Stratford II: Digs

Photography by Mark Moore

The Stratford “ONE” student accommodation building, Westfield Avenue, Stratford.

The amount of new building going on in Stratford is astonishing, and it very much follows the standard UK model of replacing older industrial units with expensive residential and shopping developments.

Although somewhat architecturally controversial, I think that the building is more interesting for its implicit statement about British society.

The opportunity for education was historically seen as a right, but in recent years this has changed with the introduction of student fees and a program of loans to allow students to cover the ever increasing costs of studying. These changes reflect a political and cultural shift in the British population over the last 30 years, where individual short-termism has triumphed over longer term thinking and the idea of mutual support within society.

Education is no longer seen by the government as a means to improve the future of the country, but as a source of revenue for both government and business. Stratford ONE, for example, is owned by a corporation that specialises in UK student accommodation and which profits off the astonishing rise in student accommodation costs in recent years.

This reflects the rather selfish cultural perspectives introduced with Thatcher in the 1980s: the idea that education only benefits the individual, rather than all of society. And so we have moved from a concept of higher education as a universal right funded from progressive taxation to one where education must be paid for by the individual and where the purpose of education is simply to support economic activity.

Inevitably,study  choices tend towards the potentially profitable rather than the passionate. The perspectives of those that graduate and become the next generation of scientists, artists and politicians must surely be coloured by this. Rather than building a society based on obtaining the best from everyone, we build a society around individuals seeking the most money.

Perhaps we should not be surprised when, for example, we see climate change deniers proclaiming scientists as people who would say or do anything for money – rather than as people who are genuinely trying to understand the true nature of the world around us.

How education is funded is ultimately a political and cultural choice. The overall cost does not decrease as a result of changing the funding source. So while the government can claim to have lowered taxes, it has in fact simply transferred the costs elsewhere – in this case disproportionately to younger people from less wealthy families, for whom interest bearing loans are the only way to cover the costs.

At some point, the UK will need to address the reality that you can structure neither an economy nor a society around ever increasing personal debts rather than fair mutual taxation, and where the overall benefits disproportionately accrue to a vanishingly small portion of the population (the fallacy of a “trickle-down” economy).

I think that if you want to see the consequences of a system like this, you need only look at the current UK parliament. Examples from recent weeks include MPs lying about second jobs (and some fairly shady businesses at that), yet more cash-for-questions scandals, and a member of the science and technology committee pushing for tax-payers money to be used to pay for astrology on the NHS.

A nation of shopkeepers does not a robust, modern economy make, and neither is it a good model for a universal educational system.