Students and young people protesting against the education cuts are representative of a generation who have been consistently overlooked by politicians who have little regard for their democratic voice. The Liberal Democrats' abandonment of their policy pledge will help to further entrench the political isolation of young people and encourage their disengagement from mainstream politics.
Efforts to denigrate the student protesters overlook the sense of helplessness and disempowerment felt by many students in secondary, further and higher education. The preparedness of such large numbers to demonstrate against a huge increase in tuition fees, 80% cuts in the teaching budget and the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance highlight that many young people have a sense of responsibility and consideration for future generations that is not apparent amongst most politicians and media commentators. The new funding arrangements will not affect a large proportion of current university students, but will hit future generations of further and higher education learners hard. The demonstrations are therefore, in the main, a selfless expression of concern for the marketisation of higher education, the limiting of education opportunities of future students and the potential decline in the study of many established subjects. Higher education does not just benefit the individual and the concern of many students for social, economic and cultural richness in the UK is heart-warming.
Attention is often drawn to young peoples' democratic malaise, often identified in lower turnouts in elections of 18-24 year-olds. But politicians and political parties conveniently overlook their own failure to develop policies that engage young people and address their particular concerns. In the last general election, the main parties, as usual, focused their policies on older voters with little recognition of young people. Though not all students are young, the Liberal Democrats’ pledge to oppose any increase in university tuition fees, and their promise to scrap them if they won the election outright, was one of the few policies that was recognisably youth-centric. Nick Clegg encouraged voters, including students, to not 'settle for low politics and broken promises' and many voted for his party in good faith on the basis of this explicit manifesto promise.
It is understandable that students are furious with Clegg. His excruciating efforts to justify the abandonment of these pivotal pledges have done little to temper such anger, and revelations that senior Liberal Democrats were already considering this during the election will further damage the party. Though Clegg views new funding proposals through the prism of socio-economic 'fairness', many young people rightly question why issues of inter-generational fairness are being overlooked. They simply do not accept the loading of educational debt onto present and future generations by politicians who benefitted from largely free higher education provision. No politician has yet successfully answered the crucial question of why, over the past 25 years, successive governments have encouraged more people into higher education, to then complain because the cost to the taxpayer is too high. The Liberal Democrats’ U-turn has exacerbated inter-generational divisions in society, whilst also underlining the perception that no politician can be trusted and that mainstream politics is myopic to the particular needs of young people.
It is those citizens under the age of 18, who are not yet able to fully participate in democratic politics, who will be hit hardest by further and higher education reforms. Though they were not consulted about the reforms, many are aware that their educational and career opportunities will be limited by them. Some will already be revising their future aspirations and abandoning plans of going to university, deterred by the potential for high levels of debt. As usual, some newspapers were quick to deride protesting second school students as truants, motivated by a desire to create havoc without a cause. This type of lazy and patronising journalism will merely further some young people’s sense of dislocation from mainstream civil society and democratic politics. Many young people have few opportunities to voice their concerns. The findings of the Youth Citizenship Commission (YCC), on which I served during 2008-9, found that under-18s felt excluded from the political process, with politicians consistently overlooking their needs, as they were not yet able to vote. Moreover, the commission found many young people felt the political system itself actively sought to exclude young people and the politicians deliberately adopted a political language and policies that reflected the interests of older voters. The YCC urged the previous government to reform its institutional structures and practices to include young people, but to no avail.
So far, the Coalition has presented little to suggest that this appalling state of affairs will be redressed. Plans for the introduction of a National Citizen Service may be well-intentioned but focus on volunteering rather than political participation and will not redress the democratic exclusion of younger citizens. Spending cuts have seen local authorities already pull vital funding for youth councils and it is unlikely that the Big Society will replace these important forums of democratic participation. It is also likely that citizenship education will be scaled back as part of the National Curriculum review. Youth-based democratic participation and political literacy are certain to be victims of the age of austerity, thus contributing to the further decline, rather than repair, of what both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have called 'our broken politics'.
Democratic dislocation will see some young people embrace the extremism of the far left or right with the potential for further violence. This winter has already, and will continue, to provide opportunities for students to come together with other young people who have not been to university but now find themselves without work, to express the anger of this abandoned generation. Unless there is a wholesale revision of how our democracy listens to and involves young people, a more aggressive and confrontational politics will come to define the Coalition's period in office.