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
Carl Court/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war