Making EU students pay higher fees is a blow for social mobility

Jul 4, 2020 by

A post-Brexit rise in fees for European students is an academic injustice

On 24 June, universities minister Michelle Donelan announced that, as a consequence of Brexit, EU and EEA students would be classified as overseas students starting from the 2021/22 academic year. They will be charged full tuition (up to £20,000 in some cases), lose access to the tuition fee loan, and no longer be eligible for many needs-based funds. It signalled the end of a brief period of time when it seemed UK universities could serve international social and academic mobility.

“EU … students, staff and researchers make an important contribution to our universities,” Donelan’s statement read. “I want that contribution to continue and am confident – given the world-leading quality of our higher education sector – that it will.” As anyone coming from an average family from Poland, Romania or Hungary could tell, this statement ignores the material reality of the situations most of us studying in the UK come from.

For a year I worked as access officer of the Cambridge University Hungarian Society. Together with fellow members I gave introductory speeches in schools and mentored school students, many of whom ended up at Cambridge. While many struggled to believe that they stood a chance, Hungarian students performed staggeringly well getting into the UK’s top universities.

A key selling point for many applicants was the realisation that studying in the UK was a lot more affordable than they had imagined. This was enabled by the combination of home fee status, access to needs-based bursaries and the tuition fee loan. But a quick glance at average income levels in Hungary and international tuition fees in some UK universities makes it clear that the new arrangement changes everything.

This is not only a personal setback for poorer students but an issue of international academic justice. Top UK universities occupy central, powerful positions in attracting leading scholars and defining global research agendas of the world. It would be comforting to think that groundbreaking research only requires brilliant minds, but reality proves otherwise.

Wealth and prestige within an intensely hierarchical global academic system is crucial. Oxbridge and the Russell Group (along with the Ivy League in the US and a few leading European institutions) achieved their positions in global networks of research and knowledge in large part because of the material, financial and intellectual capital they accumulated over centuries. They vastly benefitted from their host nations’ colonial expansion, imperialism, and exploitation of waged and slave labour.

As a result, world-leading academic research is unequally concentrated. It is produced only through significant material and financial investment, which poorer countries simply cannot afford. This arrangement was described by scholar Syed Farid Alatas as “academic imperialism” – the hegemony of institutions in economically developed countries that dictate global research agendas, partnerships, the allocation of funds and the division of academic labour.

That participation in these institutions was reserved to nationally based economic and social elites also meant that knowledge, imperial power and education formed an impenetrable complex for most of their history. Domestically, it is through comparatively recent changes that university was made more-or-less open to working class people, women and ethnic minorities. Still, systemic racism, sexism and economic inequality continue to disadvantage students of these backgrounds. Reforms have never been implemented voluntarily – they are the result of prolonged and organised social struggle.

Source: Making EU students pay higher fees is a blow for social mobility | Universities | The Guardian

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