Students must address ticking-time-bomb of inequality

Students have a role in bridging communities given socio-economic divisions and a new higher educati

Higher education and its recent funding reforms, with headlines stressing cuts, should not detract us from what this means for social inequality and the ordinary people of Britain today.

Britain has faced the greatest rise in income inequality of any rich country since 1975, according to the OECD, with wealth being preserved amongst a tiny minority through “education and marriage”. Meanwhile, poverty continues to rise for Britain’s children as indicated by the Institute of Fiscal Studies who predict an additional 500,000 children will live in households with absolute poverty by 2015 increasing the total to 3,000,000.  This year will see students pay up to £9,000 fees per annum, while UCAS admitted that the admissions process to University favours rich students from private schools. This is after the SuttonTrust taught us in 2010 that 16 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals progress to university in comparison to the 96 per cent from independent schools.

We now fear that the impact of the higher education reforms will be far greater than envisaged. The unjust fees system will not only lead to the higher education sector favouring the rich, it will also fuel a continuing cycle of social inequality that drives apart the rich, who can access University, from the poor, who cannot. Martin Hall, a Vice-Chancellor who promoted equality under South African apartheid believes “Britain is sitting on a time bomb when it comes to inequality”. 

This is no time to be despondent. It is precisely the time to be courageous. It is time to do things differently.

The student movement must accept its role in fighting this inequality head on, beyond internal policy battles and campus life. We can take responsibility for the aspirations of our nation’s children. Our efforts to confront government should be characterised by a new approach that challenges its modus operandi (outlined by Usman here). We require a transformational attitude that does not necessitate millions of pounds nor state-reliance, but focuses on activating the human potential of University students. 

Students have a powerful role as activists for social justice through higher education by engaging with those communities that have been hit the hardest. Led by their Unions, students must build bridges with Universities for pupils at their local schools and colleges. Mentoring programmes like HEAPS must be pursued, and widening participation should be part of the fabric of the student movement.

Higher education institutions should work with their student unions in devising and delivering Access Agreements for the approval of the Office for Fair Access. This proposed mentality shift, which connects University students with schools and communities, nurtures creative approaches.  We should support the development of flexible and work-relevant higher education options. Unions should cultivate entrepreneurship and provide training so that students generate their own value amidst unemployment. HEFCE states that 2,350 businesses were set up by recent graduates in 2009/10. The student movement can only lead on this by reforming itself as an inclusive environment that reflects students from all walks of life. 

Aimhigher persistently battled social inequality by raising the aspirations of young people to continue their education. As an initiative independent of institutional recruitment strategies, it took pupils from 2,500 schools and 300 colleges, with no higher education heritage, into universities. Countless young peoples’ thinking was positively influenced through their engagement with Aimhigher student ambassadors and associates.  In Manchester, UCAS applications increased by 50 per cent from 2003-2009, driven by bigger increases in the poorest boroughs.  Pupils from the program remarked, “Uni is not as boring and pointless as I thought it would be”, and “if I don’t start doing things today, I might end up putting them off for the rest of my life”. Outreach is proven as the single most effective way to encourage non-traditional students into higher education – but sadly the government axed Aimhigher’s funding and the initiative formally closed in July 2011.  

In the city of Manchester, where 27 of 32 wards rank in the most deprived nationally, the Longsight district sees low numeracy and literacy rates; with rising unemployment.  Usman is a living example of why access matters, so we conclude with his own experience.

With a mother who sacrificed her studies to support a family, I was motivated by a student in my youth club to attend University. Six-years later I have inspired countless children in my neighbourhood to follow in my footsteps, and have realised that children who believe in the future and aim higher have the power to overcome the barriers to higher education. Today I am proud to have become the voice for seven million students, and now we must be clear: we must not neglect communities like my own that need us the most. It is high-time that our university experience became a means to addressing social inequality in Britain today. 

Usman Ali is Vice-President Higher Education of the National Union of Students, the national voice for 7 million students

Jo Wiggans is Director of Aimhigher Network and former Director of Aimhigher in Greater Manchester

Photo: Getty Images
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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.