The Cut the Student Protests forgot

Labour Party

Yesterday we saw violent protests against the Coalition’s enormous increase in tuition fees.  Who, I ask you, will be able to afford £9000 a year in fees alone?  Of course, the very rich – how silly of me.  The 26 millionaires in the Coalition Cabinet probably spend that before breakfast at least once a week.

Meanwhile it’s not quite like that on planet Earth.  Young people are concerned they will either miss out on university or be saddled with so much debt their lives will be irrevocably tarnished. While I would never condone violence, I do understand that the students’ have very serious concerns.

I have recently come across another example of the Coalition’s unthinking devastation in education.

Since the start of the last century, young Britons have been travelling abroad to undertake teaching in a foreign school as part of the British Council Assistantship scheme. With radically improved language skills, a taste of foreign culture, and the chance to try teaching all on offer, it is not hard to see why thousands seek a place on the programme each year.

Next year, however, recruitment will not go ahead; the scheme has fallen victim to the Coalition’s ‘stringency’ measures. It seems that the teaching programme, which has manifest cultural and economic benefits, has been deemed unworthy of the £750,000 required to run it.

To me, this decision seems bizarre, an example of unthinking and myopic cost-cutting, and another display of disregard for the young. Facilitating increased mobility and cross-cultural exchange is demonstrably cost-efficient, improving job prospects by enabling young people to look beyond both language barriers and national borders when searching for training and has job opportunities. 

Happily, the EU has recognised the huge gains to be made from such a strategy and has taken steps to encourage enhanced student and trainee mobility through the new ‘Youth on the Move’ initiative. I just hope that the outcry from past beneficiaries and future hopefuls will be enough to push the UK Government towards the same realisation.

David Willetts’s Claim that University Fees are a Form of Income Tax will exacerbate the Economic Downturn

Labour Party

I am completely with those who know, the lecturers and, dare I say the students, that university charges of up to £7,000 would create a two-tier system where only the rich are able to go to university.  This would be far worse than when I was an undergraduate when grants created a relatively level playing field, even if it was for only 10 percent of the eligible population.  The Tory proposals (they are Tory rather than Coalition) will mean a return to those mercifully far off times when the rich held all the cards and no-one else got much of a look in.

Forget what happens in the United States.  Our culture is different.  There is no reason as far as I can see to think that very high university fees would somehow or other lead to scholarships and other forms of higher education philanthropy.  There are no plans for such changes and they will not happen on their own.   

The EU is at present very concerned with issues to do with young people.  The new EU 20/20 programme puts education at its centre, and the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barosso, will launch a new agenda for young people, Youth on the Move, very shortly.

Unless urgent measures are taken to make sure young people have jobs and that youth unemployment is kept down, we will see ever growing numbers of young people who are out of work.  The financial crisis makes it ever more important that we keep you people in jobs.  If we fail to do this, there will, I believe, be a return to the 1980s when Mrs Thatcher’s callous attitude put record numbers of young people on the dole, a personal and a national tragedy.

The EU 2020 uses the fact of the financial crisis as it’s jumping off point.   Its targets are all in some way related back to solving the problems that arise from the downturn or are looking for ways to make our way out it.

The unfortunate truth of this and any financial crisis is that the most vulnerable are usually the worst affected, and the younger generation are part of this group.  People just starting out in life at this time are going to have far more limited opportunities than they would have done even a few years ago.  Youth unemployment has risen dramatically. To further compound this problem, the global economic crisis has led to budget cuts in the education sector in member states across the EU.  This has led to academic staff lay-offs and the increased demands on teachers risk a sharp decline in the standard of teaching in these countries.

 The Commission EU 2020 Strategy and Annual Legislative Programme  sets out five main objectives, two of which are directly related to education and young people as follows: to enhance the performance of education systems, reinforce the attractiveness of Europe’s higher education system, open up more mobility and training programmes for young people, modernise labour markets, boost labour mobility, and develop skills and competences to increase labour market participation.

The Spanish education minister (Spain currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency) Angel Gabilondo has said that education is “at the heart” of the EU 2020 strategy.  These sentiments have been echoed by Androulla  Vassiliou, the Commissioner with responsibility for education.

 The Spring Council, in endorsing the EU 2020 strategy, stated key objectives requiring action at the EU level included: better conditions for research and development; improved education levels; a reduction in early school leavers; and increased participation of young people in the labour market.

In the European Parliament we in the Socialist and Democrat Group are committed to making sure that education is at the forefront of our policy agenda.  We will work to make sure that young people get the help and support they need in these difficult times.

 I find this focus on youth policy very encouraging.  Clearly young people are not seen as a problem, but an incredibly important part of the solution.  The financial crisis has had a disastrous effects but has also made the EU, and I hope, most member state governments, really think about how important education and youth policy is.  I believe we can emerge from this financial crisis with an education and youth policy that gives the younger generation more and better opportunities than they ever had before.  The consequences in increased welfare spending and broken communities will indeed be serious if we do not.