Another year and another entourage of student activists trot down the streets of Westminster for the cause of free education. A noble, albeit naïve and platitudinous endeavour in most cases, but at its worse just becomes a tantrum against the establishment. This week’s student protest against university fees is unfortunately no different. In the latter case, the usual mob of anarchists come to stir up furore, and showed once again their proclivity for nothing more than the wanton destruction of public property.
Those of the well-meaning group form the rest – people who came with the best of intentions, but as is the case with many causes, these don’t necessarily mean they’re supporting the solution that strikes at the heart of the problem.
Free Education is a noble goal, at least in abstract principle, but erstwhile student protesters act like it’ll magically lead to more poor kids going to university.
Ultimately, what isn’t being tackled are the core issues at the heart of British society. You’ll find that, regardless of whether the fees are made prohibitively expensive or absolutely free to everyone, the same subsection of the population will choose not to go to university, or worse yet, be unable to. When people envision free education, they’re enthralled by the bleary eyed notion that disadvantaged, bright youths are lifted out of poverty and thrust into Oxbridge; living on to carry out an enriched career and inspiring those in their home town to do the same. But in most cases, this is unfortunately a fantasy that ignores a depressing fact. Those from poorer backgrounds aren’t held back at this stage; their educational development is hamstrung the second they leave the womb. They’ll see an education marked with disruptive classes, poorly paid teachers more distracted by discipline than actual teaching, badly funded resources and a general aura of entrapment in this prohibitive environment. Almost anyone in this ambition stifling atmosphere would struggle to get into the mind set of even WANTING to go to university, let alone carrying out the amount of study required to get there.
What we need to do is divorce ourselves from the idea of the bookish, quiet and bullied child in a comprehensive as the sole victim. There is instead an entire mire of wasted potential beyond them: people who are very intelligent but had no onus to apply it; those with passions that were never introduced to them; people with ambitions slowly that were slowly drained or never even presented. These are the still-born geniuses of a generation; those contemptuously labelled as yobs, chavs and hoodlums. Handing them a free university place is not going to undo the damage of their upbringing. It’s the same mind-set that people have when throwing 5p into an Oxfam pot; the idea that pouring money into the most obvious solution will assuage their own guilt, rather than actually contemplating the complicated socio-political implications which have caused the problem to begin with.
Instead, the protests for free university continues it’s current role as a frankly middle class indulgence, ie. people who had their Russell Group acceptance letter pinned to their chest at birth. In a sense, they operate over an empathetic gulf and transfer the ambition they have into the minds of less wealthy, assuming money to be the only limiting factor. But it isn’t. Until these areas earlier in life are improved, the concept of free education is at best naïve in its belief that it improves social equality, and at the worst is an entirely self-interested pursuit of the well to do. It would be cynical to describe the actions of these individuals as ultimately selfish. However, those taking part in the protest did share in one fatal flaw; they were interpreting the problems of the world through the narrow scope university life.
Admittedly, inside university it’s forgivable to look upon it as a microcosm of the outside world, but if people want true social mobility for those not privileged enough to reach it, the protests need to concentrate on something far more central: lack of resources, overworked teachers, more money for social housing – anything. But the proposed fightback against inequality doesn’t start at the UCAS application – it starts from birth.
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