UK: University tuition fees


In 2010, following the publication of the Browne Review (which was commissioned by the previous Labour Government), the new Coalition Government announced that it would remove funding for most degrees outside of the so-called STEM subjects (representing a cut in public support of around £3billion). This was to be replaced by an increase in tuition fees, with the maximum that universities were allowed to charge for undergraduate degrees raised from £3375 per year to £9000 per year. This represented a near tripling of tuition fees and a major restructuring of the financial basis upon which higher education in the UK was to be funded (McGettigan 2013: 21-2). For this reason we consider the proposal to be high in terms of severity.

Severity: high

In terms of the target, the measure was presented as being designed to ensure that the benefits of higher education were paid for by those who directly benefited from a university education (i.e. students).  It is therefore difficult to label the initiative either ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ focused. One analysis viewed the measure as ‘insider’ focused in that it targeted those with university education, who were typically ‘insiders’ in that they would expect to receive a higher level of income over their lifetimes. However, the threshold above which repayments would be made (£21000) was such that it included all but the very lowest income-earners. Given this threshold, however, we cannot term the move outsider-targeted (as those with the most clearly ‘outsider’ status – i.e. on very low incomes – would be protected from repaying fees). In addition, participation in higher education is increasingly accessible to a growing section of the population – we therefore consider the measure to be universal in terms of its target (in that all members of society are eligible to attend university).

target: universal


The proposal for a sharp increase in tuition fees prompted a correspondingly rapid mobilisation of a student protest movement that was fiercely critical of the proposal. Opposition took two main forms – first, a round of public demonstrations timed to oppose the passing the of the secondary legislation needed to implement the policies; and, second, militant direct action protests that largely consisted of occupations of university buildings in an attempt to highlight opposition to the impact that the fee rise would have on higher education.

Public opposition

The anti-tuition fee student movement emerged, somewhat unexpectedly, out of the official National Union of Students (NUS) demonstration that had been called for 10 November 2010 to oppose the tuition fee increase. The demonstration was expected to be a conventional march through central London, with the support of both the NUS and the academic staff union, UCU. However, disruption emerged on the route of the march as a group of more militant students entered the Millbank building that housed the headquarters of the Conservative Party. The scenes were striking – broadcast through both traditional media and social media – including anarchist flags (amongst others) being waved from the roof of the building, students occupying the building, and a large group of protesters gathering outside the building.

This event marked the beginning of the biggest wave of student mobilisation in over three decades, forming a major part of the anti-austerity movement witnessed in the UK, including roughly one-third of all protest events for 2010 (Bailey 2014).

This included sometimes violent protests leading up to the vote in parliament – in which repeated clashes between student protesters and the police occurred.


The protests focused especially on the broken promise of the Liberal Democrats – the junior coalition partner – that it would oppose tuition fees once in office. The use of social media, especially, was used to highlight the hypocrisy of the coalition partner.

Militant refusal

In addition to instances of public demonstrations, a wave of student occupations of university buildings occurred, which sought to create spaces within which critiques of the proposed reform of higher education could be made, and the day-to-day operation of the universities could be obstructed.



Similar protests and occupations continued for a number of years after the vote was passed, routinely criticising, opposing and disrupting the marketisation of UK higher education.

imperceptible dissent

In addition, and as detailed above (and below), we witnessed a range of cultural and symbolic critiques of the key decision-makers (especially lampooning of Clegg) which amounted to a considerable attack on the political elite. This took the form often of online and creativly produced parodies.

imperceptible dissent : substantial
public opposition (non-disruptive): substantial
public opposition (disruptive): substantial

militant refusal: substantial



The high level of opposition to the tuition fees created a number of obstacles. Probably the most relevant was the high impact it had upon the popularity of the Liberal Democrats – who had benefited from significant student support ahead of the election, and who therefore feared a legitimacy crisis for the party as a result of what was perceived to be a broken promise to oppose the tuition fees.

In addition, the concessions that needed to be granted in order to secure sufficient agreement within the Coalition Government, and ensure that the coalition did not break down, were such that the actual implementation of the initiative did not have as big an impact as was anticipated – resulting in only a small amount of savings to government spending due to the relatively generous terms on which the loans to pay for the increased fees was made (see below). We consider this to therefore be a considerable governing probolem.

