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The great 'Age of Austerity' hypocrisy

8th December 2010

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This coalition government came together, so they say, in the national interest; to tackle the deficit they inherited from the previous government.

They have propagated a line on the deficit and public debt which roughly equates to 1) We need to cut the deficit quickly to reassure the markets, and 2) We need to cut the debt as it wouldn't be fair to land that responsibility onto the next generation. But, isn't that exactly what they are doing?

Yes the markets may be reassured, but in order to cut the deficit now we are going to be pushing debt directly onto the next generation. This is potentially dangerous. Household debt in the UK is currently £1,452bn, over £200bn more than our national GDP.

The financial crisis was as much to do with personal debt as it was to do with greedy bankers. It may be reassuring to see ourselves as the victims and the bankers the scurrilous enemies in their tower blocks in the City, betting, hedging and gambling away our money. But, of course, we wanted all the luxuries of the age. We wanted the flat screen televisions, the nice holidays and most importantly, those with houses wanted, and thoroughly expected, the value of property to rise. All of this is fine if you have the means to afford such goods, and if you don't really care that you may be forcing an entire generation out of the property market for the foreseeable future. But for those who didn't have the means to buy the latest games console, or blu-ray player or exuberantly valued property there was a handy solution; credit.

Credit was easily available and for people who expected, and where expected, to keep up with the metaphorical Jones' it was the only solution. Of course, if people remain relatively poor, yet are expected to purchase the latest high-street goods, in order to keep the growth figures high, it can only end in disaster; when people realise they cannot afford to pay back the money. This eventually manifested itself in USA with the subprime mortgage crisis in 2007, which had spread through the banking sector. This is not say I do not find any culpability on the bankers side, they were all to happy to go along with such a high-risk, yet unsustainable model of growth and profit. They should have seen the signs, yet were seduced by short-term gain and profligacy.

Initially the Conservatives seemed willing to tell people they had to borrow less money. And now in government, whilst still lecturing us on the evils of debt they seem more concerned with the national debt and have been far less vocal recently on household debt. Perhaps it is too much for a government to tell us to spend less? And certainly in such economic times as we now find ourselves, when the economy needs a shot in the arm deliverable only from personal consumption of goods and services, it may seem counter-productive to speak of austerity.

The country should be run like any housewife would run the family budget remarked Thatcher, and so say Thatcher's children. Only, that no longer appears to be the case. Because, when it comes to higher education, the debt obsessed, 'live within your means' crusaders would have us believe that dumping a huge chunk of debt, which, contrary to what many commentators say, could, with political courage and will, be paid for from the national purse, upon the heads of, not just a generation now in the job market, but a generation who has yet to even consider university is 'progressive'.

Clegg et al would respond, 'but why should a 50 year old tax payer working on the tills at Tesco have to pay for your education?'. I find this argument now rather cliched, repetitive and tiresome. It is the coalition government's own policy to raise the personal allowance to £10,000 over the life of this parliament, thereby allowing the poorest in society to keep more of what they earn, a policy I wholeheartedly support. Therefore I would not expect low paid workers to subsidise my education. But we must address the issue of those who benefit the most from the rather large pool of graduates the UK's universities churn out into the job market annually. Is it the graduates, who face an ever more competitive market, who benefit most? Or, is it the businesses that employs graduates, who have made no or little contribution towards the education of the individuals they scoop up from Russell Group and Red Brick's alike and mould into model professionals. I do not see it as an unfair proposition to ask big business to contribute more to the funding of it most valuable asset; its employees.

I must be fair to the government, and I am willing to concede that, compared to some of the other options mooted post-Browne their proposal does seem rather preferable. Nobody pays a thing upfront, nobody pays a penny until they earn at least £21,000. There will also be suitable provisions for providing one, maybe even two, years free tuition for the poorest students. But it does seem to me rather like saying capital punishment should be administered by lethal injection rather than hanging, after all, it is more 'humane'. It's the principle I take umbrage with.

There is also the rather muddied issue of the 80% cut to the higher education teaching budget - the real reason for the tripling of tuition fees. While most of the nations media thinks students are marching only against the rise in fees they appear to overlook the effective privatisation of the majority of the higher education sector. Many degree courses, ones which are not seen as economically proficient or of national value i.e. almost all bar nurses, doctors, teachers, engineers and scientists will be funded almost exclusively from student contributions. Perhaps overlooking the idea that someone who graduates with a degree in media studies, the bane of Daily Mail-esque commentators, could go on to become a social worker; a noble employment we all to willingly undervalue.

We now live, not just in the age of austerity, but also the age of hypocrisy. For, how can we take seriously a government which lectures us on the sin of national debt, of bad book keeping and the thrill of thriftiness, those who proclaim, no less, to be saving future generations from debt by personally indebting them?

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