Fight to end low pay, debt and unemployment among young people

Submitted by Newcastle on 24 September, 2009 - 9:03 Author: By Daniel Randall

The Confederation of British Industry, the principal organisation of bosses in the UK, has added its voice to a growing clamour for the “cap” on top-up higher education fees to be raised, saying students should view higher fees as “inevitable”. The CBI is also calling for the government to scrap its target of getting 50% of young people into higher education.

Wendy Piatt, the head of the Russell Group of the country’s most “prestigious” universities (which will be first in line to raise fees) welcomed the CBI’s “call for an exploration of new sources of funding.”

With top-up fees for students in England currently £3,225 per year, students can expect to graduate from university with debts of anything up to £15,000 once basic living costs are taken into account. If the CBI gets its way, that figure could increase massively.

It would inevitably create a multi-tiered system within higher education in which elite universities charge astronomical fees and are therefore only available to the rich, and ex-polytechnics — mainly offering vocational and less academic degrees — charge lower fees. But even within the existing system, such universities are struggling to keep up; Leeds Metropolitan, formerly the only university that refused to charge the full £3,225 fee, recently increased its fees in line with the cap.

The fact that education sector and other bosses are calling for working-class people to give them more money is hardly surprising. Unfortunately, equally unsurprising is the timid response from the National Union of Students, the organisation that might have been expected to defend students against the CBI, the Russell Group and their friends in government.

Instead, despite criticising the CBI’s proposals, the NUS’s only alternative is its own alternative “blueprint” for higher education funding. The NUS’s proposal accepts the framework of education as a paid-for commodity and proposes instead to tinker around at the edges of the payment system. It effectively proposes a graduate tax, whereby students will pay fees after graduation at a rate means tested against their income. The “blueprint” expects that “a person earning £30,000 would be £37 better off” under its proposed system. Ridiculous logic!

The number of £30,000 jobs available to most students is hardly sky-high, and if £37 a month is all that’s on the table we might as well just sign on and pocket £200 each month from Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA).

That’s a position more and more young people are being forced into, as youth unemployment goes up and up. Of the 573,000 made jobless in the last year, nearly 200,000 were aged 18–24. In June 2009, there were more than 900,000 “NEETS”, young people under the age of 25 who are not in employment, education or training — an increase of over 200,000 from February 2008. Around a third of all 16–17 year old school leavers are now unemployed, and the number of 18–24 year olds claiming JSA increased by a staggering 75%. The picture is likely to worsen next year, as the numbers seeking work is bolstered by 700,000 new graduates and school leavers.

The situation for those who do manage to find work is hardly ideal. Almost 30% of young workers are employed in the service sector (with 21% in retail and wholesale).

Young workers are overwhelmingly clustered in the sectors in which low pay, long hours and lack of job security are endemic. Young workers also continue to suffer discrimination as the minimum wage (which, even at its top rate, is nowhere near enough to live on) is tiered according to age, and a worker aged 21 could earn almost £1 per hour less than a worker aged 22 in the same job.

Young people who try and improve their prospects by entering further education and taking apprenticeships can also expect a future of low-pay and cuts. Apprenticeship programmes often see young people working full-time for several days each week (the others are spent in classes), and yet there is no legal requirement to pay them the minimum wage. Apprentices over the age of 19 are entitled to the minimum wage, but only once they have been on their apprenticeship scheme for more than a year.

These kinds of hyper exploitative schemes are increasingly being offered by further education colleges, as less “profitable” courses that do not directly serve the interests of business and employers are cut. At the time of writing, workers at Tower Hamlets College in East London are on indefinite strike against compulsory redundancies and the slashing of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses; students and workers across further education can expect more of the same as bosses attempt to cut costs and prioritise vocational, work-based courses.

As in higher education, the levels of funding available for students in further education are insultingly low. The heavily means tested “Education Maintenance Allowance” entitles students to a maximum of £30 per week, but only if their household income is less than £20,817 per year. A family in which two parents worked full time in jobs paying the minimum wage would have an income of £23,836; clearly, the EMA excludes all but the very poorest from access.

The responses currently on offer from the student and trade union movements are woefully inadequate. NUS tells students to pin their hopes on restructuring the method of payment, and claims that fighting to abolish them (and restore grants) is a pipe dream. And, rather than organising workers to fight back against low pay and job cuts, most trade unions offer little more than a damage-limitation service.

Young workers and students need a movement prepared to challenge the way education and jobs are “rationed”, available only to the well-off and/or the lucky. They need a labour movement which will fight to end low pay, student debt and unemployment. Timid and defensive struggles are not good enough.

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