Cutting back on university places will create a lost generation

150,000 students have made the grade but will be denied a place. What does the government expect the

The regular New Statesman columnist Professor David Blanchflower warned last week that youth unemployment was on the increase and would soon pass the one million mark. Things look bleak indeed for a young generation at real risk of being lost.

In the light of this, this year's A-level results day takes on a particularly gloomy significance. It is already clear that at least 150,000 students with both the grades and the desire to begin studying at university in the coming year will be left without a place.

There were approximately 600,000 university applicants in total this year; this means that at least a quarter of all applicants will be shut out.

Thus far, the government's response to the crisis has been fit only for the birds: frustrated applicants have been left to peck at crumbs.

Of course, applying to university is a competitive process. But these are applicants who have worked hard to achieve grades that would, in any other circumstances, get them a university place. Now they find that the goalposts have been moved to somewhere else altogether, and it's out of their control.

Crucially, this limit on places is not out of necessity; the restrictions on university places are being achieved through an entirely arbitrary cap on student numbers, which is itself being enforced through a government threat to fine any university that ends up oversubscribed.

Many universities have complained that they may even be left with spare capacity once term starts, and that the threat of government fines prevents them from over-recruiting slightly at this stage in order to compensate for the inevitable quotient of students who drop out between now and the start of term.

This is both morally unacceptable and economically short-sighted. These young people are being denied an opportunity to study at university, with all the value that that holds, including the increased work and career opportunities that a university education affords.

Hatchet job

Sadly, given the state of the economy, compounded by the government's actions -- in cutting the Future Jobs Fund, breaking up the Connexions service, and savagely cutting further education, for example -- many of these young people will start their working lives by signing on.

This can be devastating -- as Blanchflower noted in a piece for the Guardian back in March, "Unemployment while young creates permanent scars rather than temporary blemishes." All the evidence suggests that a spell of unemployment for a young person does not end with that spell, but raises the probability of that person being unemployed in later years, aty the same time as introducing a permanent "wage penalty".

Nor does this seem to make economic sense. Why prevent someone from going to university, when he or she is qualified, willing and able, citing the cost of supporting that person's education, but then spend government money a couple of months later to pay them a jobseeker's allowance? As we look towards the medium and longer term, would we rather have extra graduates -- components parts in the engine of our economic recovery -- or young people who have suffered "permanent scars"?

More widely, there are clearly grave problems with a system that is unable to support the hundreds of thousands of applicants who have "made the grade", and one that leaves a quarter of applicants without a place. Ministers must think seriously about how we can fund our higher education system in a way that is fair, progressive and sustainable (as with, for example, our progressive graduate contribution). The top-up fees model is clearly not working.

In the meantime, ministers must make clear what they expect these young people who have been denied the chance to study at university to do instead, and explain what they are going to do to help them. If not, they risk creating a lost generation whose life chances have been ruined, and whose legacy will leave permanent scars on our economy and our society. They would not be forgiven for doing so.

Aaron Porter is the president of the National Union of Students. He studied English literature at the University of Leicester and served as a sabbatical officer at the students' union.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change