The student movement during the 2010 General Election had one clear aim. The National Union of Students (NUS) had spent the run up to the election putting together a blueprint on Higher Education funding which the Executive, led by Wes Streeting and Aaron Porter, went on selling to the Unions. Students’ Unions and Further Education colleges around the country where asking their local candidates to sign a now famous pledge, a commitment to maintaining tuition fees at their (then) present level. Huge energy and money was spent in registering students to vote and mobilising that momentum into votes for candidates that had signed the pledge.
Pledges signed and votes counted, a number of MPs turned their backs on their promise. Whether this was a matter of practicality over ideology or not, it demonstrated that the student vote has not been viewed as essential but rather has been used as a decoy to woo parents. Students, a nomadic body of individuals torn between their home and University towns tend to have short memories when it comes to which member voted in which way five years down the line. Those that are younger than university age can’t vote anyway, so there is little to no harm in ignoring their voice.
The last two parliaments have created a legacy that has been devastating to young people everywhere. The rapid progress that was made in turning institutions into Universities and the huge growth in those attending them looked good on paper but has since caused over-saturation of knowledge and under-provision of experience in the job market. Students that have been to University since tuition fees were introduced have seen their qualifications lose value as their cost has increased.
Whilst students have been at University they have seen living expenses sharply increase. Rent prices in most University towns are extortionately high for low quality housing and tenants are afforded very few rights. Students are put in a position where they have to take out further credit to get by or take increasingly desperate options to earn money. Of 6,750 students that Sky News interviewed in March 2015, 22% claimed that they had considered the sex industry to pay their way and 5% said they have done sex work in order to pay bills.
Once young people find employment they are faced with an increasingly challenging housing market. The frivolities and insecurity of previous decades has meant that obtaining a mortgage for rocketing house prices is incredibly difficult. This is a position not helped by the necessity for many to take internships without pay whilst trying to pay off credit card debt and loans obtained in order to live. In their report ‘A home of their own’, Shelter predicted that a single 25 year old in the South East (where the average house price is over £200,000) would be 42 before they could afford to buy a home.
If young people are unable to afford a house, then that means that they have two options. One of which is to live with family and the other is to enter rented accommodation. The prospect of living in rented housing is no longer appealing to those that are faced with sky high prices inflated by generous letting fees and little protection from landlords who agents are unwilling to challenge. The quality of housing can also be poor with either no economic or punitive incentive for landlords to properly maintain properties.
This generation has lacked a clear voice and avocate in the British political system. It is almost cliché to remind readers of Nick Clegg’s pre-election pledge and post-election abandonment of ‘no rise in tuition fees’. Whilst the jibes undoubtedly come easy, it is certain that Clegg’s decision did not. But it is also the case that it is unlikely such a turnaround would have been made at the expense of pensioners or another key demographic. Whilst the Tories had their own ideological and fiscal policies to maintain, the pledge was dropped by the Liberal Democrats on entirely pragmatic grounds. They were dropped in order to compromise with the Conservatives and get electoral reform on the agenda, therefore taking the hit with students in order for a shot at becoming a bigger voice in British politics long-term.
Having a small voice and taking a large burden go hand-in-hand, the one feeds the other. The only solution is to mobilise as an electoral force at the ballot box. The energy being placed by Labour in Sheffield Hallam to oust Clegg from his seat may well be a cynical political move, but it would demonstrate the power of students to take back their voice. Students should look at each of their MPs from all colours and check their voting record; no party is without sin when it comes to broken promises. No-one will hand this generation a voice, but it is clear that it needs to be found.