Stars, Stripes, and Student Unions

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(Source: Flickr, user: houseofstone)

I am lucky enough to currently be in the States, visiting an old friend for a fortnight. I am residing in his apartment (flat) in Washington, D.C., along with his three roomies (flatmates), all of whom are college (uni) students.

D.C. is a hub for students aiming to forge their career on or through Capitol Hill. Politics is what this city thrives upon, and you can only walk a couple of blocks before you are reminded of that with banners, signs in peoples’ yards (gardens) or approached by Party members. However, what has really struck me is the difference in the politics of education.

Chatting to my friend (who does not attend college, but is a budding, and already pretty successful, entrepreneurial type – good job! Awesome!) and his housemates, it seems there are vastly different cultures and expectations surrounding attaining that ever-promising, sometimes-assumptive, degree.

Here in the States, college is not something one can just decide to partake in. Americans save from birth in order to send their child to college. College can cost anything in excess of $40,000, and the living costs are barely supported by student loans. Admittedly, this is similar to British students’ financial predicaments, however, this is heightened by the upfront costs tuition fees present here. The divide between the rich and the poor cannot be healed, unless education is made more accessible. Figures show that only 34% of families who are earning less than $35,000 can afford to save any money towards sending their children to college. This is juxtaposed against over 75% of families earning over $100,000 who have a savings fund. On top of this, college costs are continuing to rise, and vary greatly dependent on the ranking of the college in question. This is foundation enough to make the claim that the cycle is not easily broken. In the UK, however, it is much easier, (though admittedly not overly common) considering the tuition fees are not required up front. There is also a multiplicity of grants and bursaries available for people from less well off, or disadvantaged backgrounds.

Moreover, there is a greater focus upon employability and prospects. Of the students I have gotten to know in D.C., they all have internships and they are ones which provide worthwhile experience and hours. There is little in the way of photocopying and making coffee. My friends here go to work in their suits, commute to Capitol Hill, and come home having reviewed existing policies and researched new ones. The government website describes being a part of an internship as an opportunity to “experience the thrill and rewards” of their programmes. This is a stark contrast against my meeting with government recruitment staff at my university’s careers fair, who told me “apply, but it’s unlikely you’ll even hear back… a lot of people apply to these roles…”. True British encouragement, saturated with the characteristic pessimism that is to be expected… but not what you want to hear from a careers advisor.

Is this student employability heightened in America by the fact that they know these kids are coming out of “well-to-do” families? There are none of these disadvantaged kids running into roles at Capitol Hill, that could be coming into work at the House of Commons internship roles, purely because of the inaccessibility of the colleges here stops the ‘scallywags’ from breaking ranks. I know House of Cards is highly dramatised, but the mention of a “dead disadvantaged kid” being in the pocket of Frank Underwood just depicts the way that the poor in America are used as political tools – not as cogs in the machine.

Yeah, I know there is the No Child Left Behind programme in place, set up by good ole’ George W. Bush; it has however been argued that after 7 years of working on it, it has failed and should have the “plug pulled” on it. Plus, the programme is an educational based one – not a financial aid. Money is what makes America what it is today; however, owing to this, there are a lot of big holes in the net for people to slip through. The rejection of anything which can be construed as “Communist”, reminiscent of the Cold War fears in USA, is where America fails to help the needy. Obamacare was a potential breakthrough, but it was strongly battled against and was never absorbed into society like , for example, the NHS is and was. However, the difference is, the NHS was formed out of an era which demanded such a plan to be put in place after the suffering of the Second World War. Obamacare was forced into a society which strongly advocates each man for himself.

So, education in America is only really an available option to those whose bank balances can stretch to it. In the Land of the Free, you’re only really as free as Capitalism allows you to be. So, whilst there are benefits to being at an American college, such as the potential to get a decent internship which could actually lead into your career, your parents have to have made the money first, and in the case of Harvard and Yale, for example, made a fair few donations too, to butter up the admissions officers. An intelligent child from the back end of nowhere really has only got community college to fall back onto. The British university system has greatly reduced this from being an issue; student loans and bursaries are available, and there is a much greater acceptance in society of taxes going towards funds such as these. Equality of opportunity is a reality; or at least a developing one, anyway.

