UNIVERSITY tuition fees are political dynamite. Tony Blair’s government first introduced upfront charges for students in Britain in 1998; they were replaced in England in 2004 with a scheme under which fees rose, but students could borrow the cost from the state and repay it once they were earning. That move proved even more contentious in Parliament than Mr Blair’s decision to wage war on Iraq. A new proposal for graduates to pay even more for the education they have enjoyed could open a rift in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government.
Demand for higher education is booming around the world; to help increase the supply, many countries, including Germany, Ireland and Spain, have begun charging students, as America has long done. In England (Scotland and Wales have separate regimes) a student beginning his studies this year must contribute £3,290 ($5,200) towards the annual cost of his education. The actual average cost is around £7,000: the state partially plugs the gap, and also lends students the money to pay their fees and living expenses. These loans currently carry no interest in real terms, and graduates do not begin repaying them until they are earning £15,000 a year or more.