While out selling the Socialist Appeal newspaper in the centre of Sheffield this weekend, an elderly gentleman informed me that I will change my mind about socialism when I get older and start “earning a wage”. Given the prospects of a low-paying job, or no job at all, that current students face upon graduating, this oft-repeated truism rings hollow.
Across all measures of economic success, graduates’ prospects are in free-fall – a trend forecast to continue until well after current students have graduated. Even the relatively fortunate graduates in skilled jobs face the prospect of significantly lower lifetime earnings than the same cohort of five years ago.
The Financial Times recently reported that new graduates’ earnings in England have fallen by 12 per cent since the economic crisis, and will continue to fall for years to come. That nearly 30 percent of graduates are in low paid jobs and are not earning enough to make repayments on their student loans and 17 per cent of have graduated are currently unemployed.(1) Also, at the same time, student debt has increased by an average of 60 per cent per graduate.
Added to this, the current government have plans to cut £350 million in grants to the poorest students after the next election. (2) These are the same grants that were offered as a concession to ease the consciences of the Liberal Democrat ministers who broke the NUS pledge they signed. Barely three years later, they face savage cuts along with other supposedly ring-fenced spending on higher education and research.
Previous generations were able to look at their parents’ and grandparents’ standard of living and see a clear improvement over time. The students of today and tomorrow do not have that luxury.
The reality that graduates are experiencing is distant from the narrative that tripling university fees would secure students better value for money. Likewise, the myth that the poorest would benefit from these alleged reforms has evaporated in the face of cuts to targeted, means-tested student grants.
It should be clear to all students that every poisoned reform of the university system we passively accept is a step towards full privatisation. Universities increasingly resemble private corporations in their juxtaposition of gross executive pay with a failure to pay staff even the living wage, let alone a liveable wage.
Students cannot ignore the reality that faces them. Lifelong debts, squeezed wages, massive cuts to public services and a lower standard of living than previous generations is what capitalism has to offer.
Yet the predicament of current and recently graduated students does not exist in a vacuum. The 12 per cent drop in graduate earnings closely mirrors the 13 per cent real-terms pay cut that public sector workers have suffered since 2008.
At the same time as David Cameron heralds the dawn of permanent austerity from a golden throne, the privatised utility companies announce price rises and, rather more quietly, conveniently similar increases in profit.
The current economic crisis is a fundamental contradictions of the capitalist system. Clearly capitalism can no longer afford to provide the concession of a welfare state or a relatively secure standard of living to the working class.
Once the working class controls the economy we can put an end to low pay immediately. We would invest in a massive spending programme for education, provide all students with a living grant and guarantee a job for all.
We must fight for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under workers’ democratic control. Our goals cannot be achieved in an isolated campus-activist bubble. Students must link up with the broader labour movement.
(1) O’Connor, Sarah. “Lost Generation struggles as pay plunges.” Financial Times [London] 19 Nov. 2013: 1. Print.
(2) Ryan, Órla. “Poorest students face £350m cut in grants.” The Guardian. N.p., 22 Nov. 2013. Web. 25 Nov. 2013. <http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/nov/22/poorest-students-face-350m-cuts>.
by George Ashley, Sheffield Marxist Society