Happy New Year, Generation K

Originally published on wonkhe

Just before Christmas, I got to present to my staff team in the SU on where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going – and this time, like every other year I’ve worked around higher education, I had the chance to communicate a real sense of privilege. I work with great people and I work for great people, but I feel privilege mainly because unlike every other slice of the public (or quasi-public) sector, we somehow seem to have escaped the deep, swingeing cuts imposed on the rest of the public realm in recent times.

Of course, HE hasn’t avoided economic armageddon by magic (unless you count the change in accounting rules that has wiped the RAB charge issue off the wonkopolotical agenda) – it’s done it by hurling the cost of itself at graduates; our relative job security and happiness delivered on the debt burden of a generation of young people that have been mis-sold an impossible economic advantage and who are more anxious, have had less childhood and are more likely to be poorer than their parents than any other generation before them. We owe them. 

The marketeers call them Generation K, and if you’re struggling to understand the students you serve or administrate or teach, you should make it a New Year’s resolution to sit down and watch (or read) The Hunger Games, for the dystopian landscape that central character Katniss Everdeen encounters in its District 12 might have disturbing echoes of that campus that you wonk around, teach in, support or run.

Our students live in a world that’s profoundly unequal, violent and hard; whose inequality, violence and hardness are on visceral display through pocket computers that remind them of this every few seconds. They exhibit a profound anxiety, yet their willingness to disclose as such and access support is matched by a system that can’t cope. They’re lonely. They have thousands of friends and followers but few real companions, and terrible ‘real world’ social skills. They spend all day every day in a maelstrom of online (often sexual) bullying that the rest of us barely understand. They’re soberer than previous generations, much harder working, yet are guaranteed to be worse off than their parents.

There they are, juggling timetables and part-time work and childcare and a panoply of voluntary responsibilities that make them hope they’ll stand out in the CV pile, trying to fit in the time to learn and achieve and get support. Yet when they want their work back in time to learn for the next essay, it’s their expectations that are too high; when they challenge the arbitrary mark they’ve been given that will determine their economic fate they’re told “well because reasons”, and when they have the brass necked cheek to ask if they could meet a tutor at a different time than the two advertised hours a week, using the economic justification that’s been forced down their throats for decades and got them to the university in which they want the support, they’re denounced as unthinking, selfish consumers.

24,000 of them were surveyed recently, and they said they’d had limited development in areas like creativity and citizenship and speaking clearly over the course of their degree. What they really need is high level, technical skills that the economy will need in future years – but what they are getting are the kind of lower middle class, upper blue collar social skills that employers thought they wanted a decade ago and that everyone agrees are not needed in the hollowed-out hourglass economy of tomorrow. They get this because that’s what UK HE sold them – flooding its own market with shiny buildings and cheap humanities and social sciences places to grab share so that they could collapse under the weight of this economic nonsense a couple of years later than everyone else will. 

They want teaching to be better, but they’re told it’s too complicated to measure it. They want to learn more, but they’re told it’s too hard to work out how much people learn for their £60k debt. The banners tell them to apply to University A or B on the basis of career prospects but then they’re told that to measure such things is “delusional”. They want to move away from home because to not do so burdens their parents, but when they do they spend 80% of the financial support we give them on increasingly overpriced accommodation.

Their Students’ Unions are highly respected and respectable educational charities – frequently sharp, democratic and effective advocates and service providers that represent amazing value for money. Yet in the same green paper that the Government offers HEIs the chance to exempt themselves from FOI, it argues that UK SUs need to improve their transparency and accountability, lumping them in with the same ideological war on trade unions that berates unions’ ballot support whilst ignoring government’s lack of it. 

Throughout all of this, Generation K still wants a better world. They are more likely to be involved in political action (if not formal political parties) than any generation for 50 years. Yet when they tire of being asked to play host to fascists by declining an invitation to appear on a campus, they’re denounced as dangerous. When they argue that white, middle-class kids from Surrey dressing up as a Mexican isn’t that far from blacking up as a minstrel, they’re denounced as daft. And when they then argue that terrorism might be best defeated by debate and discussion rather than draconian bans, they’re accused of hiding the new reds under their new beds.

In truth universities are neither the hotbed of radicalisation that the Islamophobes would have us dread nor the censorious, ban happy (il)liberal groupthinkworld that the barely rebadged Revolutionary Communist Party would have us believe with their Free Speech Rankings. But at least they can agree on one thing: that students that have the temerity to get together, debate and democratically agree their own standards of behaviour that they want to see in themselves and everyone else must definitely be wrong, should be corrected and above all need to be belittled. God forbid that those students, overwhelmed by debt and anxiety and fear, who bother to put their head above the parapet to lead others, make representative democracy work and make campuses less unpleasant, be allowed to do anything so galling as succeed. They can’t win. Because they mustn’t win. 

So as I enter 2016, I do feel enormously lucky. I feel lucky because for all the occasional posturing and priggishness and daft politics of the slice of the sector I work in, I work with and for a bunch of people who want campus sexual harassment stamped out; who want the “T” of “LGBT” to be accepted; who want less debt and universities to price their accommodation and courses and other costs to cause it; who want both some ‘consumer’ rights for their £9k and want a partnership with academics all at the same time; who want the right to vote, to understand PGR mental health, to save the night bus and to ban the BNP but not the Burka.

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