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

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.