When New Labour came to power in 1997, Tony Blair stated that his top three priorities were “education, education, education”. 13 years later, and figures from a recent poll (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/8224551.stm ) show that over two-thirds of people in England believe that the government has failed to deliver the improvement in education that it promised. At every stage in their life, the youth of today are facing increasingly tough conditions and are realising that the New Labour government has failed to provide them with a decent education or a job. Last year over 600,000 young school leavers applied to UK universities, but estimates show that almost 170,000 of these applications were turned down after the government placed a cap on the expansion of places because of “budget restraints”; these same “budget restraints”, however, don’t seem to be a problem for the government when tax-payers money is needed to bail-out banks and big business. The hundreds-of-thousands of youth who are not continuing into higher education find themselves faced with a daunting job market and the likely prospect of unemployment. The number of unemployed young people is over 1 million, whilst the proportion of 16- to 18-year-olds that is not in education, employment, or training has risen to 12%.
These figures, however, may be hiding the real severity of the problem, as they do not include those young people who are in unpaid internships or low-paid temporary work as a result of the unavailability of long-term employment. For those who are going to university, however, the picture is not much rosier. Having introduced tuition fees and student loans in 1998 to replace the previously existing system of free tuition and student grants, university students are currently charged “top-up fees” with a maximum cap of almost £3,200 per year. Reports suggest that students starting university this autumn can expect to graduate with debts of over £23,000. This unmanageable level of debt forces many students to take up part-time work alongside their studies, often to the detriment of their education. The next generation of university students is likely to fare even worse as the government and universities consider proposals to remove the cap on top-up fees altogether, paving the way for annual tuition fees of £7,000 or more. Meanwhile, with huge public-spending cuts expected from the next government (whether it be Tory or New Labour), Universities can expect reduced funding over the coming years, which will only lead to a further drop in the standards of education provided.
Peter Mandelson has already announced that approximately £600million will be cut from university budgets, on top of £180m the government has asked universities to find in "efficiency savings" by 2011. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that even deeper cuts of 12.3% in university funding are needed if the government is to achieve its target of halving national debt by 2013. Those looking to the National Union of Students for support will find very little other than a bureaucratic layer of careerists. The current NUS position is that it will oppose any removal of the cap on top-up fees but will no longer only argue for free education. At the 2008 NUS Conference, NUS President Wes Streeting claimed that, "Just shouting 'free education' would not work". The fight for free education should begin with the fight to reclaim the NUS and to remove the Blairite / Brownite leadership that have made it dormant and impotent. Fighting for free education, however, is clearly not enough. As any recent graduate will tell you, even if education was free and university-leavers were not left with a mountain of debt to pay, young people leaving university must still contend with the prospect of finding a job at a time when there is a near universal freeze on graduate recruitment.
Surveys show that the number of graduate vacancies in Britain have fallen by 25% this year, a statistic that is exacerbated by the fact that graduates are not only fighting for a smaller number of jobs, but are also competing with more experienced workers who have recently been made unemployed. The government’s response to youth unemployment (now at 17%) is through a number of measures that clearly do nothing more than paper over the cracks. One of the main proposals is to create thousands of unpaid apprenticeships and internships, in order to give young people the experience of working that they lack. The unpaid nature of this work means that either it will only be available to those from wealthy backgrounds, who have the privilege of parental support, or it will require young people to amass yet more debt. Meanwhile, the companies that employ people in these unpaid, temporary jobs are still charging clients for the work done by interns. Business is able to get away with this as apparently the minimum wage does not apply to jobs that are for “training purposes”. Internships, therefore, amount to nothing more than a clever way for businesses to increase profits by using unpaid youth to do the work that would otherwise be done by a (minimally) paid worker. The temporary nature of this apprenticeship work, meanwhile, prevents workers from organising and unionising, thus further reducing their power to demand better pay or conditions.
Another idea of the New Labour government is to pay business a subsidy of £1000 for every young person they employ. Whilst this may encourage companies to employ more youth, it does not prevent them from just laying-off other workers in their place. A company, therefore, could sack 100 higher-earning older workers, replace them with 100 lower-earning young workers, and net £100,000 of tax-payers money from the government in the process! It would be a mistake, however, to blame the cause of all these problems on New Labour. The government, whether it be New Labour or Tory, is merely the representative of big-business and the ruling class. The real culprit behind unemployment (both of youth and of workers in general) is the Capitalist system, which runs in the interest of profit and not people. Under Capitalism, jobs will only be created if there is money to be made for the fat-cats, and education will only be run in the interest of big-business. The only way to end the unemployment that blights society is to overthrow the anarchy of Capitalism and replace it with a system where the means of production are controlled by the workers themselves, under a democratically planned economy. This is the only way of providing free education and jobs to all.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.