The great 20th-century sociologist Karl Mannheim defined a generation as people within a delineated population who experience the same significant historical stimulus, and who have common concrete problems.
In its relatively short life, my generation has experienced many and varied concrete problems, and they strike at the heart of democratic participation by enfranchised citizens and hopes for a better world. And they are brought into stark relief as the next general election approaches.
Next year’s cohort of undergraduates were born under the Blair government. They were 11 and just entering secondary school when Lehman Brothers collapsed. The attacks of 11 September 2001 may pre-date their earliest memories. They have never really known a time when the UK wasn’t at war somewhere. Their teenage years have been spent watching the trebling of tuition fees and the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance. Their formative years have been marked by conflict, recession and austerity.
We need something to set against this difficult and frankly rather depressing state of affairs.
When I was first a candidate for the National Union of Students presidency, I told our conference I wanted to stand for things, not just against them. That remains truer than ever. And students want lots of things apart from the scrapping of tuition fees. When we ask them about the issues that are most important to them ahead of the election, the cost of living, employment, health and the economy also rank in the top five.
As a candidate for the NUS presidency, I wanted to stand for things, not just against them. When we ask students about the issues important to them, the cost of living, employment, health and the economy rank in the top five
Students are not driven by a single issue, and that is why our focus in the NUS cannot be on single issues either. So while higher education funding is, as ever, a crucial matter, and the memory of the Liberal Democrats’ broken pledge to not raise tuition fees will not fade (particularly when the photographs exist), we cannot limit ourselves to a Quentin Tarantino-style revenge fantasy, determined to punish the “pledge-breakers”. The stakes are too high, and I am not prepared to cast aside the many varied and important issues that matter to students.
This is why we will also be pressing for a restoration of flexible learning in sixth forms and colleges, legal protection to prevent exploitative internships, a statutory code of practice on zero-hours contracts, the lowering of the voting age to 16, the removal of students from the net migration measure and a new system of careers advice, information and guidance integrated across schools, colleges, training providers and universities.
But it would also be fair to say that these are only relatively narrow and tightly defined policy proposals, which I hope are both optimistic and realistic. I am also well aware that they do not constitute an agenda for radical transformation in and of themselves.
Make no mistake: the priority for us is ensuring that students’ voices are too powerful to ignore. But for that to come to pass, a rebalancing is needed in favour of the next generation – not just in public policy terms but also in terms of addressing the growing democratic deficit that stacks the odds against us. The 7 million higher and further education students in the UK are a potentially tremendous political force. Yet only 44 per cent of people aged 18 to 24 voted in the 2010 general election. That makes it much easier for politicians to sideline our concerns, and we need to change that state of affairs.
The upheaval caused by the Wall Street Crash led to president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal for the American poor. From the rubble of post-war Britain, the welfare state and the NHS were born. To the next generation of students, the world feels scarcely less dangerous and uncertain than it must have done in 1929 and 1945. The general election represents an opportunity for us to press for something more positive: a fairer, more sustainable and democratic future. Our generation needs nothing less than a New Deal of its own, and it is incumbent on both the NUS and students themselves to demand it.