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
Photo: Getty
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Lowering the voting age is the best way to protect the franchise we've fought so hard for

Empowering young people is the best way to renew civic and political engagement.

Too many believe that politics isn’t working for them. That those who make decisions are not acting in their interests. And too often, narrow interests win over the wider public interest. Our economy isn’t working either. It never will until we repair our fragile politics.

When I was leader of Oldham Council I recognised that to reform, it must open up. It needed to bring forward ideas and challenges from all those who are affected by decisions taken in their name.

We gave constitutional rights for the youth council to move motions and reports at our full council meeting. We opened up our meetings with live web-streaming and questions from all residents. And we embraced social media, combined with instant comments, which were shown in the chamber during debates.

It opened up democracy and gave councillors an insight into issues which affect young people. But two things stood out. The first was that many of these issues are the same ones which affect the wider public. But they are affected in different ways by decisions or the lack of action by government. Second, and most importantly, while we were engaging young people they had no say over who was making decisions on their behalf.

So of crucial importance to me is how we bolster democracy to weather the challenges it faces today and in the future. Recent events at home and abroad have convinced me of the importance of this. There are two separate approaches that parliament must take. Firstly, we must devolve more power from central government to local communities. And secondly, we must at all costs renew civic and political engagement here in the UK. I’ve come to believe that getting more and more young people engaged in politics is fundamental to realising this second point. And I see lowering the voting age as key to cementing this.

I hear the arguments against this loud and clear. Eighteen is the official age of independence. Eighteen is when someone forms their world view. And 18 is when reasoned, judgemental thought suddenly kicks in. On that basis, the years preceding that are presumably some kind of wilderness of rational thinking and opinion forming. Someone even tweeted at me this week to inform me that under-18s don’t know what they want for dinner, let alone how to vote.

Needless to say, I find all these points unconvincing and in some cases dismissive and patronising.

I speak with people even younger than 16 who have coherent views on politics, often a match for any adult. They even know what they want for dinner! And I am of the strong belief that empowering young people through a wider enfranchisement will speed up this development. Even better if votes at 16 is accompanied by compulsory political education in the preceding years.

So if your argument is that young people are too immature, that they lack political knowledge to be given the vote, or that they aren’t responsible enough – then I say to you, bring on lowering the voting age! As my argument is that empowering young people to vote will help overcome these challenges where they exist.

But where do other countries sit on lowering the voting age? Admittedly, among western democracies, the UK would be taking a bold step-forward. In Europe, it’s only Austria where all 16-year-olds can vote. There are some patchwork exceptions to this closer to home. For example, the voting age on the Isle of Man is 16. And this week we heard that the Welsh Assembly is considering lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections.

Outside of these scant examples, there is little precedent for change. However, we shouldn’t find ourselves cowed by this. Our past is littered with bold actions, proud speeches and even lives lost to win and defend the right to vote.

200 years ago on Tandle Hill in Royton hundreds of protestors, who had travelled from nearby mill towns like Oldham and Rochdale, gathered together. They were preparing to march on Peters Field in Manchester on a summer’s day in August 1819. What was at stake was a greater say in parliamentary decisions, at a time of famine and widespread poverty. Non-land-owning workers were entirely excluded from the franchise. By the end of the day, government cavalry had cut down 14 protesters, and injured hundreds more. In 1832 only men renting or owning valuable land were given the vote. And it wasn’t until 1918 that all men were included in the franchise.

This month we remember the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. The sacrifices made during the First World War by our working-class men and boys, 250,000 of whom were under 18, was a catalyst for extending the vote to all men.

Next year we celebrate 100 years since the start of women’s suffrage. In Oldham, Annie Kenney and Emmeline Pankhurst fought tirelessly. They would both be arrested before seeing that privilege granted to only some women in 1918. Today it is sobering to think that women didn’t have the vote before 1918.

And it was only in 1970 that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, allowing teenagers to vote for the first time in the UK. Prevalent then were exactly the same arguments that stop 16- and 17-year-olds voting today.

While we recognise the fight of others, we fail in our duty if we believe the fight for democracy is settled.

So I draw inspiration from how the franchise has steadily grown throughout our history. And I reflect on the acts of courage, grit and determination that have won us that change. With the extension of the franchise have come the liberties, freedoms and values that make our society what it is today. It hasn’t happened of its own accord. Lives have been lost and bold steps have been taken for us to enjoy placing that cross alongside the candidate of our choosing.

This cannot be seen as a way to shift the political debate to young voters either. Many older voters, including many of my friends and family, feel that politics isn’t working for them either. Reducing the voting age isn’t the silver bullet to address that disconnect, but it is vital to strengthening connect between decision makers and those who pay taxes.

I welcome the debate on lowering the voting age. A debate about once again spreading the freedoms and responsibilities of our society to many more people. And I’ll match arguments against this every step of the way. Because I am clear in my mind that defending the franchise and extending the franchise are two sides of the same coin.

Jim McMahon is the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.

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