In 1975, the contrarian and satirist Auberon Waugh wrote (in the language of the time) this skit about university students and their reluctance to work. He was prompted to do so by the revelation that nine out of ten students chose to claim supplementary benefit during the university holidays rather than find a temporary job that might pay three times as much. Waugh poked fun at everything and everyone – why shouldn’t students have an agreeable time at the taxpayers’ expense, he argued, when the idea of work was generally so impoverished? If it earned them the scorn of society at large they had the last laugh being, Waugh said, “rather prettier than we are” and with lives full of sexual opportunity.
Hatred of students stretches across the whole political spectrum in Britain, through every age group and social class, and I often wonder why no politician has thought of harnessing it to his own ends. No doubt blacks arouse stronger feeling in some parts of the country, but hatred of students is nearly universal. The traditional explanation for working-class hatred of students was that they outraged ordinary social values: they didn’t work. But nor do many other people nowadays and work has lost much of its kudos. Next there was an element of implied superiority: man is born equal, but some of them pass their O-levels and some of them don’t. But money is the only accepted criterion here, and coalminers already earn more than many headmasters. Finally, of course, there was and remains the element of sexual jealousy which may always have existed between the generations but which is made particularly bitter nowadays by the apparently endless sexual opportunities available to young people, something we never knew. Oh dear, I feel a twinge of it even now as I write. And the truth is that many of these students are rather prettier than we are, an awkward fact from which we may need protecting.
So, in the popular mind, we have the stereotype Essex University or North London Polytechnic freak. He is hideous to behold; what little intellectual vitality he ever possessed has been destroyed by drugs, bombarded by mindless revolutionary jargon to inhibit any awareness of his own ignorance and social parasitism. Ingratitude, lust, idleness, hypocrisy and self-righteousness are the main characteristics of this horrible cancer in our midst which we call higher education. But what can the honest politician do with all this popular resentment? To close down the North London Polytechnic and Essex University would be to kill the geese which lay the golden eggs. In my own experience of visiting university grads, this image of the modern student is no more or less a caricature than Lord Snow’s picture of earnest, idealistic ninnies in his last novel. Most students are nice, dull people with many human qualities, just like the miners. What seems odd is that they should continue to be despised for doing no work when work is no longer thought a clever thing to do. Of course nobody resents those who do no work more than those who do practically none. It was while I was musing on this that I hit upon a way of putting the hatred to good account.
Few people will have missed the gloating reports of last week: in a ratio of nine to one, students are opting for £10-a-week supplementary benefit to tide them over the vacation rather than apply for thousands of vacation jobs available at £25-35 (less tax). Figures published in the Times Educational Supplement are fairly striking, if true. The student is better off in vacation on supplementary benefit than in term time on full grant. Of 650,000 students on holiday this summer, only 10,000 (1.5 per cent) will take vacation jobs, while over 91,350 (the Easter figure) will draw supplementary benefit. There has been a 450 per cent increase in students going on the dole since 1970.
Another aspect is that out of 500,000 school-leavers this year less than half are likely to find jobs (in Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester, there are jobs for only one in five school-leavers). As a preparation for life, familiarity with the ins and outs of social security is likely to prove more useful than any number of lurid experiences as courier on a coach tour to Addis Ababa, but is this really what the drafters of the 1944 Education Act had in mind when they decreed a free education for every boy and girl in accordance with his or her abilities? Under normal circumstances in the present climate of opinion, nobody (or practically nobody) would blame people for taking money to which they were entitled, especially when the only alternative is to do something so deeply repugnant to the moral assumptions of our society as work.
In the early days of the 1966 Labour government when Mrs Hart was Minister for Social Security I remember listening to her impassioned plea that we should never regard supplementary benefit as anything to be ashamed of. People were starving to death because they were too proud to apply for benefits which were theirs by right, she said, and I for one believed her. Perhaps there are still one or two loonies around with similar inhibitions, but I maintain it is not the major problem. No doubt furious people will write in and say I am wrong, that they know hundreds of little old women who have eaten nothing but Kit-e-Kat for months because they are ashamed to apply for any benefit which carries the stigma of being called supplementary. They can’t all be liars. I can only record my own observation that Mrs Hart’s little homily seems to have made a profound impression on everyone else. And nothing could better illustrate the way we are moving than the conscious decision of 92,000 students to draw supplementary benefit rather than apply for the many vacation jobs available at three times the money (less tax).
The trouble is that fewer and fewer people nowadays are prepared even to pretend that they like working, or think it a useful thing to do. Why should we, after all? Hypocrisy may be the essential glue which binds all human society together, but other people seem only too anxious to assume responsibility for holding society together nowadays and it is really none of our business. . . On the other hand, as we watch these students sauntering down to collect social security in their tight jeans and nipple-flaunting shirts, we may start remembering the days gone by when people used to say they took a pride in their work, believing in a good day’s work for a good day’s wage etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc. When our hypocrisy is finally exhausted, only the labour camps will remain.
Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)