Category Archives: student protest

Request for information: aspirations and student protests

I am working on a short intervention piece for  ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies  about the successes and failures of recent initiatives to widen participation in higher education, including work on ‘raising’ young people’s aspirations, in relation to the student protests of late last year against the three-fold increase in tuition fees.

I would be interested to hear from any readers who can point me in the direction of examples of student protestors actually talking about their aspirations (for life, for higher education etc) in relation to the protests.  I’ve found some examples from media coverage, but would welcome new leads.

Please leave a comment if you know of anything relevant.

Advertisements

Aspirations and social hope

There is an interesting article by Nic Beuret in Issue Minus 1 of The Paper .  In this piece, “Hope Against Hope: a necessary betrayal“, Beuret makes a number of very poignant observations about how ‘aspiration’ functions as the dominant form of social hope in neoliberal economies.

“There are competing versions of hope in a given society, but there is also a hegemonic form to hope. For us, living in a becoming- neoliberal world, that hegemonic form is aspiration. Not aspiration in the sense to aspire to greatness in some heroic Greek sense, or something romantic and colourful. No, for us aspiration has a particular hue and tint – it means social mobility. It means a better job, more money, more things and a higher rung on the career ladder. Hope is individual in our world, never collective – the hope of entrepreneurs dreaming of making it big. Not just climbing the ladder but also winning out over all others. We hope for social mobility. … Hope, the dominant form of hope, is to do better than your parents.”

I agree.  As I have argued in my recent writing, over the course of New Labour’s period in government, the central aim of widening participation policy shifted from a focus on promoting social equity to a more explicit attempt to discipline the hopes young people developed for their adult lives.  The aim of ‘raising’ young people’s aspirations was to instill in them a desire for social mobility and the drive to take personal responsibility for achieving this.  In the process, all other hopes for the future came to be dismissed as inappropriate – as ‘low aspirations’.

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.