Blair: U.K. needs to fix education disparities, higher ed costs

By LAUREN CHOOLJIAN, MEDILL NEWS SERVICE, Written for UPI  |  Nov. 14, 2011 at 5:09 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 14 (UPI) -- Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Monday that to curb growing higher education costs in the United Kingdom, leaders must work to eliminate disparities in elementary and secondary education.

"We need to make sure the benefit of a really high-quality education for young people is being driven down into the local communities, particularly where the students and their parents will be a lot poorer and disadvantaged," Blair said.

The United Kingdom does need to work on university affordability issues, Blair said, but also must recognize that many students aren't being educated properly.

Tens of thousands of students in London protested last week over tuition fee increases. Faced with a struggling economy and major budget cuts, the British Parliament decided last December to transfer the majority of tuition payments to English universities from the state to students.

Blair spoke from Jerusalem on a three-way video chat to a group of U.S. high school students and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the Newseum in Washington and a second group of high school students in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Duncan also talked about the rising cost of higher education. He said he was proud of the work the Obama administration has done to curb costs both on the front and back end of college affordability.

Over the next decade, Duncan said $40 billion in Pell Grants would be available for students to use toward college tuition. He also said the president's student loan repayment plan would take hundreds of dollars off student bills each month.

College Board data indicate the total charges for in-state education at public, four-year universities rose more than 6 percent from last year, while out-of state public college charges rose more than 5 percent. Private, four-year universities saw a more than 4 percent increase.

Responding to concerns that the cost of higher education in the United States would lead to an education disparity, Duncan said he believed students would "vote with their feet."

"I think young people today are smart and savvy, their parents are smart, they want to get a good education, they want to get value for their money," Duncan said. "Where universities are seeing their costs go up much faster than the rate of inflation, I think they're gonna lose business, they're gonna lose market share."

The videoconference was part of Blair's "Face to Faith" schools program -- an initiative that brings students, ages 12-17, together using digital technology. The participating students from Chantilly High School in Virginia and Jumeriah College in Dubai discussed a variety of topics from economic disparities in their respective nations to religious intolerance.

Blair said the initiative was designed to open such discussions across the globe --whether a unanimous consent is reached or not.

The more that we talk, and the more there is understanding of where the other people are coming from," Blair said, "the more likely it is that we'll live in harmony."

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