A rise in tuition fees – a breach of human rights?

The cost of an education

Tuition fees are the annual sum paid to universities by students in return for receiving an education. The amount universities can charge is capped by the government. Recently the maximum has nearly tripled and now stands at £9,000 per year. The government will loan students this money along with a contribution to maintaining themselves throughout this expensive period of life. However, this loan will need to be repaid and could now easily reach £45,000 before even considering a further master’s degree or professional qualification. Without a university education however people are statistically likely to earn less money and the door to many professional jobs can be locked.

Right to an education

An education is such a fundamental part of growing up and becoming someone that contributes positively to their environment. It cannot be overstated how much in the interests of a country it is to provide their citizens with the best education possible. Higher than this, British citizens have an actual right to an education; this is enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998. The government must also endeavour to provide an education to all people without discriminating against them on the basis of race, religion, sex or disability.

Are these rights infringed?

Some people certainly think so. Two prospective students tried suing the government for bringing about this change. They argued firstly that their right to an education was infringed as taking on such a financial commitment was simply not feasible or reasonable. Secondly they submitted that the price increase was contrary to law providing protection against discrimination. In this regard it was suggested that lower salaries can be attributed to females, the disabled and those from an ethnic minority background and hence the high fees would simply be too much for members of these sections of society, therefore discriminating against them. It can also be argued that the increase would prevent those from impoverished backgrounds from taking on the burden of a loan and hence deprive them of an education.

The court’s findings

The High Court found that the government’s decision did not breach human rights and that they had acted legally. They were acceptant of the fact that some students may be put off by the price but found that not to be the same as being deprived of an education. The court was supportive of the suggestion that the change may be discriminatory and made some rather scornful comments about the government’s failure to comply with their duties to the public. The court did not feel it right to quash the government’s decision.

The wider picture

In reality the reason tuition fees have increased is that government funding for universities has been reduced. The universities need to pay for their teaching and research staff, for the rent of their premises and utility bills as well as all the other costs attributed to running an institution. They could not survive on the reduced funds given to them by the government; hence the fee paid by each student that attends their campus has been increased. In effect the majority of the cost of each student’s education is now paid by them rather than the taxpayer. Given that their education is going to make them more likely to earn a greater wage later in life, would that not seem a fair way of doing things? If students really want to go to university then surely they will. They can repay the loan years later, once benefiting from the education they received. If they do not feel it makes economic sense then they may choose not to go to university, but surely they are not being deprived of their right to an education. It is noteworthy that both students who took the government to court have decided they want to go to university. Let’s just hope they become politicians and devise a way of providing free education to all.

Related reading

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/oct/10/education-human-right-not-commodity?INTCMP=SRCH

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/feb/17/tuition-fees-rise-human-rights-court