By Mohammad Abbas and Matt Falloon, Toronto Star, December 9, 2010
The (British) government plans to allow universities in England to charge students fees of up to 9,000 pounds ($14,100) per year—almost treble the current limit, as it cuts state funding for higher education as part of an austerity programme.
Of course there are demonstators in the streets of London, and well there should. Trebling the rate of tuition effectively "privatizes" university education, given that only the wealthy will be able to afford that steep hike in fees.
And, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Democrats in Congress (U.S.) are threatening to block the Obama compromise on tax reductions for the millionaires and the billionaires.Obama had earlier sought and got an agreement with the Republicans to extend unemployment benefits, on condition that the Bush tax cuts be extended for two years, to all Americans, regardless of income size. Obama originally wanted those tax cuts extended only for middle and low income Americans.
The British students may well be the next canary in the coal mine, given their legitimate protest, on behalf of middle income earners everywhere. For the last half century at least, the western world has proudly declared that, if you could demonstrate your ability to learn, you would have the opportunity to attend university. And the number of university graduates has, consequently, soared, with multiple implications, mostly positive.
There are two tectonic plates that are threatening to break apart in Britain, and possibly in the U.S.
The rich are seen by the masses (the middle class, or the workers, or the working poor depending on your choice of description) as running away with the "state".
Especially in Great Britain, where university was declared a public 'right' ( and offered 'free' to all who qualified since 1967) and where, ironically, there have been clear ''class" distinctions for centuries, the Cameron coalition government is rightly seen to be taking a regresive step into a very large chasm of removing the level playing field at least with respect to access to education.
As a member of the lower class, in one of Britain's former colonies (Canada), I have benefited directly from a virtually 'free' access to public university. It is one of the hallmarks of Canada, that university access to a publicly funded universities has made it possible for my generation to be literally the 'first' to attend in our families.
And my life has been very different from what it would have been had such access not been available.
It is now impossible for me even to countenance the effective removal of that access from students from the same socio-economic demographic. It is natural, given my own opportunities, that I would identify with those protesters, although even their leaders regret the violence into which their protest erupted.
In the U.S., the question of tax cuts for the extremely wealthy (those with incomes above $250,000) has divided the Democratic party from the compromise, and rendered the 'deal' potentially D.O.A. That would leave some two million unemployed without benefits, after the end of December, although the bill does not extend benefits beyond the 99 weeks in which they were available before the compromise was reached.
These skirmishes are like flares in the night sky, warning of more disturbances, as the flow of wealth goes increasingly to the rich and leaves more and more families slipping into what are considered the poor, the lower class, the underclass. Ariana Huffington, the founder and publisher of the "Huffington Post," has written a new book, the title of which is "Third World America"...pointing to this chasm that is wiping out the middle class, if the damage is not already done.
The Brits would do well to remember, (and the Prime Minister is an excellent example of one who should, as he has an Oxford degree, presumably as part of his country's 'free' access to higher education policies of the recent past), that education is the primary means of raising the level of all 'boats' for the simple and obvious reason that education serves to raise the income levels, and the hopes and aspirations of those whose fathers and mothers did not have such opportunities, and were rendered "stuck" in manual, menial and low-paying jobs for their entire lives many of those jobs today being considered unsafe, often without even the benefits of adequate health care.
We must not permit our achievements to become fossils for a smaller cadre of archeologists from the elite to study in the next centuries. And we must not surrender those achievements to the greed and gluttony of the flagrantly irresponsible, whether they are "leaders" in the financial services sector, the real estate sector, the corporate elite, or the government itself whose members depend too critically on the support of the wealthy for their campaigns, creating a climate of political incest.
Education is our powerful instrument for equality, or at least a semblance of equality, and we must protect access for our grandchildren, because our children have already been saddled with too much student debt, as our generation were not so hobbled.