Until the 1990s, students in Great Britain could go to college for free. A Labor government instituted fees, and now the Tory-Liberal Democratic coalition government proposes to triple those fees -- raising the annual bill to the equivalent of $14,000 a year -- as an austerity measure to close the budget deficit. Thousands of students have responded with demonstrations and building occupations. The protesters complain that the government is pricing college education out of the range of the poor, however modest the fees may seem from an American standpoint. Protest leaders talk of recalling LibDem parliamentarians who renege on a campaign promise not to raise fees. Beyond that, today's actions are another tantrum of impotence along the lines of French demonstrations against raising the age of pension eligibility. As long as governments have been legally elected, and no one contemplates a coup d'etat, no amount of public anger will dissuade "conservative" regimes from austerity measures. The most the students and their friends can hope for, I suppose, would be to persuade enough LibDems to repudiate the coalition and force a vote of confidence on Tory prime minister Cameron. I have no idea of how likely that is, and there's no guarantee that the election that would follow a no-confidence vote in parliament would go the students' way. Britain as a whole may be in as much of a "no free rides" mood as America is. The most likely result of the Cameron plan will be a boom in the student-loan business.
Capitalists can be depended upon to argue in favor of higher fees on the ground that college education is not a right. In the abstract that may be so, but in a competitive global economy it might be considered a duty to one's nation to get the higher education necessary for technological and entrepreneurial innovation. If that's so, you could argue that a citizen should no more have to pay for higher education from public universities than he should have to pay a fee to join the army. On the other hand, I suppose you could say that, as the soldier risks his life, so the student should make some smaller risk of his savings, or a sacrifice of whatever spending allowance he's accustomed to, since there is more chance for actual personal gain from education than there is in soldiering. If governments must economize, they ought to prioritize as well. If they can't afford free college for everyone who wants it, they should at least subsidize the most gifted who are most likely to benefit the nation with enhanced knowledge and skills. If the state has an interest in a skilled population, it should facilitate the acquisition of skills. Relying only on market incentives is unreliable in an imperfect marketplace of limited options. But if the Cameron government believes that Britons can afford the increased fees, I'd like to see them make their case. Until then, any aversion of rioting aside, it seems like Cameron is asking the wrong people to tighten their belts.