The think tank Demos raises the idea of a National Civic Service in a publication released last week. Increasing civic engagement amongst young people would benefit their local community and raise their employability skills. But, such a scheme must not be financed by student loan repayments, and should provide no alternative to paid employment.MPs’ have thrown their support behind a new Demos publication, Service Nation, proposing the introduction of a new National Civic Service for young people. The Service would be a mandatory scheme seeing young people compelled to undertake small periods of voluntary work in an attempt to improve their employability skills and serving their local community. To fund the scheme, Demos proposes to charge interest for the first time, above inflation, on student loan repayments.
Charging interest on student loans to fund a new national civic service is another example of burdening young people with enormous amounts of debt before they enter employment, and increasing the longevity of their debt. Only after years of employment will one reach a point where their wage puts them within touching distance of paying off their student loan. Furthermore, taking into account new sources of debt which young people are bound to accumulate through starting a family or taking out a mortgage, the idea of increasing interest on student loan repayments is pretty absurd.
Sonia Sodha, co-author of the report, justifies the increase in interest rates on student loan repayments by arguing that “those who have gained most must also give something back”. What have the thousands of unemployed graduates gained for free from their University education, which they need to pay back, beyond their mountain of debt? Students already give something back to the tune of an estimated £23,000 for their University education in the first place. Further, many graduates currently find themselves being exploited by employers who are taking advantage of a pool of eager and talented graduates by making them work for free or for minimum wage at best. In return, these graduates work their arses off for between 3 and 6 months in the vague hope that their may be an ‘opportunity’ of full-time salaried employment at the end of it all.
Furthermore, Sonia Sodha also claims that charging interest on student loan repayments would “be a fair levy on those benefiting from state-subsidised university education”. Does she forget that students who are, and have been, in receipt of means-tested grants and loans still leave University with a mountain of personal debt equal, and often larger, in size to their non-means tested counterparts? Further, poorer students are already affected by the snobbery which affects our education system as a whole. In terms of University education, this is often categorised into three tiers of ‘worthiness’; 1. Oxbridge, 2. Redbrick, and 3. Old polytechnics. Poorer students who invariably gravitate towards the less ‘worthy’ universities already have their employability prospects diminished without being penalised through extra charges on their student debts.
Young people who come out of University education and those who have not are employable. I strongly oppose this notion that there are vast numbers of unemployable young people who lack basic skills required for the world of work and who lack any sense of ‘giving back’ to their community or to those less fortunate than themselves. What young people need are fair opportunities. As much as learning employment skills is important, so is learning good financial skills through receiving a fair wage. One suggestion; legislate for all companies/organisations/public bodies (above a certain size) to have a graduate scheme which pays a fair wage, inclusive of those graduates working at think-tanks, political lobbying organisations, political PR firms and in MPs’ offices.
Encouraging civic engagement is a good idea. It is a nice thought having young people helping out in their local community. But this should not be compulsory and certainly shouldn’t be an alternative to paid employment financed by former University students.
First published December 7th 2009