A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was released in 1843. Dickens remains one of my all time favourite authors and this is one book that everyone knows of even if they haven’t read it. His writings essentially about the London poor are highly memorable, and provide the most amazing visual imagery. At the time he was on a campaign trail to raise awareness of the plight of those less fortunate in society. Re-reading the books aspects of them seem to ring true today. Here are some quotes from one of my favourite characters- Scrooge “If [the poor] would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
“There is nothing on which [as in the world] is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth. “
Now, which political party might well, at least in public perception align themselves with Scrooge? I have to admit I had really high hopes for the ConDem co-alition. Really, I did. Although personally I didn’t vote for them. However, within the few months since they came into power I have become more and more socialist in my thinking. The whole tuition fee debacle for me is just another nail in the coffin. I do feel particularly disappointed by this. You see, I think from experience that it really will have a lasting impact on society as we know it.
I went to University, initially to a good northern one with a very high proportion of public school students. I simply didn’t fit in, as a run of the mill girl who had never had the privileges that money brings. I didn’t even know what people in my college were talking about most of the time (does that give it away). I have never felt so lonely and isolated. I left and then went to UCL. I had worked very hard to get there achieving grade A’s at A Level, I did for a while get a job but I really wanted to pursue my studies at all costs.
Yes, I realise that UCL is at the heart of all the protest against tuition fees and that has as much to do with the history and ethos of the university as anything else. It was this ethos that was perfect for me. It provided an academic yet diverse environment where I could mix with public school people, the retired, African princesses, those from under -privileged backgrounds, those with varying social histories from the ex- homeless to the former housewife. The thing we all had in common was a desire amongst the vast majority of students to learn. This is the real strength of the place. I met such a range of people that my life and outlook was broadened considerably.
A large proportion of those people I met at university, many of whom have gone on to contribute enormously to society as a whole, were I am sure, only at the university because of the principle of free education. People who have made a real difference to society in the fields of medicine, social work, music, science, literature and in the financial sector. Some of these people are famous, some are not. They were there because they were free to do so, to pursue their studies without the shadows of debt over hanging them.
I do feel strongly about this because I know that I would not have been able to go and if I had somehow found a way to justify the cash and if I had gone, I would not have been able to study archaeology and contribute in my small way. I am not the sort of person that can live with debt, I would rather starve than have a large debt hanging over me. I took up five jobs (different evenings and weekends) whilst at university to keep things ticking over. I worked incredibly hard, gave up a lot of the socialising, but I was not in debt when I came out. This enabled me to take up my scholarship for further study.
These levels of tuition fees are alright for those public school pupils whose parents can afford to pay, in fact in the context of the fees charged at public school they seem very reasonable. It’s just a continuation of the fee paying. However, this is an awful lot of money for the majority of people, and a real gamble in their futures, what sort of start in life does this level of debt provide? I think, its dangerous territory. Lest us not forget that government funding cuts are resulting in the cutting of opening hours for many museums, libraries and galleries across the country. Culture as a whole is at risk, why study the arts? You would have to choose a course which you knew you were guaranteed a lucrative job or you would have to learn to live with debt.
What also worries me is the fact that (I could be wrong in this) I assume that the fees will also be payable by mature students, how does this work? It’s yet another disincentive to educate oneself. I think there is a danger that this is going to make universities into finishing schools for public schools or perhaps training academies for the big city firms.
Education both organised and self lead is a pleasure but it is also part of being alive and being empowered. I am starting to think that there is a return to a situation where decent education is for the privileged few.
I aim to empower my children. When I was young the world was my oyster, if I wanted to become Prime Minister I felt that it was within my grasp. Whatever I wanted to do was open to me, provided I put in the effort. This is no longer the case. I tell my children that they can become vets, doctors, plumbers or popstars if they want. But the grim reality is that it is becoming less and less likely that they will have the chance to go to university without me and the husband re-mortgaging our house just at the point when we should be saving for our retirement.
However, it’s not just students that I am worried about, the elderly, the young, the socially dis-advantaged are all taking a hit from this Government. The notion that “we are all in this together” just simply isn’t the case. The schools who had additional funding pumped into them, services for the elderly, benefits for various groups of people are all being stopped by stealth. Many, many people will be affected. Tax increases will hit those who can least afford it and the rich/ super-rich will escape with little impact on their lifestyles.
At the start of next year there will be a number of Local Government cuts which will start to show when various social services start to be run by volunteers and some totally cut. Volunteers are not as reliable as paid staff. The so called Big Society approach. I am starting to think that we may be going backwards. The gap between the haves and the have- nots is getting bigger. The gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged is getting bigger and the only hope for many is the Lottery which is pumping money into specialist projects and the Olympics.
I have to admit I am concerned for my children’s future, I am concerned for my welfare if I make it to old age and I feel powerless to do anything but sit back and hope for the best.