Flow of Ideas


by Glenn Rikowski

Some people talk about Generation X and others bemoan Generation Why? In recent articles in the New Statesman, DEMOS think-tanker Tom Bentley claims to be able to divine what the cool dudes of generationNEXT really, really think about the issues of our time. I am a member of the B Generation: the Bastard Generation, the ‘baby boomers’ born in the generation following the Second World War. In the sphere of British education and training policy the B Generation calls the shots. Blair, Blunkett, Baroness Blackstone, Byers and Brown – all major players in education and training policy, and ‘Bs’ – all of them: the B Generation. Of course, there’s Schools Minister Estelle Morris that doesn’t fit the stereotype, but she does come from Birmingham (don’t push it!). It is quite despicable what B Generation politicians have done to those students now in compulsory education and in further (FE) and higher education (HE). For now, let’s focus on Higher education (HE). The B Generation Ministers listed above benefited, like I did, from a fee-free HE. There was no formal loan system; we got grants instead (with the ‘parental contribution’ to the grant dependent on income). In most areas of the country up to the mid-1970s we could get jobs in vacations to supplement our grants. But if we couldn’t get, or didn’t want, vacation employment we could claim social security payments and housing benefits. We even figured in the unemployment statistics! It sounds like another world.

The Conservative administrations of 1979-97 started the process of toughening up students for a money-centred version of educational reality. The value of the grant was set on a downward course, welfare benefits were systematically withdrawn, and students were encouraged to take out loans in a softening-up process for the New Labour bombshell in 1997: abolition of student grants and the institution of fees. New Labour’s B Generation had learnt well from its Tory mentors, and from the spirits of gurus such as Sir Keith Joseph. To establish credible policy continuity, programmes of key skills, more work experience and closer and deeper ties between industry and HE were advanced as economic necessities.

Lord Dearing’s penchant for undergraduate work experience was one of the most bizarre policy obsessions of the late-1990s. After all, many students had to work to keep their student role intact. The student-worker, full-time students with ‘part-time’ jobs in term-time, is now the norm. Media stories of students turning to prostitution and drug-dealing became common in the closing years of the last century. Speculation about the effects of term-time working on course grades, exam scores and degree class surfaced in the education press, but research into these issues was not a major priority. Studies by the National Union of Students partially filled a gap that the Economic & Social Research Council should have filled more substantially prior to New Labour’s student funding regime starting up. For students, the real challenge is to minimise debt. This carries its own forms of stress and fear additional to the traditional nerves involved in pitching for a Geoff Hurst (a first class degree) or facing the prospects of a ‘turd’ (a third). A Scottish Low Pay Unit study of 1997 showed that increased student poverty was accompanied by escalating depression that sometimes resulted in the abandonment of studies – and this before New Labour’s HE student finance policies kicked in. In 1998, a National Union of Students’ Student Hardship Survey indicated that average student debt would be £9,000 at the point of graduation. Money, debt and ‘higher learning’ are increasingly generating symbiotic relations that have altered the parameters of the contemporary HE experience. Today’s students are different, mainly because HE and associated welfare policies delivered by B Generation Ministers have fundamentally altered the learning and financial landscapes within which HE students have been forced to exist.

In all this New Labour speaks with forked tongue. New Labour Ministers claim to be champions of ‘widening participation’ and combating social exclusion by encouraging working class people, inner city folks, mature students and under-represented ethnic minority groups into HE. But the HE participation rates of some of these groups have been affected significantly by New Labour’s student finance regime. Unsurprisingly, as dropout rates rose in the late-1990s the ‘student retention problem’ became the focus of high-level conferences for the upper echelons of HE management. New Labour’s B Generation Ministers are also enthusiastic about opening up HE (and all sectors of education) more widely and more deeply to corporate capital. Two World Trade Organisation (WTO) reports of 1998 berated WTO members for their slothfulness in paving the way for the ‘businessification’ of education. Negotiators at a WTO meeting in Geneva a few weeks ago reached an agreement for opening up services (including education) to global capital. Struggles against the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), the WTO’s formal mechanism for nurturing the systematic transference of educational institutions into the hands of capitalist enterprise, are only just beginning. For ‘education, education, education’, read ‘business, business, business’ – New Labour’s education policy as driven by GATS imperatives. The vision is that not only will student lives be conditioned my money, but that they will study within a capitalised environment where the virus of the private sector e-versity, the online learning machine, stalks the learning terrain, thus making the poverty of student life an aspect of capitalist development.

Although I am technically part of the B Generation I repudiate its ruling passions, along with growing numbers of the B Generation involved in anti-capitalist organisations, radical environmentalist groups and the Socialist Alliances. There is a certain unfairness and inaccuracy in the B Generation label, I admit. Nevertheless, all members of the B Generation must take a modicum of responsibility for what has happened. For “Yes, we have let this happen – us, who had the magic of the ‘60s, and a youth before the end of the post-war boom”. The trend of making life tough for students must be reversed.

Today, politicians and business leaders in leading capitalist nations and economic blocs call for education to develop higher levels of employability skills and worker subservience to the tyranny of work. The process appears to have no terminus. Furthermore, it seems that British capitalism cannot provide a decent HE experience for all those that want it, a perspective that ultimately challenges the utility and desirability of capitalist society. There is always the option of retreating to an elitist position where we finance HE for 10-15% of the population, thus concentrating resources. Preferably, we could increase income tax rates to pay for a better HE student life (and for other public services). But the poverty of student life cannot be eradicated so easily when forces and pressures are building up – through the WTO’s GATS globally, supported by neoliberal New Labour Ministers nationally – to capitalise the whole of social existence. Thus, the struggle against the poverty of student life is an aspect of the struggle for a society not dominated by the law of money and the social force of capital. I am in the B Generation but out of synch with its national leaders’ visions and motivations, and the forms of economic and social development they are sponsoring. The struggle for a mass, desirable and worthwhile HE experience is at root a simultaneous struggle for a form of society where human need and the planet’s sustainability are at the core of social and economic development. The B Generation must not just change its political leaders (perhaps even dissolving “leadership” altogether) but the direction of its march, thereby changing its identity. This implies an anti-capitalist programme of resistance and transformation by and for all generations, for all peoples, on a global scale. The May Day Monopoly events can become one of many sparks igniting a fantastic fire that over time burns through the currently constituted limits of capitalist social life, providing pathways into a future with a future: socialism.

Glenn Rikowski 1st May 2001, London: written for and distributed at the May Day Monopoly events in central London
© Copyright, June 2005

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