Inquiry into legality of rise in tuition fees: Do we still have the right to higher education?

Following the decision to increase university fees to as much as £9000 in 2010, two seventeen year-old students are preparing to present their case to the high court, claiming that the Higher Education (Higher Amount) Regulations of 2010 are in breach of human rights and equality legislation.

Kate Moore and Callum Hurley argue that the increase which will affect next year’s applicants does not adhere to Article 14 of the 1998 Human Rights Act, by not necessarily granting all applicants a place in higher education, and therefore not qualifying as a ‘human right’. They will also argue that the legislation fails to promote equality by disregarding the future discrepancy in graduate salary according to race and gender. But have the adverse effects of government cut-backs on UK universities lead to a compromise in our ‘right’ to be educated?

The shift from university as a public-funded institution to one predominantly driven by the investment of its students has raised questions on its accessibility. In light of the 12% decrease of university applicants for the 2012 intake, the financial burden of student debt appears to play an important part in British students’ decision to pursue higher education. But given the dramatic decrease of applicants following the rise in fees, and progressively more rigorous entry requirements, is higher education returning to its roots as a given right only to those who can afford it? Despite Cameron’s firm denial against claims of discrimination in favour of more privileged applicants, government cuts will inevitably create major obstacles for students from low-income backgrounds. The withdrawal of the government’s AimHigher scheme is also a notable drawback for promotion of social diversity, as a former campaign attempting to promote the long-term benefits of higher education in more deprived areas.

Further, the incentive of a significant fee reduction in middle-ranking universities to encourage high-achieving students to apply also questions higher education as a vehicle for social mobility. Although the policy seems to open up higher education to talented students from less well-off backgrounds, it has been criticized by Gareth Thomas, shadowing universities minister as a “marketing ploy because they (the government) are worried about a drop in student places” and whose funds would be better spent facilitating access. Also, a third of the students attaining AAB are taught in private schools, as opposed to the 20% in state schools, which suggests that well-off applicants are more likely to benefit from the incentives. (The Guardian)

However, in a highly competitive job market the the demand for ever more advanced qualifications and experience is becoming increasingly aggressive, leaving little choice for students wanting to land high-earning jobs. This has lead to an educational cul-de-sac, in which the pressure for students to enter university in order to succeed is great, albeit financially daunting.

It’s therefore questionable whether the individualistic approach to higher education following the fee increase allows university to remain a given ‘right’ to current students in the UK. With the case set to come to a conclusion in the coming weeks, let’s hope that they succeed to overturn the dramatic fee increase set to hit students next year.