The revolt of aspirations

The recent protests by school and university students (November/December 2010) about the Coalition government’s proposals to raise university tuition fees in England from 2012 and abolish the Education Maintenance Allowance for sixth form students demonstrate the extent to which many young people’s aspirations have been raised to the point where they expect to undertake higher education, but also the limits of realizing those aspirations in a time of austerity.  

I would suggest there were two main groups of students who were enraged enough to participate in those protests 1) those from middle class families on modest incomes (‘the squeezed middle’, to use Ed Milliband’s favourite phrase) who have come to take a university education for granted, but whose parents may now have to make hard decisions about which of their children to educated to university-level; and 2) working class students (especially those from aspirational BME families) who have been consistently told that a university degree is their only viable route to social mobility and a comfortable life.  Both groups have had their aspirations (and expectations) viz-a-viz higher education ‘raised’ over the last decade.

Of course, for all of New Labour’s talk of ‘raising’ people’s aspirations, as Mike Raco (2009) has articulated, the aim of the political discourse of ‘aspirations’ was meant to lower people’s expectations of what the state could and should provide for them.  This neoliberal reconfiguration of welfare provision (and the consequent shift in the terms of debates around ‘social justice’ to promote individual rather than social responsibility for change) underpinned many aspects of education and youth policy under the New Labour governments.  However, I would suggest that the student protests reveal just how persistent people’s expectations of the welfare state have been (even as they have taken on board much of the individualised aspirational message promoted to them). It also exposes the contradiction that so many families have been reliant on state support in order to enable them to engage in this individualised culture of aspiration.

I’ll be posting further reflections on recent policy changes, the impact of higher tuition fees and student protests in the weeks to come.

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