On Wednesday, Nov. 10, tens of thousands of university students and their supporters took to the streets in central London, in one of the largest protests the United Kingdom had seen in decades. The demonstration largely passed peacefully, despite some relatively small-scale violence in and around Conservative Party HQ at 30 Millbank (for an excellent first-hand account of the protest, and a thorough debunking of the media myths surrounding it, check out this report).

At issue? A proposed rise in the country’s tuition and fees cap from £3,125 (about $5,050) to £9,000 (about $14,550), as well as threatened cuts to arts and humanities programs. The government of the UK heavily subsidizes higher education, and this cap applies to every university in the country (with only a single exception). Protesters made the point that the near-tripling of fees would make it impossible for students of all economic backgrounds to attend a university, and that education would only be for those who could afford it instead of for everyone.

When I first read about the protests and the reason behind them, I admit to being a little dismissive. “That’s not so much,” I thought, “After all, the college I graduated from costs $50,000/year to attend these days! What are they complaining about?” But the more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that they were absolutely right to take to the streets. The point isn’t that they have it easy by comparison, it’s that our system is deeply flawed.

American colleges and universities, both public and private, do a lot to try and ensure that cost is not a barrier to access, but the sad truth is that higher education is simply out of reach for certain segments of the population. According to the College Board, public colleges cost an average of $7,605 per year, while private colleges cost an average of over $27,000 per year; and this number is rising.

Even if students can get past that initial barrier to access, they will likely find themselves saddled with large debts after they graduate. According to the Institute for College Access and Success’s Project on Student Debt, Connecticut college graduates in 2009 had an average debt load of $25,038 (the national average is about $24,000). Fifty-nine percent of all students graduated with some sort of debt. Student loans, however, are only one piece of the complex financial aid equation: some students receive grants, some take out additional private loans to meet tuition costs, and many families take on additional debt to pay for a child’s education. This is only an average, of course: some students can graduate from private, four-year colleges with debts well in excess of $100,000. All of this is taking place while average salaries for college graduates are dropping.

Why is it so different in this country? Why is the burden of college tuition here largely on the student and family, and not on society as a whole in the form of the government? Maybe the difference is simply that we don’t see higher education as a right: we see it as an individual privilege, or as a means to an end for people to gain an economic advantage above and beyond public elementary and secondary education. No matter the reason, the result is the perpetuation and widening of the gap between haves and have-nots.

The day before tens of thousands filled London’s streets in protest, the city of New Haven and Yale University announced a plan to send qualified students from the city’s public schools to any state university for free, and to contribute a small amount to students who wanted to attend private universities. This program, largely funded by Yale, is a step in the right direction towards making higher education more accessible for those who would benefit most from it.

Programs like New Haven’s are rare, however, and it’s telling that the city needs to rely on the altruism of Yale. Our national priorities are backwards. I have to wonder what would happen if tens of thousands of students descended on Washington, D.C., demanding that their government support them better by increasing subsidies and reducing or forgiving federal student loans. Imagine the economic effect of recent college graduates not burdened by crushing debt, or families not consumed with saving and sacrificing for college.

The London protesters, minus those who destroyed property, should be commended for insisting their deficit-slashing government to make higher education a priority instead of throwing up barriers to access. New Haven and Yale University should similarly be applauded for taking the initiative in trying to tear down those same barriers. Other local and state governments in the United States could learn a lesson from both.

Full disclosure: I work for a small private college in Massachusetts, but obviously do not speak for them in any way

Susan Bigelow is the former owner/author of CTLocalPolitics.com. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.

Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.