The View From Here Jenny Bristow

If students sell themselves as poor, and therefore deserving, they risk losing their self-respect
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The Independent Online
If you're poor and you know it, clap your hands If you're poor and you know it, clap your hands If you're poor and you know it And you really want to show it If you're poor and you know it, clap your hands.

I first heard this chant in 1993, on a national student demonstration against cuts in maintenance grants. At the time, demonstrating against student poverty made some kind of sense. Students faced with diminishing amounts of money thought they had a fighting chance of getting more cash in their pockets.

Today it is taken for granted that a grant will barely cover your rent. Added to which, almost everyone - from the Labour Party to the National Union of Students - is increasingly reluctant to give unequivocal support to the maintenance grant. Given this lack of support, why do organisations such as the NUS continue to harp on about student poverty?

The current campaigns deal with the issue of "student financial support" in a very different way from that of similar campaigns 10 or so years ago. In the past, grants were provided on the basis that higher education was as demanding, time-consuming and worthy as a full-time job. Students deserved to be supported, because having some people with a degree was worth paying for.

To anyone at college today, it is obvious that a degree does not mean the same thing as it used to. As more and more people have degrees, an upper second becomes something that employers assume you should have, rather than something that gives you the edge over other people. The truth of the joke, "What do you say to a sociology graduate? Big Mac and large fries, please" should not be underestimated. The old, arrogant, ivory- towers view that students are a select group of people contributing something to society that no one else can, has never rung so falsely.

Because the role of higher education has changed, focusing away from specialisation and selection on to getting as many people through the system as possible, arguments behind providing grants have had to change. It appears that if we cannot be arrogant about being students, we have to find some way to justify why society should pay for us to study. And if we cannot argue that our studies will make us useful, we have to fall back on attempting to elicit sympathy.

Calls for sympathy underlie every discussion about student poverty, whether or not these discussions call for a grant - or a different kind of loan. To those who want grants, they are the most basic form of welfare. Those who want a different kind of loan argue that loans are the most effective way of stopping us from starving. Both arguments rely on an utterly degenerate view of higher education: that the only reason to pay us to study is that we are poor.

In this sense, pushing the image of the poor student of the Nineties is not so much a demand for money, as an attitude. Students evoke sympathy as the victims of a system that does not care. "Being poor" is seen as the way we justify our years at college. To me, this is far more degrading than lack of money itself, or any bar or cleaning job we may have to take up.

I remain committed to a free education, and a maintenance grant that allows students to live well. I also want a good education, and a degree that means something. Today's campaigns will get us neither of these things. All they bring is pity.

A T-shirt sported on the "official" student hardship demonstration in 1995 summed up the horrible philosophy of today's campaigns against student hardship. The picture on the front depicted a young person with straggly hair standing next to a cardboard box and holding a plaque reading, "Spare a little change for a grant".

Presenting students as needy beggars, as the deserving poor, will not buy us that extra pint; it will simply destroy our self-respect. And our self-respect is the thing we can least afford to losen

The writer is a final-year student at the University of Sussex.

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