OXFORD, England -- Americans paying upward of $20,000 a year in tuition to attend the best universities might wonder what Alex Ismail's problem is.
The 19-year-old Briton is protesting against the $1,600 a year tuition levied for the first time in decades at British universities, including world-famous Oxford University.
Ismail is one of the "Oxford Six," the fiercely bright holdouts at the center of an effort to reverse the tuition tide and bring back Britain's free college ride, a right once enjoyed by millions of Britons at all British universities.
Overdue notices, campus bans and even parental pressure have failed to derail Oxford's tuition rebels.
"If they could afford free universities in the past, they can afford them now," says Ismail, who is studying the classics.
To Ismail, paying tuition sounds, well, positively American.
"That's not the road we want to go down," he says. "It spreads like a contagion. If we pay for this, what's next?"
Like the taxpayer-financed National Health Service, free tuition represented Britain's post-World War II ideal of ending class distinctions and raising living standards.
In the 1960s, the British government began to pick up the undergraduate tuition tab for students. The government also handed out government stipends for housing and food for students, who in Britain attend college for three years as opposed to four in the United States.
But in recent years, British higher education has undergone a dramatic transformation, as the numbers of students and universities skyrocketed.
"A key fact explains everything: In the 1960s only 5 percent of the population went to university and in the 1990s it's over 30 percent. An elite system has become a mass system," says Dr. Nicholas Barr, an economics professor at the London School of Economics.
A human right became an economic burden for successive cash-strapped British governments. Subsidies for housing and food were the first to be cut back, as students and parents had to come up with cash or loans for living expenses.
Finally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- Oxford educated -- ended the last logjam by ramming through a bill to introduce tuition fees, beginning with this academic year's incoming class. As a bow to political and economic realities, the fee was means tested.
"If you're rich, you pay, if you come from a poor background the fees are waived, and in between there's a sliding scale," Barr says.
Barr calls the system fair and says student protests amount to "the middle class in defense of its perks."
But at Oxford, the tuition holdouts have a different view. They don't have any problem paying for room and board. But they draw the line at paying for tuition.
And they're getting ready for a march next Friday as students from as many as 16 British universities gather for what is being billed as the town of Oxford's biggest protest since 1968.
"We're defending a policy of free education," says Catherine Ravenscroft, an 18-year-old history student. "University should be accessible to everyone, not on whether or not you can pay."
The protesters say they fear the tuition fee -- which pays for only a portion of education expenses -- will eventually be raised. To them, the "privatization of higher education," is a trend that must be stopped.
The protest ferment seems to be strongest at Oxford's Somerville College, whose graduates include former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Four of the tuition holdouts attend the college, which is also the scene of strategy sessions.
What would Thatcher make of the protesters?
"I think she'd be appalled," Ravenscroft says.
Originally, 30 Oxford students withheld funds. But the ranks were thinned for the simplest of reasons -- some students had to answer to frantic parents who weren't about to let an Oxford education go down the tubes for a symbolic fight.
Like all of the protesters, Ravenscroft seems to have a realistic notion of how far she can go without paying her bill. The students don't want to get thrown out of school -- they just want to make their point.
"My parents and relatives are worried that I'll get kicked out," she says. "My aunt called me the other day and said, 'You're going to get expelled.' I told her, 'Not yet.' "
So far, the university has taken an even-handed approach with the students. Although they are officially banned from some of the university's facilities, the students can still continue their academic careers and remain in their rooms at their individual colleges.
"We understand the right to protest and don't have any problem with it," says an Oxford spokesman. "This is a protest against the government and the introduction of tuition fees. We think at some point the students will feel they have made their point."
Holdout Frances Linehan, 19, who studies classics at Oxford and saved up for this year's tuition by working as a waitress, house cleaner and part-time librarian, admits the last few months have been stressful and even a bit painful. She doesn't want to be banned from Bodleian Library, one of the world's oldest.
"There's something symbolic in not being able to use the library, because you've worked so hard to get here," she says.
But Linehan is not yet ready to back down.
"We can't overturn the government's decision," she says. "But we might make a difference. We're standing up for all the universities."
Pub Date: 1/16/99