Friday, December 10, 2010

The Student Riots

The big news story of the last few days has been the student riots in London, specifically the way they attacked national institutions, including the Cenotaph and the Prince of Wales. Whether the destruction of the Glastonbury Thorn was part of the same thing is an interesting question.

Newspapers, the BBC, and so on condemn the violence, and rightly so. But they miss the point. I think this is the start of something much bigger. This looks to me like the beginning of the end of an era in Britain.

After World War 2, the British people voted for the setting up of a comprehensive welfare state - education, healthcare and so on all free at the point of delivery. It achieved unprecendented social mobility - both my parents were the first in their family to go to university, and there were thousands like them. A generation or so - those born between 1940 and 1970 - got rich on the prosperity this afforded. And now, having built a bridge from poverty to wealth, and crossed over themselves, they are destroying the bridge behind them.

Of course, there is a certain inevitability about all of this. After the ill-judged massive expansion of university education under Labour, especially without maintaining the same standards of attainment or level of work required, it was inevitable that we would be unable to continue to have largely state-funded places at universities. To restrict funding to just those universities and courses where graduates either benefitted society as a whole and/or had to work so hard during their degrees that they did not have time to spend vast amounts of time and money drinking or working would seem elitist. Furthermore, it is clear that graduates earn far more than non-graduates.

But of course the problem is that the proposed changes do not target graduates - it does not target the people who have benefitted from the years of government subsidy. They target those who will do so in the future, and are written by those who have already done so in the past.

I rather suspect that this is the first of the rebellions against the baby boomers - the "richest generation ever". Their parents made the world a place where they could prosper. They prospered, and now they are stopping their children from doing so rather than taking the consequences of their own actions.

Of course, there are plenty of people in that generation who care for and look after their children well - I am blessed to have them as both parents and parents-in-law. And I don't especially blame the current government - Labour would have delayed the conflict for a few years, but the clash would have been even worse when it came. I rather suspect it is that generation as a whole acting in their own corporate interests rather than in the interests of future generations.

And now their children - especially those born after 1990 or so - are angry. They aren't able to buy houses without their parents helping them. They can't afford the insurance on cars. And now they're meant to be starting their adult life £40k in debt because their parents' generation would rather make them pay than stick 1% on the top rate of income tax for those who have already graduated. I really don't think we've heard the last of it.

Edited to add this:

  • Why is it when we bring children up to value their own rights rather than society that we are surprised when they attack symbols of that society?
  • Why is it that we anounce a change in pension age, and take a decade to bring it in, but we anounce a change in student tuition fees and bring it in almost immediately?
  • Why are we surprised when education has been about how important it is to get good grades and get into university, we then add thousands of pounds to the cost of doing so, and students are annoyed?

I'm not saying for one moment that the student riots were right, only that they were understandable and forseeable consequenes of government action since at least 1997.


Greg Melia said...

Would this "ill judged massive expansion of university education under Labour" include the creation of new universities in 1991?

As for the Glastonbury Thorn, a little bit of puritan in me says that its removal is no bad thing.

John said...

Weren't the 1991 New Universities mostly already-existing polytechnics which just changed their name at great expense?

John said...

You're quite right though - a lot of the problems go back further than just 1997.