As President of a Students’ Union, I spend my time working for current students on big issues like welfare support, academic facilities, and the cost of living. Yet, as I come to the end of my time in Bangor I feel it’s time to write some angry words about life outside studentopia. This is partly inspired by stories in the news about the state of the housing market in this country, partly by my impending need to find accommodation in the near future, and partly by a documentary currently on BBC iPlayer (as of 5/5/14). There are many angles not covered in this article – the rise of the far right, the waning enthusiasm amongst governments to seriously address issues of climate change and renewable energies, the lack of gender equality, the hideous nature of many media publications… the list could go on and on, but I think there’s enough anger here for now.
So lets start out with a simple principle. In this article I’m not overly fussed by how the system currently works. I fully understand the principle of supply and demand, and I fully understand that we live in a capitalist society. So this is more of a theoretical discussion, looking at what should be, rather than what is.
I’d like to start off with some words from a current PHD student in Bangor:
“The whole idea behind me investing in my education, undertaking an undergraduate degree, then a masters degree, then eventually a PhD, was to ensure that I was qualified enough to enter the work place proficiently. This was also to ensure that I could be financially stable enough to support myself without asking for my parents’ support. However, to find out that, according to the BBC interactive calculator of affordable housing, I cannot afford to rent anywhere in the UK, was a huge shock. It makes a mockery of the hard work and time that I have invested in my future. I am currently house sharing in order to keep rent down, but eventually I would like a place of my own after I enter a career in scientific research. Apparently, this may not even happen in this current situation. To not even be able to afford to live is not what how imagined my future life after education. It would be great to see the government investing in young people to become financially self-sufficient and enabling them to afford their own housing.”
The BBC calculator referred to is http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-23234033. Just to make it absolutely clear – the PHD student above could not find a single location in the UK where they would be able to buy or rent a property based on their current financial position.
I’d like to pause on that fact. After 7 years in education, and receiving a doctorate, there is nowhere in the UK where the property market would support someone who wants to make a positive contribution to society. I’m going to bust out a word I’ll use a few times in this article – fairness. How can this be fair? Why do we have a housing market based not on need but on desire, based not on equality but on inequality?
When I run my own personal circumstances through the calculator (which combines two people living together) I can afford to live everywhere except Aberdeen and the whole of the South East. London, it seems, is immune to the austerity politics of our current government and immune to the financial crisis it created. Whilst house prices around the country (I hesitate to use “the North” as essentially it is anywhere outside of London) stagnate the capital manages to surge ahead. Evan Davies, the BBC’s resident economist, recently hosted an interesting program on the rise of London entitled “Mind the Gap”, where various highly successful economic developments in the capital were contrasted with those in the rest of the country. Cities will always be a feature of life, but the program highlighted a thought which has been growing in the back of my mind – London could easily declare independence and continue to live in its own self-serving bubble. When we look at all the discussions about economic recovery in this country they are often based on our successful industries, chief amongst these being the financial services we provide in the square mile. How ironic that success is defined this way, and how unfair for everyone else.
This dichotomous view of the UK is directly related to the rising inequality we are witnessing in society. Those with money accumulate more, those without do not. Yes, some people are socially mobile, but for the vast majority of us it is where we are born and who we are born to which will influence where we end up in life. Look at the dominance of public school boys and millionaires in our cabinet (both of which currently outnumber the number of women in cabinet). Look at the number of state schools students entering Russell group universities. Look at directors of FTSE 100 companies. Many people argue that we live in a meritocracy and that many societal barriers have been broken down – so why is this not reflected in the figures?
Now, if this doesn’t get you a little bit agitated check out http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b040rm8y/Under_Offer_Estate_Agents_on_the_Job_Episode_1/ to watch a program on estate agents. Look at the number of home repossessions in the North compared to the booming business in £1million+ properties in London. Look at one Estate Agent casually making £500k off selling a single property whilst other areas discuss the number of people being made unemployed. In what world does one of these people deserve 20 times the annual salary of another for one piece of work? Sometimes the irony is so painful that I wonder whether the editors even notice it – in one scene an estate agent complains of the affordability of the housing market whilst selling a property for a vastly exaggerated price because that is what the market “demands”. Lets get this straight – the market should be fair and should work for us, as ordinary people, and not the other way around.
I was one of many who saw the “anonymous movement” as being more extreme than my political views. The notion of the 1% is ridiculous, I said. The notion that Government exists just to reinforce the privilege of its own kind struck me as being overly negative. I like happiness, and I like seeing the best of people. I’m still not willing to sacrifice my optimism on the alter of politics, but I am increasingly driven to despair about the way our society is constructed. I am getting angry – and you should be too. I’m not yet in a place where civil disobedience is an option for me, but I am also unsure about whether democracy has the power to solve the problems our society faces.
And then… Lets not forget the rest of the world. We live in a country with the minimum wage. Clean running tap water is, for the vast majority of us, taken for granted. The NHS – such a wonderful thing – provides free healthcare. How selfish are we to take this for granted? We are not just citizens of the UK, we are citizens of the World. It has been said that “We have to keep in mind the wide gap between poor and rich countries […] is the moral horror story of our time.” These are not just words on a page – they illustrate the single greatest issue facing society worldwide, and our inability to debate this matter with fairness highlights the failing of our current capitalist system.
As President I have always said that young people are not just the future; we are the present as well, and have a role to play in shaping what we want the world to be. Like most people, I have hopes and dreams, for my own life, and for humankind…
Ultimately: I don’t know what the future holds, but I know I’m scared – for myself, for the students I represent, and for society as a whole.