In 2016’s The War on the Old, John Sutherland lamented how the elderly had come to be seen as a socio-economic inconvenience, blamed by the young for voting for Brexit, overburdening hospitals and monopolising the housing market.
Now the older generation is getting its own back, according to the emeritus Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English literature at UCL, whose new book claims that the government has deliberately converted students into “anxious customers” by making them pay through the nose for their education.
In The War on the Young, Professor Sutherland describes tuition fees as a “con” introduced by older policymakers to keep down the “enemy” – or the young.
Alarmed by the student revolts of 1968, the Establishment is trying to tame the cleverest young people in society, he believes, by loading them with debt.
“Noam Chomsky made the point – which is an Orwellian point – that the way in which you pacify a generation is to fragment their lives by giving them phones so they don’t talk to each other and, at the same time, immerse them in debt,” Professor Sutherland told Times Higher Education. “Debt douses every flame – it’s a great retardant.”
The result, he says, is not only a meek student population but also “the biggest Ponzi scheme in British history” – a comparison famously made by Theresa May’s former adviser Nick Timothy.
“The great thing about a Ponzi scheme", Professor Sutherland continued, “is that you can keep expanding it.”
Meanwhile, in the US, if you’re doing a follow-on degree, “you can be well on the way to making yourself a negative millionaire before you’ve received your first deducted pay cheque”, he points out in his book.
In Britain, he added, the “joke” is that 70 per cent of graduates will never pay back the full amount of their student loans – which now average about £50,000. Whether they do or not, just being saddled with high debts “takes the fight out of the young person”.
As for students who aspire to make a career in academia, Professor Sutherland said, they now face years of job insecurity and poor rates of pay, with little chance of ever being able to afford a house.
“When I started work at the age of 25, it was like an escalator,” he recalled. “Every year I would earn more, and at the top there was a great gold watch.”
At the age of 27, he bought his first house for £2,100 in 1967. At the time his salary, as an assistant lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, was £1,200 a year.
Now, just months away from turning 80, Professor Sutherland is enjoying the fruits of an “imaginative and generous” Universities Superannuation Scheme pension. His lucky generation, he observed, has “ruined the system” by being “too superannuated”.
“What that means is, faute de mieux, the youngest, still serving, academics must pay, over their careers, a bigger amount into their pensions – based on ‘mean average income’, not final income, with the prospect of a hurtfully smaller pot of gold for them at the end of it all,” Professor Sutherland writes.
Concluding, he warns that the intergenerational conflict will hot up “into new kinds of insurgency and repression”. Does he predict all-out war?
“I see resistance, certainly. I see resentment. I see embitterment,” he said. “Whether or not those are sufficient a brew to create action, I don’t know.”
The War on the Young is published on 12 February by Biteback Publishing.