The following is a guest post by David M.A. Green, professor of economics and vice chancellor at the University of Worcester, in England.
As England recovers from the brutal riots that have shaken it this week, images of several victims of the violence have been broadcast nationwide, becoming symbols of tragedy. One poignant photograph shows a victim during better times. It is of Shahzad Ali, who was killed in Birmingham when a car driven by an alleged rioter apparently hit him and two other men deliberately. In the photo, Mr. Ali is in graduation robes, smiling, a bright future seemingly ahead of him.
The picture has reminded everyone of the centrality of education to the lives of all citizens— and leads me to reflect on the growing need for educational opportunities in the wake of the senseless rampage.
There is no justification for the violence, looting, and theft that has taken place in some English cities this week. But a discussion has started on what triggered the upheaval. Unlike the riots here in 1981, which had clear political causes, the recent incidents have been notable for their sheer commercialism and apparent absence of political connection. Those arrested are from many racial and ethnic groups—but so too are those uniting to defend their property and communities.
Is there any connection between these riots and the big cuts to public-university support, the student protests at the end of 2010, and the sharp rise in tuition fees set to start in 2012? Just one. England appears to have turned its back on its young people.
Historically high youth unemployment, the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, which supported students at the equivalent of community colleges, and the impending sharp hike in university tuition fees, combine together to give the impression that young people have few opportunities. This impression is supported by financial reality. Many young people feel that they have little to hope for against a backdrop of sharp reductions in university and college financing, job losses, companies going bust, and Europe on the brink of financial meltdown all in the name of the reduction of debts that they did nothing to accumulate. At the same time, they see the “greed is good” mantra exercised by those with power—from members of Parliament who abused their expenses to bankers who collected huge salaries and bonuses as the firms they led failed and bankrupted much of the economy.
A whole generation from less-privileged backgrounds has been robbed of the life chances anyone should be entitled. It is this situation, combined with the promotion of “celebrity culture” as a form of escapism, that has led to the rise of the GMQ gangs (Get Money Quick) and the prizing of designer clothes and shoes above education and regular employment. When the roots of alienation are deep, we are rightly appalled, but not so very surprised, to see children as young as 11 involved in the rioting.
Nearly 20 years ago, a young, then relatively unknown, politician, one Tony Blair (the former prime minister) caught his party’s and the public’s imagination with his declaration that society should be “Tough on Crime: Tough on the Causes of Crime.” Peaceful, law-abiding Britain is at one that those rioting should be caught and severely punished. There is no excuse for violence, looting, and criminality. It is already clear, however, that the vast majority of people believe that being tough is not enough. A combination of better values, discipline, education, opportunity, and inclusion is needed.
Young people need to have something positive and attainable for which to aim. In this, universities and our graduates working in the schools, businesses, community centers, social-work departments, police forces, and in other responsible positions have a huge role to play. Expect “Education, Education, Education” to combine with “Discipline, Responsibility, and Community” as Britain works its way back to productive prosperity.
No one now believes that the government will cut the number of police officers in England by 20 percent as planned. The calls for improved education, discipline, and opportunities for young people will need more highly motivated and well-educated people, not less.
TV images of inner-city youth facilities closed thanks to recent spending cuts while teenagers riot are a dagger at the heart of the government’s austerity plan. Everyone knows that a night’s looting and burning costs society far more than a year of youth services. The political foundations of the government’s “austerity” package have been shattered by August’s combination of financial market turmoil and riots in English cities.