It’s not fair!

As the mother of a six-year-old, the phrase “it’s not fair” is bandied about with an alarming amount of alacrity in our household. It is usually translated to mean “I’m not getting my own way and I’m going to have a little tantrum about it”. A recent example included when we decided to have a rare take-away when someone was asleep, little ears overheard and declared “that’s not fair, you’re having a treat and I’m not”!

The OED defines fair as: treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination, or, just and appropriate in the circumstances.

So on the one hand, Isabella had a point, in that she didn’t feel that she was being included in said treat, (I think I need to point out here that she cannot be cajoled into even trying Chinese food) but using the second definition it was entirely fair given the circumstances – she’d had the last lamb chop, lack of food in the cupboards, tired parents who wanted a Saturday night to themselves with a take-away and film. Hardly the last word in decadence, albeit a pleasant evening. We also had to point out that she is hardly deprived when it comes to regular treats!

I heard echoes of this in one of David Cameron’s retorts during PMQ yesterday. In response to a question about Housing Benefit, he stated that one of the reasons that he wouldn’t back down was because it’s not fair that people who work pay for people on benefits who live in a house that they could never afford. Now, I’m not going to debate the Housing Benefit issue, but this left me feeling rather uncomfortable. I think probably, because the perception of the typical benefit “cheat or scrounger” portrayed in various sections of the media is very far removed from those people who I have encountered on benefits.

Whilst I don’t deny that such people do exist, I think the tendency to treat all benefit recipients as potential cheats or scroungers is most unfair, thereby discriminating against those without a job as being automatically work-shy. I also appreciate that any government has to achieve a difficult balance of ensuring that in general principles it is more advantageous that people do work.

It’s simply this subscribing to the basest aspects of human nature, namely jealousy and envy that makes me baulk. What people seem to be objecting to is the perception that others have more than them and an easier lifestyle. Numerous amounts of research has shown that we as humans are happiest or most content when it seems that we are doing better than our neighbours. It doesn’t matter what we have, just so long as it is more than the man next door. Perhaps this is why we are commanded not to covet thy neighbour’s ass, or to love thy neighbour as thyself? It is only by releasing ourselves from the constrictions of the acquisition of material goods that we can become spiritually free and able to love. True love, as Corinthians reminds us, is not jealous, envious or spiteful. Therefore a policy that is based upon these principles of envy is far from the Christian ideals, which many Conservatives may claim they espouse.

Besides, I am not convinced that the perception of those in receipt of benefits living a cushy and prosperous life is an accurate one. From what I have witnessed, recipients are hardly living in the lap of luxury, very often they are on minimum wage or temporary work, and every penny counts. If people are living in bigger houses than others, it is because of need, perhaps because of the amounts of children they have. Which is then another bone of contention. People see children as a “lifestyle choice”, another accessory, in the same way as a family car or the decision to have a certain number of holidays abroad. Couples who decide to have a certain amount of children in order that they maintain a certain standard of living, resent those who appear to have numerous children, for whom they perceive the state is paying.

The more children one has, the more difficult life is, financially, practically, emotionally and physically. Raising children is a supreme act of self-sacrifice. Given the rising number of elderly in our society and the declining birth-rate, instead of resenting those families who have multiple children, why not reward them, instead of treating them as social pariahs and outcasts? Why assume that those with several children are automatically scrounging undesirables?

This is for me, the main problem – treating those without work, for whatever reason, as morally deficient. There might be a multitude of reasons why people are without work, it doesn’t automatically follow that they are necessarily scroungers or attempting to fiddle the system, expecting the state to pick up the costs. I am sure examples can be found, but I am sure for every example, there are double the amount of genuine claimants. Discriminating against people because of their circumstances and based on a false perception derived from jealousy is unfair and also un-Christian. Discriminating against children because of the way you perceive their parents is doubly unfair and unjust. Making families live in unsuitable accommodation because it makes those who are in work feel better, is unfair. What about one of the public sector workers soon to lose their jobs? What does the government have to say to them: “Not only are we going to deprive you of your job, but we are also going to make sure that you don’t live anywhere nicer, or have anything nicer than someone who has a job, because you haven’t done the right thing and worked. We will make sure that you’re not living in a cardboard box, but god forbid you upset all those nice decent people who are still in work.”

