While the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne was presenting the first conservative budget for eighteen years, many would have been reacting as I was: with a growing sense of unease bordering on distress as yet more cuts were imposed upon the vulnerable and the poor. The language the Chancellor used was, at times, extremely telling. I’ve cherry-picked some of the things he said about education and work below since these are two topics which will be of particular interest to readers of this blog.
Universities, Osbourne announced, are ‘jewels in the crown of the British economy’. Note, however, that they are the crowning achievement (or perhaps adornment?) not of Britain’s society, its culture, or even its education – but of its economy. This statement neatly dovetails with the Conservative’s view of a university education not as a valuable thing in and of itself, but only as a means to an end: employment. Let me rephrase this: ‘productive employment’, i.e. not what you would pursue if you were interested in arts, music or the notoriously underpaid and overworked care sector.
Let’s not for a moment kid ourselves that the Conservatives are genuinely interested in providing access to education to all, however. This is a divisive project which they are now embarking upon. For why else would they turn maintenance grants into loans, remove the cap on tuition fees and tie their increase to inflation? By converting grants into loans, first of all, younger people will take on even more debt. And, by tying uncapped tuition fees to inflation, education will become even more expensive while, perversely, the salary of University workers will be subjected to yet more real-term cuts. *
There was brief mention of ‘opening the sector to new entrants who can deliver the highest standards’ but no elaboration as to what this might mean. It sounds very like an imitation of the education provision policy which has proven so controversial within the UK’s Schools. Still on teaching policy, when Osborne said ‘we’ll link the student fee cap to inflation for those institutions that can show they offer high-quality teaching’, he was surely nodding towards the recently mooted Teaching Excellence Framework (in parallel to the existing Research Excellence Framework). Financially incentivizing Universities to give students the grades they want…no conflicts of interest there then.
Then there was the frequent refrain of ‘aspiration’ of which I am absolutely sick. Too much beating of the aspiration drum is part of what got us into this mess in the first place! What’s wrong with making a virtue of something like, for example, compassion? Forget it for now since, as the furrow-browed Osborne almost shrieked, ‘the benefits system should not support lifestyles and rents that are not available to the taxpayers who pay for that system’. So poverty is now a lifestyle while inheriting a family home worth up to £1million does not mean you’re rich. Stated otherwise: rich is poor and poor’s a choice. Aspiration is now as uncritically affirmed as full employment which, by the way, is highly unlikely during a period where work is becoming increasingly automated and many jobs thereby rendered obsolete.
‘Families’ were mentioned fifteen times which must mean they are very important. So what of them? Childcare of up to 30 hours a week is now provided to them for free – the lord giveth – but in return ‘parents with a youngest child aged 3, including lone parents’ are now expected ‘to look for work if they want to claim Universal Credit’ – and the lord taketh. Support is now deserved (i.e. provided) only if the families have the right number of children (i.e. ‘two’). So, how will a single parent be able to fit part-time work around childcare, particularly with the rise in zero hour contracts? For, according to a statement issued by the Office of National Statistics, the number of zero hours contracts had increased from 1.9% of all people in employment in 2013 to 2.3% in 2014. The same report notes that ‘people on “zero-hours contracts” are more likely to be women, in full-time education or working part-time’, i.e. the people most affected by this budget.
How are they going to cope? Not this government’s problem! And how will a hard working family with more than two children be able to run a household on diminished funds? Also not this government’s problem! Little wonder that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was in such fine fettle.
But, you know, it wasn’t all bad news! When a series of tragedies get narrated as just so many victories, before our ears and eyes, the grotesque spectacle of a proven liar mouth-gapingly gesticulating under the misapprehension that he is one of life’s winners should provide us brief comic respite. We should hold onto that realisation for as long as possible because the subsequent realisation is as follows: the present government’s term has only just begun.
* In the Joint Higher Education Trade Union Pay Claim, the UCU notes that since salaries in the HE sector had not matched inflation levels for five years running, their salaries’ development amounted to a 15% real terms pay gap. At the same time, an investigation into vice-chancellor’s pay found that ‘eighteen vice chancellors enjoyed a pay increase of more than 10%, while the largest increase was 70.2%. On average, vice-chancellors were paid 6.4 times more than an average member of their staff.’ (p. 3)