The Tories’ newly-announced summer budget, delivered with typical smug hauteur by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne yesterday, constitutes a dramatic intensification of the war being waged on the working-class youth of Britain. London students (along with workers, Left activists, SYRIZA member Marina Prentoulis and Labour candidate Jeremey Corbyn) immediately met Osborne’s challenge, assembling on Parliament Square to protest our future being sold out in the name of profit.
In addition to scrapping maintenance grants (the only route to higher education for many university applicants) and replacing them with loans, Osborne’s budget will also do away with automatic housing benefit for 18 to 21 year-olds. This horrifying one-two blow was met with fury by student protestors, including Andrew, 22, formerly of the London College of Fashion, who described Osborne’s plan as “the worst budget possible for young people, for disabled people, for the working-class, for everyone who isn’t rich, white and middle-class.”
The abolition of the maintenance grant received particular scorn from demonstrators, many of whom presently depend on their grants in order to access higher education. One such student, Róisín Boggan, 21, an undergraduate studying at Reading University, said that she had little choice but to send much of her grant money home to support her family. “I literally wouldn’t be able to go to university without my maintenance grant. I can barely go to university with it! It seems like [the Tories] don’t want anyone like me to go to university.”
Osborne underlined his economic assault on British youth with the ultimatum “earn, or learn.” Well, we’d love to, George, but you and the diseased capitalist system you represent aren’t exactly making it easy for us.
Let’s assume we wish to learn; between bruising debt and woeful graduate employment prospects, the appeal of higher education is rapidly diminishing for would-be applicants. While the Tories are wont to brag about a marginal dip in graduate unemployment levels under their watch (it fell by about 1% between 2013 and 2014), the average starting salary for UK graduates in full-time employment six months after graduation ranges from £18,000 to £24,000, barely clearing the London living wage. Demonstrator and King’s College London graduate, Ben, 21, spoke of “just trying to scrape by” by working 40-hour weeks in a low-paid job.
Of course, any newly-employed graduates fortunate enough to surpass £21,000 in annual income are obliged to start chipping away at the mountain of debt they’ve accrued during their studies. From the early 90s, the rate of student debt in Britain grew at a steep but steady incline until the Tory-Lib Dem coalition raised the national tuition fee cap to £9,000 per year in 2012, triggering a sharp upswing. Today, the balance stands at £64.7bn: a £10bn increase over 2013/4 alone.
Such is the level of publicly-owned student debt that it belies sense even on a capitalist basis. Couple meagre employment prospects with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt per graduate and many former students can expect to be paying off their loans well into middle-age. These loans are forgiven after 30 years, and forecasts in 2014 found that write-off costs had reached 45% of the level of debt owed. Should it climb to 48.6%, the government will actually lose more money than it could have saved under the previous (and still outrageous) £3,000 per-year tuition fee system. What better evidence of the senile decay of capitalism that it has buried a fiscal time-bomb within the university sector?
Of course, for better-off students with the bank of mum and dad behind them, loan repayments are unlikely to be a deterrent from attending university. However, for young people from poorer backgrounds, the thought of shouldering nearly £30,000 of debt may well be unthinkable. To millions of promising, working-class applicants with household incomes below £25,000, the £3,387 maintenance grant offered a narrow but vital pathway into higher education. Ben described his grant as a “massive help” during his time at university.
“I’ve pretty much lived below the poverty line for most of my life,” he said. “I’ve finished uni, luckily, and the grant was a massive help at helping me get through that, putting a roof over my head and food in the cupboard.”
Even this modest concession to accessibility has now been demolished in favour of more debt and, perhaps, even more punishing tuition fees. On top of binning maintenance loans, Osborne also announced that institutions that demonstrate “excellent teaching” will be allowed to hike their fees in line with inflation, under the Teaching Excellence Framework. By cleansing the ‘riff-raff’ from Britain’s grandest academic institutions, the Tory budget will ensure that top-performing universities become the sole domain of the British elite.
This was the view of Andrew, 22, a London School of Economics student who attended the Westminster demonstration with two of his course-mates. “It’s social gentrification of our education system via the backdoor,” he said. “The government knows all too well it’s going to mean a very affluent clique of the only ones who have the means to get to university.” One can only imagine the delight of the Tories’ own well-heeled progeny when they find universities stuffed with their ilk: pop the champers, lads; the oiks have been evicted!
Given the financial minefield laid along the road to higher education, perhaps working-class youth in Britain are better advised to follow Osborne’s other suggestion and go straight into earning a living after leaving school? Unfortunately, for all his talk of promoting the interests of ‘working people,’ Osborne’s budget simultaneously tramples the prospects of young people entering the job-market while propping up the bosses that exploit them.
While the Tory bench seemed pleased with Osborne’s ‘highly-generous’ gesture of setting a national living wage (particularly Ian Duncan Smith, who greeted the announcement as though his side had just scored a penalty), this meagre crumb is denied to under-25s. Even those old enough to benefit will take small comfort, given that the £9-an-hour wage is still five years away.
In the meantime, the tax credits system depended upon by millions of low-paid workers will be cut by a £4.5bn cut: part of £34.9bn in cuts to welfare promised by Osborne’s budget. Conversely, bosses will surely find room in their coffers for the new living wage when it finally arrives, given that corporation tax will be slashed to 18% under the Tories’ new plan.
Addressing the Commons yesterday, Osbourne described his budget as one that “sets the way to secure Britain’s future.” However, the future belongs to the young, and given the revolutionary mood in Westminster yesterday, the future of bourgeois society in Britain is anything but secure.
Inspired by the defiant stance of the Greek people against the austerity measures of the troika, the youth of Britain are beginning to express their frustration with Tory policy in increasingly radical terms. Placards declaring ‘OXI to Osborne’ were visible throughout the crowd in Westminster yesterday, while chants of “One solution, Revolution!” rang out across the square as protestors faced down mounted police.
Such experiences that will only sharpen British youth as they continue the fightback against the rotten system of capitalism that has utterly failed to provide the free, fair and open education system deserved by all; one that only socialism can achieve.
by Joe Attard, KCL Marxists