Big Issue Vendor

Paul McNamee: Give the kids a break

Nothing is normal. And at some point the young people we’re scowling at today have to take control

It is the time of critical moments.

As the local lockdowns grow and Westminster and the devolved administrations wrestle new restrictions into being, the idea that we stand on the precipice of catastrophe is dangled again and again.

Those critical moments blister and darken. It can be overwhelming. The shadow of the virus haunts.

Will the live music and theatre industry find a way out? Andrew Lloyd Webber warned of a point of no return last week. It’s clear that many of the freelance workers in that industry fell between the cracks of the furlough system and are struggling terribly.

What about grassroots sports? How can small clubs and organisations that rely on fundraising dinners and events to fund themselves carry on? Fixes are not straightforward.

Soon, students will head back to university. For many, this is their first year. What is normally a time of nervous excitement and a sense that the world is opening up is now a series of warnings and finger-pointing and worries.

The right answer is rarely the easiest

There is an easy debasement of younger people at present. The reason, we’re told, behind a need for new restrictive measures is because these young people are to blame. They’re hanging out, they’re having parties, they’re testing positive and then becoming super-spreading Covid death pods. And now they’re going to university and THROWING BRITAIN INTO CRISIS!

I’m astounded that so many people conveniently forget what it was to be young. We can’t, on the one hand, slate the young for being over-sensitive, over-caring, polite snowflakes, and then, within a breath blame them for behaving like it’s the last days of Rome. And I’m certain those coming up now are not as bad as some of the rest of us were. I think we should cut them a little slack.

One way would be considering the university and third-level situation. Fees of nearly £10,000 per year for some courses are still going to be levied even though some universities are switching to online and blended learning. This seems unfair. Being on campus is part of the appeal. If not, surely it’s just an expensive version of a distance-learning course, one that can be found for a fraction of that fee elsewhere.

There is an easy debasement of younger people at present

Accommodation will still have to be paid for, even if some of the courses are delivered digitally. So there will be no respite from that cost, but the experience will be lessened. And perhaps even the time needed to be spent there.

Last year universities revealed few had deep cash reserves. Many in Britain were running with massive deficits. It’s clear they need the student fees. But are the students getting a valuable education for that money?

In Scotland, where Scottish students do not pay fees, this question is not relevant.

So what is the answer? As everything within Covid, as always at these critical moments, it will require smart and brave new ways of working, combining both government and the private sector. Is it possible to waive fees for six months? Or for this entire academic year? Perhaps it’s the accommodation costs that need looked at? A holiday in the way mortgage payers were offered one at the start of lockdown.

Nothing is normal. And at some point the young people we’re scowling at today have to take control. Why burden them further? Why have them feel overwhelmed? Why not allow them some chinks of light after the blinds were pulled over their futures?

I realise this column this week is a series of unresolved questions. The right answer is rarely the easiest.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue