Graduation. That rite of passage that indicates the student moves on into the wider world. This past week has seen many hundreds of Cambridge undergraduates pass through the Senate House and emerge with their BA’s (or other appropriate degree(s)). So many students graduate each year, each presented individually with the correct – one hopes – Latin words murmured over them, that this whole process occupies four full days in the Cambridge calendar. Done in essentially chronological order of foundation, students in the older colleges will have proceeded to collect their degrees before the fall-out from the referendum started to hit. By the time Churchill College graduands were celebrating their exam successes at the Graduation Dinner on Friday evening, their futures looked irrevocably different: the Brexiters had won.
Writing a speech to give at this dinner was a challenge. I like to write my speeches well in advance, but short of writing two complete versions for two different outcomes I couldn’t do that this year. How many people in the Hall had actually voted for Leave I had no way of knowing, but there is no doubt that the majority of students and academics present had not wanted the result we got. The dismay in higher education is palpable (feeling sick, weeping, remembering the possession of dual nationality and even resigning from post were some of the reactions I came across on Friday). But for the students I suspect a feeling of betrayal of the young by the old may have been a common reaction, overlaid by the pleasure that the degree they had so long worked towards was finally theirs.
So, in my speech, without labouring a point or hammering home the sector’s or my own misery – hardly appropriate for an ostensibly joyous occasion – all I could do was discuss resilience and the fact that not knowing what happens next is not terminal. For those students – who will be numerous in this year’s graduating class across the country – who have not yet got a job for whatever reason, jobs may be in short supply. And those jobs that are available may not be what they had thought they aspired to. The talent to that increasingly nebulous (or even disintegrating) entity, UK plc, that may be lost as a result of politicians’ lies is appalling, be it lost through unemployment or emigration. I would always encourage anyone to develop resilience and not to be frightened of changing direction in the light of circumstances – I have written often enough on those themes on this blog in the past – but what is being asked of the young of today is on a potentially unimaginable scale.
Cambridge as a region voted strongly in favour of IN. University folk will of course be classed as the elite towards which there is so much hostility from those who feel excluded from a comfortable standard of living. It is not difficult to understand why such people, quite possibly long-term unemployed or in jobs that are going nowhere, feel so angry. But the EU is not and never was the source of their problem.
We could look back to the systematic loss of manufacturing jobs overseen by Thatcher’s governments as one indicator of rot setting in. Or we could consider whether that prominent Leave campaigner Michael Gove has set in place educational policies that work for their families, as opposed to affording ideological control of schools and that dreaded word ‘accountability’. As I pointed out when I stood down as the Royal Society’s Education Committee chair
‘As long as league tables are essentially based on exam results there will be the tendency, one might almost say the necessity for a school’s survival, to work at getting those children near any particular critical assessment boundary ‘up’ at the expense of the weaker and stronger who sit outside this critical zone.’
Gove’s school reforms are still working through the system, but it would have been more honest of him to have said in his campaigning speeches that the real problem with those Polish immigrants was not that they were stealing British jobs, but that they were more qualified and hence better placed to get the jobs because our schooling system (indeed our pre-school system in which disadvantaged children fall behind essentially from birth) lets down too many families.
Where do we go from here? As a country far too many people have been duped by wishful thinking induced by politicians not only ignoring evidence, but telling everyone else to do so too; despising experts whose statements are already proving only too true; and by these politicians’ contempt for the truth, and hence by implication contempt for the public to whom they were appealing. Whatever happens next we have a problem in our society’s inequalities, in successive governments’ failures to recognize this inequality and to invest in schools, health, bricks and mortar and jobs to reduce it. Or perhaps, to be cynical, I should say they have failed to be moved by that inequality enough to do anything about it except occasionally wring their hands at a photo opportunity. I wish my graduating class success and happiness in these turbulent times, but that should be no more than we wish for every youngster with or without a degree. Far too many of them will now have a much reduced chance of their dreams coming true.