So, is the Land of Opportunity really all it sells itself to be?

Loss of a Generation…

“Nick Clegg, we know you, you’re a fucking Tory too”

“Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put the Tories on the top… Put the Lib Dems in the middle and we’ll burn the fucking lot”

These are chants I took great pleasure in bellowing at the student protests in 2011 in London, when Clegg broke his promise to Lib Dem voters, and bent over backwards for JustCallMeDave. The tuition fees rose enormously, tripling in numbers, despite Clegg’s promise that tuition fees would instead be abolished.

However, I now feel Lib Dems are just tainted. The catch-all, cartel parties that the ‘Big Three’ are nowadays have merged into one ‘blob’ of politicians, all of whom nobody trusts anymore. The Lib Dems are tainted by Clegg’s pathetic apology, and to Cameron’s great delight, are tainted by their desperation to get to power.

Ideology is out the window. Principles are out the window. Pragmatism is all important, but gaining votes matters more. Representational functions are becoming ever less vital, and parties are forgetting their true functions.

Thus, we come to the title: the loss of a generation. The Lib Dems were really and truly on the rise. Their power was going to grow steadily, and they could have become a more vital player in Westminster. However, the domino effect of their spineless actions has created a new problem: a generation of voters who will never vote Lib Dem, or at least whilst under Clegg, again.

I know for one I will never, ever vote for Nick Clegg. Lib Dems really have shot themselves in their metaphorical foot, and until tuition fees drop back down or they fuck off, they will never regain any dignity in the eyes of this generation.

A further effect from their inability to keep a promise, is the rise of more ‘out there’ parties, such as the BNP and UKIP. Not for one minute am I likening the two parties, however, it is undeniable that a selection of their votes have been protest votes.

In the local elections recently, UKIP did outstandingly well for their size and historical standing. However, they should not have done. The ‘Kippers cannot argue that they do not play to some extent upon people’s lack of knowledge of politics and the EU. In spite of this, admittedly, a few people do understand it. 

And so – this generation moves forward. It may be moving away from a three-party dominated system. However, I just found it striking that one little mistake on the part of the Lib Dems could lead to such a change in the political sphere in the UK. Of course, UKIP would argue, it’s just people coming round to their common sense, of course! Silly me…

Is Democracy A Paradox, Or Just Too “PC” Now?

Spending the hours I have between lectures watching The Daily Politics is a regular feature in my day to day life. Call me sad, call me boring, but nothing beats a little debate whilst kickin’ back with a roast beef sandwich and some Sunbites, sitting on faux leather sofas surrounded by my lazy housemates’ takeaway cartons. Whilst participating in said relaxation, a debate which really concerned me was brought up on the telly: EU funding of parties.

The funding of political parties by the EU in itself is a question I feel should be addressed briefly. Is it morally correct for parties to get money out of the tax payers’ pocket, paying for MEPs’ many formalities and privileges such as chauffeured cars? According to a Left-wing MEP, it is only 5p, per person, per year, which adds up to around £5b set aside for the EU. however, Liberal MEP Sarah Ludford, pointed out that the EU is undemocratic enough for us ‘normals’ when it comes to voting in representatives; why should that tax be taken? Anyway, I digress.

The point I was getting towards, was that it has now been suggested that the BNP and far-right parties lose their funding from the EU, dependent on Liberals, Socialist and Green MEPs voting results on the matter. Some French Fascist parties have in the past received around 300,000 Euros of EU cash. It has been pointed out that despite these parties only being small scale in their levels of representation, history cannot be ignored. Hitler, one of the world’s greatest opportunists, jumped onto the despair Germany was experiencing in order to gain momentum and power. Many countries in the EU are currently suffering forms of despair, which places them at risk of extremist parties.

In spite of all these concern, some people are raising the valid point that since the EU is supposedly a democratic institution, to deprive these far-Right parties of their funding is likened to taking away their voices. They have the rights to voice their opinions, and to stop them doing so is undemocratic. 