Finally, the large-scale opposition to the tuition fee increase created a number of indirect problems that we might term institutional inertia– proposals to sell off the student loan book, to expand the number of private sector providers in the HE sector, and to raise the threshold for loan repayments were all postponed due in part to fear that further protests would arise that woudl further destabilise the coalition.

obstacles: governing problems, indirect impact (institutional inertia)

Elite responses

The elite response to the anti-tuition fee protests can be divided into three types.


In responding to the protests that took place leading up to the passing of the vote in parliament in December 2010, we witnessed a heavy handed approach to policing the events that sought to restrict dissent. This included the kettling of student protesters, and prosecution of those protesters who might otherwise be considered victims of police assaults – most obviously in the case of Alfie Meadows.


In addition to heavy-handed policing, the Government (and especially the Lib Dem junior partner) sought consent for its policies through a combination of the deployment of ‘necessitarian’ logic (whereby financial necessity was cited as the driving logic for the initiative) and, on the part of the Lib Dems, the claim that through participation in the coalition it was possible to ameliorate and modify the full scale of the austerity measures that would otherwise be implemented if the Conservatives were left to govern alone. At one point Nick Clegg was under such pressure that he issued a public apology for the pre-election promise he had made (although notably he did not apologise for the policies his coalition implemented, but rather for the misleading promise that he made before the election, and which he claimed could not (after all) have been kept due to the scale of the financial hardship faced by the British state).

In Clegg’s words, ‘I shouldn’t have committed to a policy that was so expensive  when there was no money around – not least when the most likely way we’d end up in government was in coalition with Labour or the Conservatives – who had both committed to put fees up. I know that we fought to get the best policy that we could in those circumstances but I also realise that isn’t the point”.

The extent to which this apology achieved its goals, however, is questionable – particularly given that it ensured that Clegg was subjected to yet more parody through social media:


The small amount of time between the announcement in October 2010 that tuition fees would be nearly tripled, and the adoption of the necessary secondary legislation in parliament in December 2010 to implement the measure, meant that there was little scope for concessions to be introduced. Nevertheless, the pressure upon the Coalition – and especially upon the junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats – was such that some kind of compromise needed to be struck.

The main concession that the Liberal Democrats achieved was the agreement that the £21000 repayment threshold (below which graduates would not begin repaying their loan) would raise annually in line with inflation (McGettigan 2013: 23). (Although in 2015 it was announced that this commitment was to be abandoned and instead the threshold would be frozen until at least April 2021 – see Bolton 2016).

A secondary concession was the requirement that universities charging over £6000 in annual fees were required to negotiate an ‘access agreement’ with OFFA (Office for Fair Access), which would show how some of the revenue from the tuition fees would be used to widen participation, for instance by increasing support for students from lower income backgrounds. This is estimated to cost between 20-30% of the tuition fee revenue that comes from fees over £6k (c.£670m, up from c.£400m prior to the reforms) (McGettigan 2013: 31).

In addition, any unpaid loans that remain after 30 years will be written off.

In total, these amounted to substantial concessions and substantially reduced the degree to which the government was able to increase revenue through the austerity measure (see below).

concessions: substantial


Went ahead?



The indexing of the threshold above which graduates must begin to repay the debt accrued as a result of their tuition fees created a number of unintended consequences which have resulted in significant financial problems for the funding of higher education.

The complexity of the funding scheme adopted is such that it is difficult for the government to calculate the extent to which loans will be repaid, as this depends on inflation and the wages secured by graduates. As a result, the calculation of the amount to be repaid was significantly written down, by around £3billion, in 2014 (compared with the 2010 estimate) (McGettigan 2015).

The savings achieved by the reforms were estimated to be only 5% of the total support spent by the government per student (IFS 2014).

In addition to the consequences associated with implementation, the Liberal Democrats suffered a massive loss of electoral support, which most commentators explained directly as a result of the tuition fee issue – with the inconsistency of the tuition fee position of the party ensuring that it was tarnished with an image of duplicity and dishonesty; an image that the tuition fee protests worked hard to establish and embed within popular consciousness.

Further, fear of prompting another round of protests created a reluctance to introduce new reforms and thereby created a degree of institutional inertia (see above).

Consequences: we therefore consider the consequences to be substanial, in that they are widely attributed to the collapse in electoral support for the Liberal Democrats and in subsequent budgetary problems witnessed.

consequences: substantial

sum: obstacles (1), substantial consequences (2), substantial concessions (4) – patchy, very problematic and only partial adoption (1+2+4=7)



McGettigan, A., 2013, The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education (London: Pluto Press).

McGettigan, A., 2015, ‘Cash Today: Who profits from student loans?‘, London Review of Books 37(5).