Earlier this week students in Great Britain took to the streets to protest a government plan to raise the fees students have to pay for university education. It’s protest with an odd history. According to an article by Sarah Lyall in the New York Times:

A demonstration against government proposals to cut education spending and steeply increase tuition for university students turned violent on Wednesday as protesters attempted to storm the building that houses the Conservative Party.

A demonstrator kicked the windows of Millbank Tower, which houses the headquarters of the Conservative Party, during a protest in London on Wednesday. The protesters scuffled with police officers, set off flares, burned placards, threw eggs, bottles and other projectiles and shattered windows at the building, 30 Millbank, in Westminster.

This is part of a new plan to try and cut government spending in the UK $130 billion by 2015. Compared to American prices, College Guide has pointed out, the current British university costs are still very low.

But then, students aren’t really objecting to a specific price (about $14,000 a year is the proposal), they’re objecting to a price at all. Until the late 1990s British students paid nothing at all to attend college. The Liberal Democrats, the third-largest party in the House of Commons, have vowed to abolish university tuition.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, said that fees are necessary. According to a piece in the Guardian:

Cameron vowed today that he would not turn back on trebling tuition fees and condemned the students who tried to ransack Conservative headquarters yesterday, saying the full force of the law should be used to prosecute violent protesters.

In a round of interviews in Seoul, where he is attending the G20 summit, Cameron said: “We won’t go back. Look, even if we wanted to, we shouldn’t go back to the idea that university is free.”

This makes it seem like a political issue. Leftist students protest tuition hikes, chanting “Tory scum.” Tory prime minister holds his ground and insists that the fees are necessary.

In fact this has been a curiously bipartisan slide toward privatization. Throughout the famously conservative Thatcher years college was still free. When Cameron went to Oxford in the 1980s, he didn’t pay a cent for his education, despite the fact that he’s been a multimillionaire from birth.

It was a Labour government, under Prime Minister Tony Blair, that introduced tuition for the first time back in 1998. In 2003 Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith said that a Conservative government, if elected, would abolish tuition fees. They were “a tax on learning,” he said.

Smith, now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, appears to have given up on that promise. And so, despite the fact that not everyone’s even sure charging more for tuition will actually save the country money, it looks like fees will go up, no matter how many windows protesters break.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer