The scandal of the lost generation

Why are so many young people unable to get a job or a place at university?

A friend of mine has been rejected by the university of her choice, despite last week having achieved three As at A-level. What's going on?

In my Sunday Mirror column today, I write about this and about how there are nearly one million unemployed young people in Britain aged between 16 and 24, at least 100,000 of whom are graduates. We are grappling with the consequences of a demographic spike: a mini-baby boom at the end of the 1980s means that there are many more young people in Britain aged 20 than there are those aged ten or 30.

Because of high unemployment, especially among the young, and because of Labour's misguided top-down prescriptions and stipulations on student numbers, university applications are rising. But there aren't enough places to meet the demand. The result is that we are creating a "lost generation" of young people who cannot get a job or a place at university.

In addition, of course, many graduates are burdened by debt in the form of student loans -- read my estimable colleague Laurie Penny on this. It's as if we have set up a committee with the sole purpose of creating an education system that deliberately discriminates against the least well-off.

Why even aspire to go to university when you know you will leave in debt and then struggle to find a job afterwards? It's all right if you have rich parents to support you through your student years and then on through the restlessness and uncertainty that can follow. But only the fortunate few can say that.

Our system of educational apartheid, in which the richest 10 per cent or so buy themselves out of the state sector, is already the most unfair in Europe. The abolition of the grammar schools merely contributed to the unfairness, as the admirable Conservative MP Graham Brady understands. If you've got money, you can buy a good education in Britain and all the advantages that follow. If you haven't, good luck.

The move to create the new A-level grade of A* will further privilege the rich and discriminate against state schools. As Peter Wilby writes in this week's issue of the New Statesman magazine: "The proportion of exam candidates from fee-paying schools awarded an A* is at least three times higher than the proportion from state schools."

It is scandalous that, in its 13 years of power, New Labour did not abolish the charitable status of public schools. These schools are businesses, many of them with extensive landowning interests, and they should be taxed as such.

Now, against the backdrop of the great recession and because of the coming spending cuts, universities are sure to contract. Signs saying "We're full up" are being pinned to campus gates all over the country.

Pity the lost generation.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.