Here’s a suggestion which is fair and doesn’t treat people without discrimination. Why not levy an extra £2,000 – £3,000 on the tax bills of those who have received a free university education? Add a bit more if they went to Oxbridge. Furthermore go after Philip Green who last year paid his wife a staggering £1.2 billion dividend in order to avoid a £285 million tax bill.

Allocating resources according to need. Now that is “just, fair and appropriate in the circumstances”. Not using the same mental reasoning as a six-year-old.


Coming over all left wing

A couple of events have happened which have made me wonder if perhaps I am coming over all left-wing. Perhaps it’s the pregnancy hormones? I am not a tribal Labour voter.

Firstly,this proposed hike in tuition fees. According to reports leaked this weekend, Lord Browne’s report into the funding of Universities, is likely to recommend that the upper limit on tuition fees is scrapped, meaning that most universities are likely to double their fees to £7,000 per annum with the top universities charging even more, thereby creating a market in University education.

I cannot begin to express quite how apoplectic this makes me. This is not simply because it is likely that I will be directly affected, as the University I attend is in the 94 Group of Universities. Nor is it simple jealousy that those who directly benefited from  subsidised state Higher Education are raising the barriers to entry, imposing huge amounts of debts on graduates, they themselves never had to face. That admittedly grates a little, but clearly university funding is an issue, the money needs to be found from somewhere and it is in my opinion, only fair that students should contribute to the cost of their education, given that they will be set to benefit financially from it.

As a current student I feel deeply fortunate not only to be studying a subject that I have a passion for, but also to be studying at an excellent university with a high standard of teaching and resources. I feel very privileged and do not object to having to contribute in some way. There is no point harking back to the days when Higher Education was free at the point of delivery, the system has radically altered beyond all recognition, the numbers of those going to university has doubled and thus this needs to be paid for. I do believe that there is a side issue here in that many of the degrees on offer at some of the institutions, combinations as bizarre as “Popular Music and Eygptology” to name just one, are of questionable value in today’s competitive workforce. Indeed one of our lecturers said to us only last week, “you students have it tougher than any other previous generation. Not only are you coming out loaded with debt, but whereas when we studied it was expected to be a three year break between the world of school and the world of work, almost a “holiday”, you are expected to be gaining skills that are going to effectively prepare you for the world of work, make you competitive, whereas we only needed to worry about our academic work, as opposed to gaining a rounded CV with relevant experience.”

I have gone back into Higher Education because I want to teach and despite my excellent A Levels and extensive experience, I am not deemed intelligent or knowledgeable enough to embark straight on a teacher-training course. I need a specialised degree first. A BEd was not on offer at my local university, and I figured that if I was going to have to commit the next three years of my life to study, then I might as well do it in a subject which I enjoyed and one which might prove flexible. The amount of debt I will leave with is more than a little daunting; I will probably earn less as a teacher than I did in my previous professional life, however teaching is not traditionally a career that one enters into for purely financial gain. This is something I feel very strongly about. How on earth is teaching going to attract high calibre graduates who have been to the top universities, if the cap on tuition fees is removed and a trainee teacher is embarking upon a career with at least £21 K in debt?

Furthermore, this hike in tuition fees is going to create a two tier university system whereby the poorest students will be deterred both from going to university and also from going to the top institutions. This is already a problem. Although many people vehemently disagree with some of the measures implemented by the top universities, actually, giving those students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds redresses the imbalances inherent in our flawed education system. Of course a privately educated pupil is going to do infinitely better than a pupil of the same academic ability, who does not have the same advantages. Of course someone who goes to, for example, Brighton College, is going to achieve fantastic results, given the amount of resources and opportunities that going to that school affords them, not to mention the fact that presumably they have middle class, high achieving parents who actively take an interest in their child’s education. Whereas someone who goes to a failing comprehensive is simply not going to have the same resources or opportunities and will have to work harder, overcome far more obstacles than his privately educated peer. This is why universities have been attempting to put some more fairness back into the system and grant places to those who perhaps have achieved lower grades than the standard 6As these days, recognising that the candidate’s grades are not reflective of ability or potential. Such social engineering has attracted much controversy, particularly from those who feel that their privately educated children are being penalised, however these pupils are still likely to have successful outcomes in life, even if they have not attained the heights of Oxbridge.

