This article is an opinion piece written by a member of the Free University of Sheffield; it is not an official statement.
This week we mourn our lost futures. Student maintenance grants are gone. Housing benefit is gone. No pay rise for young workers. No debt relief for students. Executioner Osborne tells us that economic security is at the top of his agenda. Economic security for whom? Our future looks far from secure.
The Tory government is trying to crush the dreams of a whole generation. No housing benefit for 18-21 year olds is nothing more than an attempt to beat people into employment. “Go back home and live with your parents”, they tell us. But what about the people who have been chucked out of their family home? What about the hundreds or thousands of trans* youth rejected by their parents, for whom independence means the chance for a safer life? What about the working class youths from former mining communities, whose hopes for employment in their hometown were obliterated by Thatcher? They tell us we’ve either got to ‘earn or learn’, but in reality the choice is between earning a pittance or learning to live with a debilitating level of debt.
Osborne wants to create a legion of exploited young workers to supporting his failing economy (see page 34, paragraph 1.126 of the Budget Document). The new, age-discriminatory minimum wage—I refuse to call it a living wage (see why here and here)—excludes under-25s, leaving us to fend for ourselves in the Wild West of the labour market. It’s been dressed up as employment “opportunities” for young people when the reality is the opposite. The Tories are driving a race to the bottom, creating a class of highly-skilled young workers ripe for exploitation. Bosses will be guzzling up this wellspring of cheap labour in no time. Grossly underpaid work isn’t an opportunity for young people. It’s an opportunity for the rich to get richer.
Then there’s tuition fees. In his budget, Osborne announced that universities would have the chance to increase their fees with inflation—but only if these institutions offer “high teaching quality” (page 59). This means that elite universities will be able to raise their fees and rake in the extra cash while poorer universities struggle to make ends meet. The gulf between the elite universities and the rest will widen, and the universities which are already struggling will be left out in the cold. It’s no surprise that these are the most working-class universities.
The hike in fees will most be linked to the “Teaching Excellence Framework” (TEF), a dangerous new audit and league table for teaching. Like the Research Excellence Framework, this will lead to the bullying of staff. And it’s likely that the quality of teaching will be assessed on the grades that students receive, putting even more pressure on students to perform well in assessments. Mental health issues are already at epidemic levels among students. A recent study by the National Union of Teachers linked such “accountability measures” in schools with increased anxiety and extreme stress. The same is certainly true of universities. The TEF can only undermine teaching and learning.
Osborne delivered the final blow by bringing his axe down on maintenance grants. These grants provide a lifeline to working-class students as they go through uni, helping with the cost of rent and food. Unlike loans, grants don’t have to be repaid. They don’t saddle students with a crippling amount of debt. They give students the freedom to learn and study without a debilitating anxiety about how to pay the next lot of rent, or how to ever pay off this debt. Debt acts as a form of social control, forcing students to work, work, work on top of their studies. As the years wear on, we have less and less time to experiment, less and less time to study, less and less energy to think.
Let them punish us, but let them know that we will defend ourselves. Our generation will not be crushed. In a society where humans have become resources and dignity has been swapped for productivity, the only way to assert our humanity and to assert our dignity is through resistance. Our actions must scream no! When support staff and lecturers go on strike, we must bring our universities to a standstill. Remember, those at the top do not care for us. So as we resist, as we occupy, we must also care for each other. And as we demand a better world—as we demand free education, social security, genuine democracy—we must also try to build that world. They will always tell us that there is no alternative. There is an alternative, but only if we want it.
This week we mourn our lost futures. Next week we build new ones.