Hi guys, it’s me… you know, the one that shouts at you in the teaching labs telling you not to drink the acid or throw it in each others faces… Wait, you don’t remember that? That’s, like, really important, guys… What about the passive-aggressive staring when you break yet another piece of expensive glass… really? Oh, well, never mind… anyway, it’s me, and I have a message for you…
Truly, I’m sorry. To the lot of you, whether you’re my students, or not – I’m just sorry.
I’m sorry because you’re pretty much screwed at the moment. I’m sorry that one of our last governments tried to misuse university as a quick-and-easy solution to social mobility, throwing you into degree courses many of you neither want nor need. I’m sorry for the parents who foisted untold expectations upon you and made you come. I’m sorry that you desperately love your subject but feel constrained by it, over-stressed by it, and unsupported. I’m sorry for the current fees regime – it’s messed up our funding and therefore completely fucked our ability to teach complex subjects properly, and skewed our staff:student ratios so badly that we just can’t give you the attention you deserve and desperately need. I’m sorry that research and league table pressures have stagnated our teaching methods, meaning that I can probably count on one hand the number of Teaching Fellows in the whole country who are doing real, good, cutting-edge education development that works.
I know it’s shit. It really is. Of course, in some respects you’ve never had it so good – your halls of residence are shiny as hell and no longer smell of piss-curry, your Students’ Unions are better equipped than ever and can actually employ competent graphic designers now, and welfare and disability support is really at an all time high… in other respects it all sucks.
But mostly, though, I am really sorry that you have no power to change it.
Really, you don’t.
I’m sorry, I really am, but it’s true. You just don’t.
What can you do? Protest? Because, as we all know from the fact that we’re not at war in Iraq and Syria, that public-sector cuts have been abandoned, that the NHS is safe, tuition fees have been scrapped, and that climate change is being swiftly and responsibly dealt with, that protests work so well… You just don’t have the power to effect real change. I’m not so much sorry that’s a fact as I am sorry that you’ve been lied to when people said your protests and opinions and petitions carried any real weight.
You are at the bottom end of life’s great heap. We are going to shovel shit onto you and expect you to dig your way out of it. People aren’t happy with you slacking off for 4 years of your lives to develop as human beings – hell, most of the public only want you to do it if you live in complete squalor, nearly starve to death, and are rich enough to afford unpaid internships (while continuing to live in squalor) from graduation until age 32. They don’t want you getting financial assistance for it – hell, they don’t even want you paid in marginally subsidised beer for it. I’m sorry you’re a hated demographic.
I’m sorry because it’s not your fault. Most of you were too young to vote in the 2010 General Election. A fair chunk of you current first-years were too young to vote in the 2015 one… and in four years time when the last of you have donned the silly hat and shook the Vice Chancellor’s hand, no-one in the entire 18-22 year-old undergraduate cohort would have been old enough to vote in that election. Literally, you never had the legal chance to affect the world at the political level. None of you have owned companies, and hired and fired people. Hardly any of you have any purchasing power to affect the economy. Most of you don’t drive. Most of you haven’t bought and sold property and caused crazy house price inflation. You’ve never held political office and made decisions at a local or national level. You’re in the shit, and it’s absolutely not your fault. Because you never had the chance for it to be your fault!
And I’m extra sorry for the people who make you feel like it is your fault. They call you entitled, whiny, pathetic, over-sensitive and lazy, and act as if all that is wrong in this world – which you’ve so far experienced only as powerless children – is entirely your doing. I’m sorry; old people are just stupid.
I’m sorry you don’t have power, I’m also sorry that there’s nothing you nor I can do about it. You’re just… well, you’re just students. You’re at the bottom of the pile, and getting the shit kicked out of you.
But stay with it. Keep up the hard work. It comes to an end. It gets better.
And that’s where getting the shit kicked out of you and feeling powerless for 3-4 years is going to come into its own. You will remember it. You will remember how it feels.
Because you’ll graduate. You’ll get a job. Five years from then you’ll head up a team. Ten years from that you’ll head up a department. Ten years after that you’ll be on the board, directing the future of the company. You’ll become a teacher. Five years from that you’ll run your school’s science department – making waves about how to teach the next generation and inspiring other teachers around you. Ten years after that you’ll be a head-teacher, running a school, inspiring children across many age groups and raised as an example for everyone in the country. You’ll enter politics. You’ll get elected as a councillor. You’ll do a good job and get elected as an MP. A few years later a shadow Minister… and after a rousing speech you turn an election around and suddenly you’re on the other side of the benches.
After all that, you’ll finally have some real power. Not just a vote, the power to change your small little corner of the world. Or, maybe, just maybe, a larger corner of the world.
Give it time. It will happen.
And when it happens, remember what it was like getting the shit kicked out of you. Because you’ll have power actually change the world, and you’ll need to change it for the better.