We have no social mobility in this country, none. This is something I feel passionately about. It is getting harder and harder for those from disadvantaged backgrounds to escape the poverty trap. We have an education system predominantly based on cash, either in terms of private school fees or whether or not parents may afford to move into a better catchment area, and if a parent is lucky, there may be a decent faith school. That is not to run down all state schools, far from it, but they face many more challenges than the private sector, particularly schools located in run-down inner city areas. Therefore for many, university may be their only chance to achieve some sort of social mobility, to be able to qualify for teaching or nursing or a job in the financial sector or whatever, and yet most will be deterred by significant tuition fees and the prospect of huge debts hanging over their heads for years to come.

The top universities who charge unlimited fees will only attract those who are able to afford it by means of their parents. As for mature students, those who for whatever reason went straight into vocational work and now wish to advance their career; their options will also be limited as will those wishing to study for further degrees such as Masters or Doctorates, which in the long-term will not do much to advance the cause of research and academia in this country. I was one of the lucky ones in terms of opportunity. I didn’t go to university for various reasons when I was eighteen, something I have bitterly regretted ever since. Oxford University’s Continuing Education Department runs Foundation Courses in various subjects, specifically aimed at mature students wishing to enter Higher Education. You do the first year of an Oxford undergraduate degree split part-time over two years, then advance straight into the second year, providing you pass with good enough results, of a full-time degree. Entry to the course is purely on ability, one has to submit an essay and attend an interview, where, in my case, literary interests were discussed as well as a piece of unseen prose. I worked extremely hard, fitting this in around 2 part-time jobs, juggling a newborn baby and commuting to Oxford once a week. I attended the bare minimum of lectures simply to get me through and was offered a full-time place starting in the second year. It was unfeasible to accept, my family commitments are on the South Coast, but the financial aspects didn’t come into play, my local university costing exactly the same in terms of fees. Faced with fees of up to £15K a year, then this would have been totally out of the question, not only for me, but for all the other mature students who were on the same course, many of whom were weighing up the prospect of whether or not they would be able to afford, not only to stop working, but also whether or not it would be fair on their families to take on such a huge amount of debt.

I digress, but the lifting of the cap on fees is sheer madness and creates yet more inequality of opportunity, which is something that I passionately believe in. I don’t believe that every child should be forced to follow exactly the same prescriptive curriculum, I believe that there should be diversity, with the caveat that basic skills such as Maths and English are learnt, but it seems to me grossly unfair that one child should have the opportunity of learning Latin or Greek, or modern languages, or get a good grounding in Bible stories (vital for English Lit) and yet another should be denied an identical opportunity.

And this comes from one who is fortunate enough to have a daughter attend a private school. My other children won’t have the same opportunity, but that does not mean that I should deny it to her. Plus all my children are lucky in that they have interested, educated, intelligent and informed parents. Our house is overflowing with books, we don’t have enough bookcases. I play the piano and violin, Robin sings and they are surrounded by music and laughter. Regardless of where they go to University they’ll be fine, although I doubt we’ll be able to subsidise them through a top one.

It just seems to me, that a graduate tax or a means tested system would be the fairer by far. To charge unlimited fees keeps the highest academic achievement as being solely the preserve of the rich and privileged and denies the opportunity to thousands of others. It is those who have reached the top, kicking the ladder away for the others, or maybe that’s the point?

My other issue, children as being a “lifestyle choice”. Benefits being capped according to the number of children one has. People who object to benefits being given according to need. But that’s for another day. In the meantime, keep the red flag flying comrades.