There's a big debate going on in the UK at the moment that is posing a serious threat to Tony Blair's leadership. It's all about the introduction of so-called "top-up" fees, whereby universities can charge students fees of up to 3000 pounds a year depending on the course. This has many, many people up in arms, as they believe firmly in free education - thus, the strongest opposition is from within the Labour party.
It's a very complex issue, but in short a way needs to be found to give the universities more money - but even with the introduction of these fees, the gap will still not be met. What Tony is proposing is that the students take out a loan to pay off these fees, which they then pay back at negligible interest after they have graduated and are earning a certain minimum amount. Of course, this will then saddle the graduate with another 10-15000 pounds worth of debt.
Thus there is a great risk that those from poorer backgrounds won't go to uni, for fear of the debt, and they are then denied the chance to better themsleves because of their financial situation - something very non-left wing, very non-old-Labour. Hence the big furore. In order to combat this, the govt is proposing a series of bursaries, and financial aid to the poorest 30%. Which is good. This then shifts a large burden on to the middle class, who won't qualify for the benefits. Which is bad.
However, the only other real way to give more cash to unis is to raise it through tax, which means finding the money from somewhere else or raising tax. And there is the issue of whether it is fair that people who didn't go to uni should pay for those that should, when graduates already earn 30% more. Surely it makes moral sense that since you're gonna earn more, you should pay more.
The big risk though is that there could be a shift towards elitism, with the best universities costing ten times as much as the bad ones, and thus only the rich kids can afford to go. i.e. it becomes the US system.
What makes this strange is that I have talked to people from many different parts of the world, who all have different systems of higher education. In some places it is just taken as fact that if you go to uni, you'll end up in debt. But because that is the status quo, it is accepted, and lived with and it doesn't appear to deter people. Of course, they then have the advantage of having fine-tuned the system.
The reason why I'm writing about this is because on TV last night there was a televised debate between Tony Blair and his opponents. Not his political rivals, but schoolkids, students, teachers and so on who were opposed and wished to question him on it. I have to say I was rather impressed by Mr Blair's answers, he did make a convincing case, but what impressed me more was that he actually did it. How often will the national leader go on TV and debate the issues with people. And it happens quite often, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown often appear on political talk shows to defend themselves and their policies. When was the last time you saw Bush do anything like that?