Every year at William Morris Sixth Form, we invite ex-students back to talk to the current cohort about life at university. One of these, a bright 21 year old who gained 5 A* grades at A Level, and who went on to study medicine at a top university, calmly dropped into the conversation that she was in £37,000 of debt. She was amongst the unlucky ones - hers was the first year group that endured the cut in the Educational Maintenance Allowance for 16-18 year olds, and then the rise in university tuition fees despite the Liberal Democrat pledge to abolish them prior to coalition with the Conservatives. Thankfully, she told the now stunned audience, there are grants for low income students that can help offset the cost of university. Had these not been available to her, then her debt could have risen to nearly £50,000.
Alas, the new majority Conservative government in the UK has announced plans to abolish maintenance grants as well, along with a ban on under 21s from receiving housing benefit (cue little Englanders nodding in agreement before picking up their free bus passes for a trip out to buy the Daily Mail).
This last measure will be particularly dangerous for a 17 year old who is forced to leave home and ask for protection from the local authority. Go home, is now the standard answer. As a former head of year in an inner city school, I have had these kinds of conversations with a number of local councils that, while not indifferent to the needs of vulnerable children (we forget that's what 17 year olds still are in the eyes of the law), have neither the cash from central government nor the housing stock to assist.
All these barriers to advancement serve as a wider attack upon the young. Pensions make up the bulk of benefit spending in the UK, yet they are left alone by a government that knows who votes. While we are on the subject, isn't it funny how pensions are never referred to as "benefits". For those of a certain age, a benefit suddenly becomes a service, or an entitlement, or a right. All this is not to suggest that my mother should lose that freedom pass or that my grandma ought to miss out on her free TV license. It is to simply acknowledge that a young person has every right to ask such a question of why these things remain when their low paid but hard working parents have their tax credits restricted when they have another child - yet another anti-child policy announced in chancellor George Osborne's recent budget. Did three children families cause the crash? Is it for them that the economy-killing, equality-sapping, rich-soaking policy of austerity must be implemented and continued with apace? This is something that is brilliantly satirised by Mark Steel, whose most recent article in The Independent is entitled, "Thank God George Osborne is finally making young people pay for the crash – they caused it after all." Steel sardonically notes that "In 2008, when they were under 14, they spent the entire economy on sherbet and Pokémon cards – and then had the nerve to blame it on the banks."
"The removal of tax credits applies to babies born from 2018, so that’s even more carefully targeted at greedy bastards who aren’t yet alive. For too long these non-existent beings have been sponging off the rest of us, but enough is enough."