Leader: The trust deficit's heavy toll

The recession and a succession of government cuts and blunders have robbed young people of their future and of hope

February 4, 2010

Universities, says Simon Blackburn, professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, should be about the attempt to see things that matter and see them as they are. They are about getting things right rather than putting them right, he says in our cover story on trust.

In that spirit, let's take something that really matters to everyone: students - future, present and recently graduated. The new ethos is to treat them as customers. Most academics, however, in that quaint, old-fashioned way they have, still like to see them as young people whom they teach how to think, inculcate with knowledge and then send out into the world as better human beings.

Over the past year, the Government has played fast and loose with the future of these young people. Its shenanigans over funding and places last year made the Student Loans Company look like a model of competency. First, £200 million was lost down the back of a Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills sofa, so thousands of places disappeared, only to be pulled with a flourish (but minus the funding) from a minister's sleeve in response to negative headlines.

Now, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has confirmed that last summer's 10,000 emergency places have been "withdrawn", meaning that there will be even fewer places for new full-time undergraduate entrants this autumn than there were last autumn. The shortfall is difficult to calculate because of the ridiculously complex and opaque way the figures are presented, but a back-of-the-envelope calculation, in true ministerial style, would put it at up to 6,000.

So what we have is a record number of applicants, swollen by the ranks of those who deferred last summer, who face disappointment and despair. Unfortunately, the economic crisis and the looming election can bring only more bad news. All that anyone pleading for no further public sector cuts can do is cross their fingers and pray ministers are not looking in their direction. It's like asking Chelsea and England captain John Terry not to score: you know he will but you just have to hope that it's not with your girlfriend.

Young people need hope. Without it, what do they have left? The empty promise of access to higher education and a better future has left students feeling that they are the victims of a huge confidence trick.

Across the Atlantic, there is similar gloom. One student commentator at the University of Pittsburgh writing about students and the jobless - "if those terms aren't synonymous" - says: "We were told that we needed higher education. And we were promised that, if we got it, good jobs awaited. Yet, soon-to-be alumni are now wondering if their investment was worth it."

President Obama acknowledged this in his State of the Union address last week: "We have to recognise that we face more than a deficit of dollars ... we face a deficit of trust."

And that deficit will linger long after the fiscal one has disappeared. These are the young and their memories will be long. This week, the National Union of Students launched an election campaign to remind all parties of the importance of the student vote and to serve notice that it will target marginal seats. You wrecked our futures, is the message: we have the power to wreck yours.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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