Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

How our divisions condemn our young to penury

David Cameron
David Cameron

Imagine a government deciding people of pensionable age in some countries of the UK were to be charged up to £50,000 for three years' use of the NHS, while elsewhere it was to remain free.

Absurd, right? No sane politician would suggest such a thing. There'd be marches in the street, the Daily Mail would roll out the tanks and the Government would fall.

Yet when it comes to the young people of these isles, different rules apply. For the issue of the rise in university tuition fees is a scandal pure and simple.

It is a scandal that few seem to care about. Our young people are left to take care of themselves, to build up huge debts, to borrow against a future that their elders and betters seem intent on screwing up for them.

Yesterday's news that some students from Northern Ireland look set to qualify for free education at Scottish universities, because they have an Irish passport, while holders of British passports here and students from England would have to pay up to £9,000-a-year is a case in point.

Absolutely nothing wrong with having an Irish passport, of course, but this is a case of pure discrimination.

Under legislation, universities are not allowed to treat citizens of the European Union (including Ireland) any differently from their own students.

But because England and Northern Ireland are not countries of the EU (the UK as a whole is, of course) the universities can get away with gross unfairness on a technicality.

An English student and his Irish passport-holding friend from here could potentially come out of Glasgow University owing respectively £27,000 in tuition fees and nothing.

Here in Northern Ireland, tuition fees for our students have been pegged to the £3,465 mark, but anyone coming from other parts of the UK will have to pay much more.

And here's another point. Virtually all English universities are charging £9,000-a-year in tuition fees.

Northern Irish students are now more likely to stay here to study and, God forbid, probably end up still living with mum and dad.

The opportunity of going over the water, meeting new people from different backgrounds, being exposed to new influences and having a bloody good time away from home is being denied to them.

Those of us who went to university back when the old king died had all of that. It helped make us who we are.

Now we are denying our young the same chance.

I declare an interest here. My sons are both off to universities in England next month.

They face huge debts when they come out. Debts that Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg never had to worry about.

Yet there's not much alternative. Youth unemployment is at sky-high levels. The young who try to find work are on an endless carousel of low-paid McJobs.

Young people today are, in the main, too nice. A few of them spend a disproportionate time crashing on the floor at our house after late nights, so I have some insight.

They have a happy-go-lucky approach to life. When we were their age, we were bristling with anger and political agitprop.

We would have taken to the streets against tuition fees and would probably still be there now. Their reasonableness and lack of a voice has allowed our political class to dump on them.

The mark of a civilised nation is not just how we treat our old, but also our young. We have failed.

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