Young People and the "Big Society"

The inability of large numbers of young people in the UK to get on a University course provides some early evidence of how the Coalition government might seek to cater for young people during a time of austerity.
Andy Mycock
27 August 2010

The lack of sufficient places to accommodate over 180,000 prospective students has underlined, if there were to be any doubts, that the right of young people to undertake a University education when they want and studying their chosen subject has been revoked by the state. The reality has always been that some University applicants have not got onto to courses, even when they had the right entry qualifications. But New Labour’s investment in higher education saw an expansion of the numbers of young people studying at University – not always on the course or the institution of their choice – that gave many young people the ill-founded impression of universality of provision.

In the midst of the overarching air of cuts-inspired gloom, the inability of large numbers of young people to get on a University course provides some early evidence of how the Coalition might seek to cater for young people in austerity UK.The suggestion by David Willetts that those who were not accepted onto University courses this year should volunteer to enhance their chances next year was enlightening in a number of ways. For a ‘pro-business’ government who have placed their faith so heavily in the potential of the private sector to create employment, it was odd that Willetts did not suggest that, in the spirit of Norman Tebbitt, young people should ‘get on their bikes’ and look for work. This is most likely due to the slight chances that many would have in gaining full-time employment in these difficult times. The youth unemployment rate currently stands at 17%, double the national rate, with the long-term trend growing dramatically.Willetts’ comments also raise further questions which relate to the Coalition’s promotion of the “Big Society”. David Cameron has described the Big Society as a ‘guiding philosophy’ of modern Conservatism, ‘rolling forward the frontiers of society’ through the promotion of social responsibility and scaling back the size and scope of government.  It seeks a shift from state to social action by breaking state monopolies, allowing charities, social enterprises and companies to provide public services, devolving power down to neighbourhoods and making government more accountable. Through public sector reform and community empowerment, Cameron argues the Big Society will reform government by creating ‘little platoons of civil society’ whilst also creating a more moral, considerate and polite society, instilling social and political values that reject selfishness and irresponsibility. Cameron has argued that young people will sow the seeds of the Big Society and let them burst into bloom in future years.The extent to which his Liberal Democrat partners share this faith is open to question. During the general election, Julia Goldsworthy described the Big Society as ‘patronising nonsense’. But the main weakness of the Big Society narrative is its ambiguous aims and objectives. Coalition ministers have tied the Big Society to a wide and disparate range of policy areas without fully developing how these cohere. The Big Society is in danger of becoming sidelined as it emerges as a philosophy for everything and nothing.If we consider Willetts' encouragement of volunteering as aiding the path to University, we are able to understand how young people fit into the Big Society. Volunteering amongst young people is increasingly seen by politicians and others as a form of economic as well as social activism. The blueprint for this can be found in the United States where ‘community service’ is a common experience for significant numbers of young people, mostly drawn from affluent areas. Community service differs from programmes such as the Conservatives’ National Citizen Service. Though charities and other volunteering organisations are involved in American community service programmes, large corporate firms are frequently involved in their sponsorship and delivery. Volunteers often try to ingratiate themselves with the corporations in the hope they might secure employment.Although altruism remains an essential motivation, under these kinds of ‘careerist volunteering’ schemes it is clear that young people are being encouraged to work for charities and other organisations and businesses to improve their own life-chances. But the extent to which voluntary and other charitable organisations, together with businesses, will be able to meet the growing demand for volunteering opportunities that are both worthwhile to communities and of positive benefit to young people involved is open to question. Cuts in funding will undoubtedly have implications for the ability of those organisations seeking to fill the void left by a state. Lack of opportunities or poor quality experiences could mean volunteering fails to meet aspirations with a detrimental effect on young people’s attitudes towards the Big Society.There is evidence of a growing dependence of the voluntary sector on unpaid or poorly paid volunteers. This expansion blurs the lines between those who volunteer and those who undertake internships for personal gain. This has implications for our understanding of youth citizenship. Whilst volunteers might be paid some costs, they give their time freely and are unpaid. Interns are more difficult to categorise, often being considered as ‘voluntary workers’ gaining work experience. If young people are paid, then the extent to which such contributions can be considered ‘volunteering’ is debatable. The incentivisation of ‘volunteering’ undermines the altruistic motivations of citizens who are prepared to give their time for free. It also raises questions about the commercialisation and consumerisation of citizenship as young people increasingly expect rewards for their time and efforts, and often associate the act of volunteering with the third sector or private business rather than the state.Many of these ‘volunteers’ are exempt from national minimum wage legislation, but are expected to undertake many of the duties of full-paid employees. A Low Pay Commission report published in March 2010 expressed concerns about the number of people being encouraged into work or future education via unpaid full-time volunteering. Concern is growing that young people are increasingly being used to cut costs by performing basic administration and other entry-level jobs. In light of potential funding cuts, it is likely that many young people will be offered opportunities to undertake such positions.There are doubts that all prospective university students waiting to reapply will be able to survive economically. An IPPR report noted that volunteering opportunities, particularly internships, potentially discriminated against young people from low-income families. Calls by the IPPR to phase out internships for public bodies and the introduction of a minimum wage for private sector internees rightly seek to develop the rights of young people. But this could have a significant impact on the preparedness of organisations and businesses to offer any oppotuinities at all.Evidence from Germany provides some indication of how the Big Society’s promotion of volunteering for young people might shape social service provision. Those who opt to undertake the short period of compulsory civilian civic service, Zivildienst, in preference to the military option, often find it composed of uninspiring menial work. Also, the influx of unpaid programmes depresses wages for full-time workers and reduces employment chances for others within the welfare system.The experiences of interns has garnered political attention from unlikely sources, with Andy Burnham pledging to end the ‘unpaid interns’ culture. Alternative proposals by Demos to incentivise NEETs to undertake internships with  up to £5,000 in state support are well-intentioned but fail to acknowledge the contextual differences between ‘work experience’ and internships linked to volunteering.  As the number of students who achieve some success at A-Level but do not go to university and are therefore considered NEETs increases, there is a danger that programmes such as that suggested by Demos could be seen as a form of ‘enforced volunteering’ for those who have little alternative.The Big Society’s renegotiation of the rights and responsibilities between young people and the state priorities the latter over the former, conveniently absolving the state of its responsibility to maintain current levels of provision of further/higher education or other training programmes or indeed the possibility of employment. The Big Society considers young people essential to developing a volunteering culture without acknowledging the potential that exists for exploitative and unrewarding experiences. It encourages young people to view participation instrumentally as volunteering is no longer predominantly founded on selflessness, but instead is seen as an investment in the future of the individual.