Interesting.

Whilst I completely understand where these people are coming from, voicing the ever-present voice of the ‘goodie’ MEP, it cannot be ignored that actually, there are two issues with this argument.

  1. The BNP and other Right-wing extreme parties would never, ever aid any other parties in this way unless it was for some form of gain for themselves. They use opportunities such as these in order to make themselves look more ‘human’, and try to gather more support and sympathy.
  2. The most important area I want to cover: to fund these parties is to fund a break down in democracy.

I think it is time the EU stopped seeing everything as black/white/right/wrong. There can be no yes or no answer to this dilemma. Democracy itself is not paradoxical; MEPs are just too  concerned with providing the appearance of democracy. The solution is to set up a committee of some form, who decide which parties get the funding according to their aims and manifestos. Should the party be deemed to be aiming to deliver a democratic society, despite their political aims, then they should be funded. (Well, there shouldn’t be any funding but that’s for another time…). Likewise, if the party does not aim to deliver democracy, e.g. the BNP, then they should not be funded on the grounds that they are not working towards maintaining and bettering democracy within the European Union.

And before it is mentioned, it is wrong to suggest that these parties are being penalised for not agreeing with the views of the majority in the EU… UKIP are active and funded within the EU, are they not? They are actively working towards dissolving the institute altogether, so don’t use that excuse with me, you black-shirted right-wingers!!

Fearing the Unknown: The Greatest Downfall?

As a student at a highly esteemed sports university, there are a vast amount of opportunities to get involved with. There are endless societies to join, vast sporting opportunities to grab a hold of, and a tonne of committees to run for. In spite of all this, I take part in nothing extra-curricular. I am a keen fitness freak, regularly going to the gym and running. I used to play hockey for the town I live in in Kent. I used to work for my school’s newspaper. I used to run district cross-country. I was the house captain in sixth form. However, none of this attitude has reflected across to my time at university.

Some may say that it is a huge mistake on my part.  I don’t feel I fit in very easily to university life as it is, as I am not a heavy drinker, I am nonplussed by clubbing, and I don’t wander the campus in trackies and a gilet. I am very shy with new people, and I regularly say things that come out awkwardly and I know the taste of my toes all too well. However, the enthusiasm that these organisations have for gaining new faces sometimes has the opposite to it’s desired effect; for me, definitely, anyway.

The idea of socials makes me want to curl up; I can’t bear the thought of being drunk and making a fool of myself as I do with my friends I have made in halls (which took a long enough time as it is). I am far too scared I won’t be able to keep up with the copious drinking, especially since I measure in at only five foot, meaning I am quite the lightweight, by nature. The idea of trying to force my way into an already established clique terrifies me as well, but the biggest fear of all is the fear of the unknown.

I wish I could work up the guts to try out for the Athletics Club at my university, but initiations terrify me to my very core. Repeatedly, we are told that they are optional, but I know I’d never get to know people as easily as those who were ‘initiated’. I also wish I could join a society, but I just can’t face walking into a room of new people, most of whom already know each other!

Should the drinking culture at British universities ever change, the over-thinking worrier types, such as myself, will lead a much easier life. I would much more enjoy ‘going out’ if it wasn’t for the pressure to GO HARD OR GO HOME – I could maybe even enjoy the odd social here and there!

Reading back over this post, I know how it’ll sound to anyone who reads this waffle: I am an anti-social loner, who spends my days and nights alone. In fact, I think I am just terrified of making an idiot of myself, or being disliked. I am always worrying about the ‘what ifs’ instead of overlooking these, and seeing the clear benefits of putting myself out there. I am not anti-social – I am just slightly introverted, and very aware of my flaws in social situations. 

Apologies that this has completely drifted from my usual topic of political matters – I feel that this could maybe in fact be related to university politics. Student Union politics. There should be a more laid back attitude to the new start; enthusiasm is all well and good for the loudly enthusiastic. Us quieter enthusiasts just get lost a bit in the background, waiting to have everything spelt out for us so we can pull a Bentham and add up our pro’s and con’s. Either that, or I should just go ahead, and stop being a wussy…