In the wake of the general election, there’s been a lot of talk about young people’s renewed commitment to the political process. At the same time, there is evidence of young people’s pessimism about their future and what the chair of the Social Mobility Commission has called a “stark intergenerational divide”.
If the youth vote has indeed increased, this has the potential to bring their concerns into the centre of political debate. If young people are increasingly seeing the point of engaging with politics, that must be good for our democracy – but only if that engagement offers some prospect of addressing the profound unfairness and inequality they experience.
Some of the talk is of the youth vote having been “bought” with purely economic benefits, such as Labour’s proposed abolition of higher education tuition fees. It’s as if tax cuts aren’t also designed to appeal to particular demographics – the fact is, all spending decisions have winners and losers. The question is, what are the underlying values that lead to a particular set of priorities?
A vote for free universal education goes well beyond self-interest. It is a vote in favour of education as an unconditional human right in a civilised society and a vote against the idea of education as a commodity that has to be rationed and can only be valued for economic benefits. If we have no problem with the idea of universal free healthcare funded through general progressive taxation, why hesitate about the same principle being applied to education?
But if our support for young people and their education is expressed merely in economic terms, we are missing an important dimension of the political case for universal free provision. Those of us who argue for the return to Education Maintenance Allowances and free tuition for all also need to explain why education matters to society as well as to individuals. We need to build young people’s experience of using their knowledge and skills for the benefit of others as well as themselves.
A new social contract
I think this means making the case for a richer, more challenging and more demanding education, and also for a new social contract between society and its young people. If we want government to fund 16-19 education at the same rate as pre-16 or HE, we need to offer “something for something” by broadening our uniquely narrow offer. Equally, if we are offering young people more, perhaps they should be encouraged to give something back and start putting their education to use as soon as possible, through some kind of civic service?
We live in troubled times, but if recent tragic events have demonstrated anything it is the enormous power of the social bonds between people and their ability to connect and support others. That potential is always there, even if it isn’t always tapped. Educators need to help with the work of building a stronger society where people learn to care for each other and to participate in democratic and collective action to improve the world they live in.
None of this just happens. It needs to be worked at, and educational settings are well placed to develop the understanding, skills and habits of democracy and solidarity in a culture of equality.
I suspect we would be pushing at an open door. When the opportunities are available and well organised, young people are very willing to give their time. When programmes such as the National Citizens’ Service go beyond outward-bound activity, they show the transformative potential of civic service.
I think it’s time we designed a truly universal citizens’ service which could engage all young people in community and research projects as well as education for citizenship. Every hour of such activity contributes to building a stronger society and establishing lifetime habits of solidarity. This could reach across the generations. A mutual commitment to some form of national civic service could be everyone’s contribution to a social contract which promises us all free education.
Today’s young people are far from being a selfish or self-absorbed generation. Those who work with them are constantly impressed and delighted by their capacity for hard work, care for others and collective action.
Their increased political participation is just the start of realising what they can achieve. We need to expect more from ourselves and from the young people we work with if we are to really mobilise their potential and give them a bigger stake in the future.
Eddie Playfair is principal of Newham Sixth Form College, East London. He tweets @eddieplayfair