Friday, 12 November 2010

What's worse: breaking a few windows or undermining social mobility?

On Wednesday about 50,000 people - several hundred of them from Brighton - marched through central London in protest at the Government's cuts in further and higher education spending that will see university fees treble, free adult education abandoned, and cash allowances to enable the poorest teenagers to stay at school - the Education Maintainance Allowance - scrapped.

By some accounts it was the biggest demonstration since the now famous 'Stop the War' march of 2003.

Of course the media have concentrated on condemning the actions of a breakaway group who occupied the Millbank HQ of the Tory party, breaking windows and setting off flares and bonfires.

But I think we all need to ask ourselves the question: what's worse - breaking a few windows or undermining the very idea of social mobility in our education system?

Let's be clear: the Government's plans will do exactly that.

The average university student will leave college with around £40,000 of debt: placing higher education out of reach of most poorer families.

Coupled with the decision to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance, and the end of state-funded vocational training for adults, few are optimistic that these measures won't see the divide between rich and poor widen even further, and even more quickly than it did under Labour.

The prevailing wisdom, of coursem, is that any group seeking to change public policy should confine themselves to two routes to trying to do so: engagement with the political process, and well-behaved, orderly demonstrations.

I agree, in theory. But in practise, we have to remember that neither of these has worked at all, and that people are angry.

Many voted for the Lib-Dems in the mistaken belief that  they could be trusted when they said they'd oppose any rise in tuition fees.

Labour, lest we forget, introduced tuition fees in the first place (as just one of the measures they took that saw the gap between rich and poor widen so much during the 13 years that they held the riens of power).

And as for the Tories: well even today, Simon Kirby, our local Tory MP, has told the media of his enthusiasm for higher student fees.

So much for the democratic process.

And as for orderly protest? Well, I was one of the hundreds of thousands who marched through central London in protest at plans to invade Iraq without a UN mandate. Fat lot of good that did - we're still counting the bodies.

Indeed you could argue that the last time protet really changed public policy here in the UK was when Lady Gaga - I mean Thatcher - abandoned the Poll Tax after rioting hit the streets of London.

Of course I'm not saying violent protest is the answer - I'm a confirmed democrat, obviously (I'd hardly be a councillor if I wasn't) - just that we should get things in perspective.

And, to my mind, breaking a few windows in anger is far less serious than either lying about policy to win votes - or introducing a set of education policies that are bound to undermine social mobility.

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