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A-levels 2012: the Tories have already failed a generation

The publication of this year's A-level results for England, Wales and Northern Ireland come at a time of crisis in higher education and the jobs market. As top grades fall and university applications decline, many will struggle to negotiate the space between being 'priced out' of university while fighting to find employment. 

Heather McRobie
17 August 2012

Like tens of thousands of people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, I got my A-level results this week. Admittedly, I’m 27 and had already done a batch in 2003, but last year I began some part-time modules in science. The tarmac-chewing experience of trying to get my humanities-conditioned brain around AS science was one of the most difficult educational experiences of my life and gave me a renewed respect for the hard work of the teenagers getting their results on Thursday. But this year’s school leavers have some tough tests ahead, and the coalition government seems to have done all it can to make the obstacle course of young adulthood as gruelling as possible.

When I first received my A-level results in 2003, much looked the same as it is today, and not just because 1980s fashion nostalgia-aesthetics seem to have gone on longer than the 1980s themselves. We were nervous, excited, and – since I went to a very middle-class state sixth form – newspaper photographers turned up on exam results day to document blonde girls hugging each other as they got their grades. But this year’s generation of school leavers are looking at an entirely changed landscape, where higher education is no longer considered a social good, youth unemployment is becoming entrenched by recessional employment trends, and, while teenagers are still taught that getting into university is a passport-stamp to social mobility, post-university opportunities currently guarantee little other than debts. I want to congratulate all the school-leavers who received their results this week and wish them good luck, because they’ll need it. 

In the wake of the 2010 Browne report’s game-changing plans to overhaul higher education, almost all universities are now charging the maximum £9000 per annum for undergraduate courses, a game of passing-the-buck between universities and the government (“what choice do we have?” versus “we gave them the choice to charge £9000”) in which the ultimate loser is of course the ‘consumer’-student who the Browne report made such a show of ‘empowering’ through their right to select a university course like a discerning customer. The coalition government may make much fuss over the fact that there are no up-front fees to pay to attend university, but students know that going to university means getting into more debt. Earlier this month, the Independent Commission on Fees, headed by Will Hutton, announced their findings that fees were having an impact on university applications, although welcomed the fact that there had at least been no relative fall in applications from poorer areas. The commission estimated that about one in 20 who would have been expected to apply to university in 2012 did not do so.

To point to this ‘lost generation’ of those who would have otherwise attended university is not to say that university is the most appropriate or valuable path a school-leaver can take. But it is indicative of the fact that the fee hike and the recession are putting would-be students off from pursuing the further study they would otherwise like. And this is the situation faced by those who made it through their GCSEs and further education: the withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance for those who need financial help to stay in school, and its replacement with the paltry alternative of a new bursary system means staying in education is too difficult for many teenagers in difficult situations.

It’s not my place  to tell school-leavers whether it would be best for them to go to university, enter employment after A levels, or study a vocational course (applications for which have increased dramatically during the recession according to City and Guilds, who run many vocational qualifications and apprenticeships). It is, however, concerning that young people are seemingly being ‘priced out’ of university on the one hand, whilst simultaneously being told that a university degree is their only or most legitimate passport to future job prospects. And beyond the statistics of how many and which demographics do still go on to university in the face of the £9000 fees is the broader principle: the university-system today’s students enter has been fundamentally changed by the coalition government’s reforms. The Browne report was peppered with the kind of language of consumer-choice so archetypal of neo-liberalism and so alien to the concept that education is a public good and knowledge its own reward. With the commodification and privatisation of higher education, and the Thatcherite invective of competition above all else, is it any wonder plagiarism is increasingly rife in universities? We may be ‘all in it together’ when the Tories want to play with the retro-aesthetics of Blitz-nostalgia Jubilee-jingoism, but the higher education reforms smell of a kind of corporatism that tells students to keep their eyes on costs, not acquiring knowledge. (And if you want to protest this state of affairs, as a young person, the government has a few other retro tactics up its sleeve too: bullying you, kettling you, criminalising you, silencing you).

And whether they follow vocational studies, university or employment, the 2012 school-leavers know what awaits them: to be young under the Tories means the perpetual prospect of unemployment. Youth unemployment has just hit a 16 year high in Northern Ireland, and elsewhere the statistics are similar: after being told that A-levels and higher education qualifications were necessary for employment and social mobility, the reward is no work or infrequent, underpaid and unreliable work. The ‘precariat’ described by sociologist Guy Standing is playing itself out in a generation’s insecure employment, not least in the rise of temping among those in their 20s: this purgatory of recent graduates, preferred by employers for its ‘flexibility’, reinforces the sense in young people that the workplace sees them as expendable. 

With the recession potentially changing long-term employment structures towards short-contracts and temping, this year’s school leavers join the ranks of those who, in their mid to late 20s, have spent most of their adult life under a crippling recession reinforced by austerity cuts that leading economists say are clearly not working. When I sat my A-levels again this May, there were several people in their 20s and 30s in the exam hall who told me they were retraining or returning to study as a result of their experiences of unemployment throughout the recession. For those of you who still have the exam-school nightmare however many years later, be warned – you might find yourself back in the hall for real.

I do genuinely want to be optimistic for those who received their A level results this Thursday and wish them all the best, but the reality is bleak. I would urge them to fight back and not be beaten by this psychological kettling on all sides that makes the path ahead of them so hard – but with memories of A-levels fresh in my mind I know young people are generally already working hard enough. So I’ll just say I hope that the ingenuity and effort that it takes to keep your head above water as a young person under the Tories serves them well for life.  

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