After Brexit, What Next for Britain's Youth?

20/07/2016 16:35 | Updated 20 July 2016
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This week I protested along with hundreds of others against the Higher Education Bill as it went through its second reading in the House of Commons. The Bill, if passed, would sound a death knell for education as we know it, opening up the door to rising fees and putting in place a new framework for measuring 'excellence' - based on a series of arbitrary metrics which will not properly assess the quality of teaching and learning.

As well as concerns raised about the content of the Bill in general, there have been loud calls this week for the changes to be shelved so that the government can first deal fully with the huge implications of the Brexit vote for higher education. It is clear that these will be huge and likely deeply damaging, and for the government now to simply press ahead with already highly unpopular changes would be foolhardy.

It is not only in the sector of Higher Education that leaving the EU poses serious threats to young people's futures. The Resolution Foundation, in a report released yesterday highlighting the growing intergenerational inequality dividing our society, warned that a worsening economic outlook caused by Brexit could cause millennials to be the first generation to earn less than their predecessors; a similar warning was given by the IFS today as they released findings showing that young people's incomes have fallen significantly since the financial crisis while older generations have become better off.

Currently, the EU provides billions in funding for our Higher Education institutions; gives vital support to Further Education; enables young people to live and study across the continent; and creates jobs and training opportunities. Brexit does not need to mean the end for youth opportunity, but there is a great deal of work to be done to ensure that our futures are not damaged by it.

In the immediate term, there are urgent steps the government can take to do this. They must guarantee continued funding for Erasmus, student exchanges and EU-funded schemes targeted at young people. They must work for an exit deal which keeps us in the single market, so that the millions of jobs linked to it are not lost, and one which allows Europe's young people to continue to live and work freely across Europe. They must also, as Caroline Lucas has called for, secure associate status for the UK in EU research programmes in order to put an end to the uncertainty which has seen British academics and scientists asked to leave EU projects and British universities pressured to abandon collaborations with international partners.

But Brexit is only one of many challenges facing Britain's youth, and we must begin to tackle the long-existing malaise which has left too many of my generation struggling to cope with rising rents, limited job opportunities and growing debt.

That means, first and foremost, investing in our society in cash terms: funding public services fully to create jobs and training opportunities, particularly in infrastructure and green energy; overhauling the welfare system so that unemployed young people are empowered to seek suitable and fulfilling employment, not forced into low-skilled low-paid jobs; and scrapping tuition fees so that there are no barriers to gaining a university education.

It also means giving young people a real say in the country's future. During the referendum, Leave campaigners spoke of 'taking back control' of our democracy - now we have the opportunity really to do that by introducing a voting system in which every vote counts. Today Caroline Lucas introduced a Bill to the House of Commons to bring in proportional representation - and to give the vote to the millions of 16- and 17-year-olds unjustly denied a vote on the future of their country in the EU referendum. Sadly, the Bill was voted down by a tiny majority - but support for a fair voting system is growing.

It's crucial now that as young people we don't just leave it to the politicians to carve out our future. After the referendum vote, thousands of people lined the streets to reaffirm their commitment to Europe; since then almost 50,000 have signed a petition calling for a progressive alliance to beat the Tories at the next election and bring in a more proportional voting system.

If there has ever been a time for young people to engage in politics and activism, it is now. This post-referendum shakeup of our political system leaves us with a great deal of uncertainty - but it also opens up huge opportunities. Let's make the most of them - and get stuck in to build a better politics and a better Britain.