Magazine

Are students about to find their voice over fees?

Students protesting over fees
Image caption Will today's students - as consumers demanding value-for-money - take to the streets as previous generations have done?

The natural rebelliousness of youth may soon manifest itself in student protest, says Sarah Dunant in her A Point of View column.

I'm not sure how many of the thousands of new students who began lectures at university this week will have their dials tuned to my Radio 4 broadcast (if indeed, after freshers' week, they have the hand-eye coordination to find the radio at all).

But given the numbers, I would bet some parents certainly will; people who, like me, have come through the choppy waters of "the last family summer" and are now experiencing the empty nest with a mixture of pain and euphoria.

With the possible exception of defusing landmines, parenting is surely one of the most nerve-wracking jobs one can do in life, since the crisis you've just weathered is never adequate preparation for the one you don't know you're about to hit.

Thus, having survived supermarket tantrums, an age of teenage grunting, and the endless neuroses of exams, you - like me - may still have been taken aback by the emergence of what can only be described as the 18-year-old caged Rottweiler, gnawing at the bars of home and taking lumps of flesh out of whoever tries to come too near them.

It's nobody's fault. Be they fresh out of school or grudgingly back home after the dramas of a gap year, they have all been stir crazy to get out and start real living. In this respect, 18 is probably the most difficult age of all. Because while they are now technically adults, in reality they (as we did before them) still have an awful lot of growing up to do.

In the past, of course, children took on the overt mantle of adulthood much younger: Boys through work, or war; girls through work, or marriage and children. In societies that valued education - at least for the rich, say the heyday of the renaissance - schooling took place earlier. By their mid-teens even girls with an education were ready for marriage, while boys were at university; come 19 or 20 they were out in the world.

While young blood could and did make history, in many of those societies boys were still seen as too immature to take on the full responsibilities of citizenship until well into their 20s. In Venice, for instance, boys born into the oligarchic web of ruling families were not allowed a vote until they were 25.

There was even a change of uniform to mark the rite of passage.

Spend any time looking at Venetian paintings of the period and you'll notice flocks of cocky young men strutting their stuff in brightly coloured hose (each leg a different colour). Come their 25th birthday and this peacock fashion would be swapped for the sober black robes of the Venetian senator. It was time to stop playing and become players, even if that meant only deciding which faction to sell your vote to.

Across the Italian peninsula, Florence pitched the bar even higher. Most wealthy male Florentines were not deemed ready for marriage till their late 20s or early 30s. When they did tie the knot it would be with women 10 or 15 years their junior, sequestered in convents or family homes to secure their virginity. Needless to say such purity was not demanded of the boys. The very opposite in fact.

Hot-blooded

The result? Some 20 years of testosterone on the streets. Sex 'n' drugs and rock 'n' roll may have been coined by the baby-boomers but knocking back the booze and getting your rocks off has been a time honoured rite of passage for all young men with time and money. History, however you clothe it, is often just biology in action.

Take the streets of Verona. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, like many of his plays, originates from a much earlier Italian source, but many elements remain constant. The first folio doesn't give actual ages for the protagonists but most of the young men gripped by the tribal violence of family would have been in their late teens or 20s: Rash, bellicose, hot-blooded, with time and no responsibilities, theirs was a license to cause trouble.

Image caption Romeo and Juliet: Not so different from today's young adults

Juliet, younger - though in some ways emotionally more mature - is still highly volatile. A stroppy teenager in other words. Though, interestingly, there is no word for teenager at this point in history, they did have a term for the trouble it caused in girls.

"Out, you green-sickness carrion! Out, you baggage! You tallow-face," yells her father when she defies him over her marriage to Paris. Greensickness was a recognised malady; a disease to explain the arrival of rebellion in what up until then had been sweet, subservient little girls. The cure? Either lock 'em up and beat and starve it out of them or marry them off and tap the rising sap of sexuality that way. They would recover soon enough.

By 18, while the young men were still out playing, those same young women would have had one, two, even three children, if they hadn't died in childbirth along the way.

So, thank heavens in all manner of ways for western modernity, not least in the equality of life and education.

Decades of debt

Nevertheless, as I kissed goodbye to my 18-year-old daughter (and though she hugged me tight it was clear to both of us that she couldn't wait to get away), I did find myself wondering how the next three years were actually going to help her grow up. How far they were going to feed or frustrate her. It is a worry that has nothing to do with her gender.

Since history is, at root, simply a long-term accumulation of change, we are of course living through it all the time. And the recent changes in higher education, alongside the drastic cuts that are about to come, mean that university is going to be a very different experience for my daughter and her peers.

First there is money. After years of tuition fees, students now hitting a post-crisis job market are shouldering a debt that many of them will take decades to shift. While the idea of fees was always going to be a shock for a country where higher education had been free, when the economy was booming and the dominant culture was "buy on credit, pay back with crippling interest sometime, but never now", saddling students with debt in some way just got them onto the ladder earlier. Owing money was almost a badge of modern citizenship.

If anything good has come out of this economic debacle, it's surely that our belief that debt is a way of life has been severely challenged, so that we now see it for what it is - selling a future in order to buy a present. Not only do current students face long and very uncertain futures but their present does not look too rosy either. With universities about to be hit by what many predict will be an unprecedented 25% of cuts, no-one - certainly not those imposing them - has a clue what the impact will be.

Add that to the Browne enquiry, which is expected to recommend that tuition fees be allowed to rise to up to £10,000 a year and higher education is beginning to look more like a liability than a privilege.

Stroppy

How students will react to all of this is yet to be seen. Maybe they'll be docile, put their heads down and accept it. But maybe not. After all, if there is one thing that the introduction of fees has done, it is to redefine higher education as a commodity rather than a right. In the language of the Thatcher revolution, students have become customers. And these days when they don't get value for money, customers - rather like teenagers - can get quite stroppy.

How ironic, then, it would be if this first generation of "academic consumers" really did sink their teeth into the hand that was no longer properly feeding them.

The last noticeable period of student unrest was in the 60s when only 13% of young people went into higher education. Now, with getting on for half of 18 to 22-year-olds at university, it could be a seismic political moment. Ironic also because today's politicians have spent so much time hand-wringing over the political apathy of youth. But this may be the moment when that changes.

If when the going gets tough, the tough can no longer go shopping, maybe they'll get out on the streets instead. While we will no doubt worry about what they will not be learning in class, maybe something else will be learned about life: That some things are worth fighting for. And the quality of higher education and its rightful place in a modern democracy is surely one of them.

All this, of course, is still in the future. For now, those of us with empty nests must swallow our tears and celebrate getting the bathroom back, or walking into a kitchen which doesn't resemble the aftermath of a three-day rock festival.

In fact, maybe this whole vision of student protest is simply my own perverse form of wish-fulfilment. Because if they're not occupying the provost lodge, or wherever the centre of power is these days, it's less than three months until they come home again for Christmas.