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Higher education funding reform is emotional for its opponents and for the ‘guilty generation’ who feel compelled to enforce it

October 13, 2010 Leave a comment

As little as thirteen years ago, nobody paid a penny.

That’s why further increases to the cost of university education, proposed in the Browne Review, are so difficult for people to stomach.

Before 1998, generations of decent-brained, perhaps aspirational people had breezed into universities up and down the country, paying for nothing along the way. Now these people are telling students to cough up for it, and they know how bad that looks.

Just as it is now mountainously daunting for young professionals to know they will work into their seventies in order to support their innumerable aged, so it is for young students to take on the burden of around £40,000 of debt for the privilege of degree study.

The extraordinary good fortune of the baby boom generation, who were the key beneficiaries of free access to higher education (along with several other pertinent points) is detailed expertly by David Willetts – now universities minister – in his book, The Pinch.

It is not for recent or future generations of students to resent their forebears for being so fortunate. But at a certain point it became clear that it wouldn’t be possible to sustain higher education without reform of the generous grants system – no matter how ingrained were its principles in the consciences of decision makers.

These decision makers, and their commentators, the opinion-makers, are the people who benefited from a free university education. When the Commons was threatening to revolt against Blair’s top-up fees bill in 2004, those men and women were acting according to something visceral and something elemental within them. To them, free university education had been a norm, a birthright, a part of their identity.  To move the country yet further away from it was, and remains, heartbreaking.

So the governing generation feel extremely guilty. Their quandary is rather like the life of Vince Cable in the current coalition: desperately not wanting to do something out of long-held belief and principle, but feeling that there is no choice but to do it, for to not do it would be to deny the problem. Meanwhile everyone else is shocked, concerned or angry. Opposition to, and anguish over increases in the cost of university is not only based on a practical assessment of the impending strife. It is also a complex emotional reaction.

The process of review and outrage and debate and outrage is not just a recognition that going to university now requires an eye-watering financial commitment. It is also part of a realisation about the extent to which a generation’s worth of certainties, securities, even sensibilities, are dying.

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Categories: Politics

Not New Labour but new…Labour.

September 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Has Ed Miliband’s election as Labour leader and immediate eschewing of the ‘New Labour’ tag caused a bit of a problem for him, and those writing about him?

Ed has made plain that his leadership is a break with New Labour and that he will usher in a new generation.

He can still, after four days, fairly be called the new (lower case) Labour leader, but has spent a great deal of time since his election at pains to point out that he is not the leader of New Labour. New Labour is a ‘project’ (for want of a less nauseating word) from which Ed would rather distance himself, and he did this to great effect in his campaign.

That’s all fair enough. But, as I say, he is the new Labour leader. And news organisations have quite understandably led with headlines such as ‘Ed Miliband is new Labour leader’ (BBC website), and, at the risk of repetition: ‘Ed Miliband is new Labour leader’ (Mirror website). Does that make Eddie wince? Or is he, at this special time, able to forget the unfortunate confusion over the ‘New Labour’/new Labour thing, just as he might forget the crippling blow he has dealt to his brother, whom he loves so much?

Okay, you might say, it’s all still fine and clear because of the lower case ‘n’ on new. Who’s getting confused? Well, what about when the ‘new’ comes at the start of the headline or sentence, as it did on the Daily Record‘s website on Monday? There, the news story might end up being ‘New Labour leader Ed Miliband’ is getting throughly cheesed off that no one seems to have noticed he doesn’t want to be associated with ‘New Labour’. Perhaps SuperEd will soon propose a new ‘Commission for the Clarification of Capital Letters at the Beginning of a Sentence’ to form part of a new (not New) Labour policy platform?

But that’s nothing. Think of the radio… There’s absolutely no way that even John Humphrys can intone a captial letter when reading out the day’s headlines. All we hear is: ‘New Labour leader Ed Miliband will today tell his party….’ Ed must be hitting the bloody ceiling listening to this. “How many times do I have to say that it’s not New, Fuckface Labour!?” he must wonder.

But here’s the problem. Politicians are eternally using the language of renewal, of regeneration. Our kid Eddie is no different: he wants to lead a ‘new generation’. Indeed, so new is Ed, that he’s not even the same generation as David Cameron, only three years his senior. He is newer than the new Prime Minister, who himself is only 43, so no wonder he’s newer than New Labour!

The thing is, Blair and Brown and Mandelson and Campbell played a dirty trick back in the 90s – by actually using the ‘New’ tag as the party name (at least until their second term in office) they stole the word from their party’s future leaders.  So-called ‘New Labour’ could not stay new forever, but the word would always be tainted; never again could the word ‘new’ quite carry that clear and uncomplicatedly positive rhetorical significance.

And so it is that the Labour Party’s new leader is at pains to remove himself from the taint of New Labour whilst emphasising his own apparently embryonic newness as leader of a new generation in a new era.

Get your head round that.

New Labour is dead. Long live new Labour…

Categories: Politics