for hours in so-called police 'kettling' operations.
'We were glad that university students were doing things, but we thought sixth form students should take action too - because we'll be the ones paying the higher fees,' explained Jen, a 16-year-old schoolgirl from London.
Under government plans, due for a final parliamentary vote Thursday, tuition fees charged by British universities are set to treble from 2012 - from the current 3,290 pounds (5,200 dollars) a year to up to 9,000 pounds.
Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has said the increase is necessary to ensure the 'sustainable' long-term funding of British universities, and retain their international competitiveness, at a time of budget austerity.
But the focus of the student anger has been directed at Nick Clegg, the Liberal Party leader and deputy prime minister in the coalition government.
The Liberals, a party traditionally favoured by students, promised during the election campaign that they would 'never' raise tuition fees and, in fact, abolish the charges over six years.
Students say they feel 'betrayed' by Clegg. But the Liberal leader, who was the star of the election campaign, has said only that he regretted that, in politics as in life, it was not always possible to keep a promise.
Police say Clegg has been threatened with physical attacks and has been advised to swap his bicycle for an escorted official car to travel from his London home to his office in Downing Street.
While the government has insisted that the proposed measures are 'fair,' critics have said that they will 'widen the social gap' in Britain and prevent poorer students from going to university.
Under the plan, the government will continue to loan students the money for fees, while the threshold at which graduates have to start paying back their loans will be raised to annual earnings of 21,000 pounds - from the current level of 15,000 pounds.
Universities charging more than 6,000 pounds of fees per year will be required to offer initiatives, such as bursaries, summer schools and outreach programmes, to encourage students from poorer backgrounds to apply.
In response to the protests, the government has also proposed a number of last-minute amendments to the bill, which it said would help less well-off students with financing.
But critics have not been satisfied.
'If the government really wanted to make concessions to students' interests, they would halt current plans to triple fees and decimate teaching budgets,' said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU).
'Failure to do so risks putting university out of reach for thousands of families,' she said.
The government, which announced a 40-per cent reduction in the higher education budget under a five-year deficit cutting programme in October, says a new funding system for Britain's universities is needed to meet the surging demand for places.
While in 1990, some 157,000 students were enrolled at universities and specialists colleges, the number stood at 482,000 this year.
The government's plan to reduce the level of state funding for universities, and to fill the funding gap with raised fees, would create a 'dynamic university sector' able to compete with 'the best in the world,' said Cameron on Wednesday.
Statistics show that, over the past decade, British university funding has increasingly relied on the growing influx of foreign students - especially from China and Asia - who have traditionally paid much higher fees of up to 15,000 pounds a year.
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