On Wednesday, thousands of British university students converged in London to demonstrate against dramatic tuition hikes. The protests, organized by the United Kingdom's National Union of Students (NUS), are the latest in a worldwide trend of student actions against the rising cost of public higher education.
Over the past several years, similar protests have occurred in California, Montreal, Greece, and several parts of Latin America, among other places. Angus Johnston, an expert in student activism at the City University of New York, said that all of these university uprisings were in response to similar government policies.
"Over the last few decades, there's been this slow defunding of public higher education, and then you've got the global economic downturn starting in the fall of 2008," he said. "And suddenly there's this big wave of austerity politics."
In the United Kingdom, where the conservative prime minister has overseen years of dramatic austerity cuts, the cost of public higher education has exploded over the last couple of years. European Union students studying in British universities used to pay $5,200 a year in American dollars—now, two years later, they pay $14,200, an increase of 170%. While that might not seem like a whole lot to American college students (who pay an average of $21,447 per year for in-state public education), Roosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal said the context matters.
"Especially in places like the United States, but also in Britain as well, education is bound up with class and mobility," said Konczal, who recently co-wrote a lengthy essay on the decline of the University of California system. "Once you have significant cost barriers built in there, that situation becomes much more precarious."
In other words, tuition hikes in the United Kingdom are contributing to a broader trend away from class mobility and towards an ossified class system. The further down that road the education system goes, Konczal said, the harder it is to reverse the process. "The moment the idea of education as a broad public good, whose access should be determined by merits, and whose costs should be broadly shared—and the people who benefit most will reimburse the most through taxation—once that starts to go, and education becomes just a thing you buy, it's hard to bring that back."
Johnston described the defunding of public higher education as a global crisis. "In a bunch of places around the world, the same shock is happening to the system at the same time, and governments are responding in exactly the same way," he said. Johnston's blog includes a map of American student protests against tuition hikes during the 2009-2010 academic year, and the frequency of those demonstrations may surprise you.
As student resistance has ramped up, so have the police crackdowns. The most famous example of such crackdowns in the U.S. came in November of last year, when a police officer casually pepper sprayed a row of peaceful protestors at UC Davis.
Johnston said students have seen increased police aggression in other parts of the world as well. "One of the points of conflict we're seeing right now is that governments are adopting more aggressive tactics than we've had in the past," he said. "For instance, in Greece, in Mexico and Puerto Rico, and a lot of places in Latin America, there's a tradition of asylum campuses where police have been prohibited from entering campuses. So students have been able to use campuses as loci of organizing." Now, he said, universities are bringing police onto those campuses.
The intensity of the protests and the police response, Konczal said, depends heavily on how far the university commodification process has gone. "The most intense strikes you've seen at the extreme are either in Canada, where you see a really public institution start to get privatized ... or alternatively, they're in places like South America, where the system is so privatized, or has been so dismantled overwhelmingly, that the institutions are terrible. They're for-profit institutions that don't do anything but still take people's money," he said.
On the other hand, "In the United States, the system has been dismantled so much, but it's not a total mess."
The U.S., and particularly the University of California system, is poised between two extremes: South America, on the one hand, and Canada and the United Kingdom, on the other. This year's mass protests in Montreal were in response to what was, by American standards, another minuscule tuition hike: from $2,168 per year to $3,793.
"Canada and England are trying to resist this at the earliest point," Konczal said. However, he predicted that the grim trend of privatization would continue, at least for now. "You're going to have this elite sector out there, and now mass education is going to be a whole lot more degraded," he said. "You're going to see this kind of access break," where only the wealthy can afford a decent higher education, and the opportunities which go along with that. "You've seen that in the United States, and it's definitely happened in places in South America."
However, Johnston said nothing would happen without further resistance from the students. Crucially, he said, students worldwide are now comparing notes; whatever happens to the protests across the pond could have ripple effects here in the U.S.
"One of the things that's important to say is that American students are paying much, much more close attention to what's going on in Europe than they have up until a few years ago," Johnston said. "I think social media has a lot to do with that, and so I suspect that American students are going to be watching this very closely, and taking notes on what happens."