In some cases, this investment is literal. For example, the government expects that young people and schools should contribute towards the costs of participating on National Citizen Service programmes. Worse, the withdrawal of the state as the cuts kick in could undermine the civil structures of communities. The promotion of volunteering as a cut-price alternative to education or training has the potential  to further inter-generational resentment as young people are expected to take over the running of services taken for granted by older citizens or face losing them.

In some cases, the response of local citizens will no doubt counter some of the impacts of cuts, taking on the running of local services and maintaining institutions and networks that are deemed ‘essential’. But in other communities where social capital and resources are lower, the collapse of the civil infrastructure such as libraries, youth centres and other leisure facilities will limit volunteering opportunities. The decline of the state’s contribution to civil society will deny many of those who are in most need of the positive socialising influence of such institutions.

Predications of another ‘lost generation’ are politically-damaging. The government’s resolve will be sorely tested if University capacity is maintained at current levels or reduced further. Such challenges will be compounded by growth in demand for further education and other training programmes, with those passing GCSEs increasingly placed in competition with A-level students. If alternative provision in further education and the private sector is not expanded and supported by the development of a comprehensive review of training and apprenticeships then the public mood could quickly turn sour with the costs of youth unemployment felt by parents as well as young people.

If the Coalition’s actions match its rhetoric on cuts then the problems many young people face this year will only intensify in the future. If the Big Society is seen by young people to be seeking merely to fill the void left by the retreating state then it could become the first victim of the cuts - rejected by the generation who were expected to sow its seeds.

You can read more of OurKingdom's Big Society debate here.

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