Skip to Content

Coffee House

Young people check their privilege – and feel deeply disappointed

7 July 2017

10:28 AM

7 July 2017

10:28 AM

Who would want be a member of Generation Z? Having your every youthful screw-up tracked and recorded on social media, facing the robot job apocalypse and without a lolly’s chance in hell of ever owning a home in London – even if medical advancements allow them to work until they’re 200. To top things off, they’re saddled with years of student debt after their three years learning about Whiteness and Privilege at university. As the Guardian puts it:

Students from the poorest 40% of families entering university in England for the first time this September will emerge with an average debt of around £57,000, according to a new analysis by a leading economic thinktank.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies said the abolition of the last maintenance grants in 2015 had disproportionately affected the poorest, while students from the richest 30% of households would run up lower average borrowings of £43,000.

Well, it’s not so clear cut, as Martin Lewis explains:

The real problem is the cost of housing, which puts a huge strain on people’s income throughout their 20s and 30s and without which student debt would be manageable.

Labour want to scrap tuition fees although, along with quite a few popular policies these days, this would largely benefit the middle class. The Manchester university academic Rob Ford has written about this, and why the policy would not be egalitarian.

Opponents of fees typically argue that universities are a means to provide youngsters of all backgrounds with an excellent education. Universities are the providers of higher education which is every citizen’s right, and which society as a whole benefits from and has a duty to fund.

But just as grammar schools were never engines of meritocracy, so British universities are not and have never been institutions engines of educational equality.

University intakes have risen hugely over time, but there is one constant: inequality in access and uptake. Higher shares of the wealthy, the middle class, those whose parents went to university and so on achieve the grades needed to go, and higher shares of these groups actually go.

The universities themselves have a steep status hierarchy, and the more privileged the institution is, the more privileged its intake of students tends to be. Again, there is plenty of evidence and research to support these points. And again they are logical — wealthier and more middle class families provide all sorts of resources that encourage children into university, while one of the main points of private schools is to buy access to elite universities via lavish spending per pupil.

Universities are therefore not, in reality, egalitarian or democratising institutions on the whole. While they are theoretically open to all (as grammars were), they recruit disproportionately from the advantaged, because the advantaged get the better grades and are more likely to apply. Therefore now — as ever — they provide the privileged with a powerful resource to reinforce their advantages, at state expense. Again, the evidence on these points doesn’t seem to have much effect on proponents of fee abolition.

(It should also be pointed out that school leavers from more privileged backgrounds have, on average, higher IQs, and that the longer we have social mobility the larger this gap will become – but that’s another issue.)

In fact there is the argument that universities are regressive because they are a very costly signal, a case made by the American economist Bryan Caplan; it’s one of many reasons that we should reconsider the expansion of university places.

It’s partly because universities are so elitist that they have, paradoxically, become more radically left-wing and more intolerant of heretical views. In the US, for example, the more expensive a college, and the richer the students’ parents, the more likely they are to block a speaker.

Witness the author Charles Murray’s recent ordeal at the hands of students from the unbelievably privileged Middleberry College, spoilt bastards who in any sort of just world would have been shipped off to Aden for two years of unforgiving military service, or maybe sent to work in Roman salt mines.

Political correctness is fashionable, a positional good, and it is understandable that high-status people should therefore compete to become more politically correct than rivals. This is one  possible explanation for the US campus ‘safe spaces’ movement, which is a well-trodden path among commentators, and unfortunately comes with the same problem that Political Correctness did in the late 80s and 90s; the people who endlessly complain about it become almost as tiresome as the people doing it. Moaning about ‘SJWs’ is the 21st century equivalent to those old Mail headlines about PC Gone Mad.

But it’s hard to watch things like the Evergreen controversy without concluding that competitive university politics is creating a form of religious madness, like the dancing plagues that struck Europe in the late medieval period. These usually took place during times of great social stress, and also involved disproportionate numbers of unmarried women.

Likewise with the safe space movement, which tends to be female (just as its mirror image, the Alt-Right, is male) and is possibly aggravated by the gender imbalance in higher education, especially the humanities; one other result of which is that, unhappily, there aren’t enough marriageable men. (Many males are also dropping out of the mating game and devoting themselves to World of Warcraft or following Milo or whatever weird activities young people get up to these days.)

University is leaving large numbers of people saddled with debts, less happy, less open-minded, less likely to find a mate or to have children. Perhaps worst of all it has created an army of angry, middle-class graduates with no real purpose, and who are turning against the very system that sustains them. Jeremy Corbyn is currently 45 per cent in the polls, and won 49 per cent of people with university education in the election, a 17 point lead over the Tories – and that’s for all ages. Among older people, for whom university-attendance was limited, the political-cultural gap between graduates and non-graduates is small, which suggests that it’s is not just a function of being highly-educated that moves people to the left, but rather that in the past two or three decades merely attending university is associated with becoming more left-wing.

This might not be a problem, except many leave to find that those elite jobs they assumed were theirs do not exist. According to Theodore Dalrymple at any rate, the expansion of university places in Guatemala actually led to that country’s civil war. I doubt we’ll get that far, but Tom Butler-Bowdon‘s account on Joseph Schumpeter in his recent book rings true:

‘Surprisingly, it is the workers who articulate a hatred for capitalism, as Marx hoped, but the middle-class intellectuals who come to consider it morally noxious. This is partly an effect of the universalization of education, which produces far too many educated people for the amount of challenging mental work to be done. Failing to see their potential realized, they turn against the system.’

The real worry is that, for all that the word is wildly overused, it comes down to a sense of privilege, a feeling that can become extremely dangerous when coupled with disappointment.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments