National Service for Students: a great idea for the post-18 review?

National Service for Students or ‘Eco-conscription’ are a couple of recent ideas which might look attractive to politicians in search of a big idea for the forthcoming higher education review.

There has been a fascinating exchange of letters in the Guardian about using students to fill the gap in European workers in Britain’s farms. (You can see the original letter here and some of the replies here.)

Here’s a flavour of the letter

The recent difficulties of British farmers – migrant workers no longer wish to work in low-paid temporary jobs far from home, because a drop in the value of pound removes the only advantage – are not going to disappear. But there is an answer to this supply problem: national service. All students in tertiary education could be required to register for work in seasonal agriculture. Universities should organise their term times and vacations in accordance with the needs of the nearest agricultural areas. This was the origin of the “long vacation”, when students went home to help with the harvest.

Universities may try to object because they are important international organisations etc. But they should be told that cooperation is their contribution to the common good. The students’ wages should be a reduction to their (currently exorbitant) fees and loans. However, rich students should not be allowed to opt out. Subsistence and accommodation (if necessary) would be provided. It would be nice if second-home owners of former “agricultural labourer” cottages had to give them up for a month or two a year – perhaps a suggestion too far for our unequal world.

This echoes an idea proposed last year in the same paper  that all university applicants spend a year working the land before university. This ecologically focused proposition was that there would be huge number of social, health and environmental benefits from this kind of activity which would also help break down social barriers:

What if there was to be a pause. A year in which you have the chance to earn your tuition fees while at the same time learning more about yourself. A time to explore a life outdoors. A time to grow food, develop community and repair a damaged environment. A truly productive gap year.

Learning where food comes from, growing it and eating it, will help tackle unhealthy patterns of consumption. Rural communities will benefit from an influx of people. Villages might become more than dormitories once more. Hedges would be laid, drystone walls built, fruit harvested, weeds pulled, ditches cleared. The emphasis would shift from contractors’ tractors to people power. The threatened absence of seasonal workers from Europe, as we retreat after Brexit, will be catered for as well.
This would not be restricted to the countryside. Urban growing and community projects would also be up and running.

Now, conscription is a scary idea; associated with the great threats that come with war, so it is sure to antagonise. But I believe we need to start treating the multiple environmental crises as the serious threat they are. We need to consider them in the same league as the threat presented by an army massed on our borders. This is not (just) a green manifesto.

Imagine a cohort of young people who had gained a real insight into where food came from. Who had learned to respect the land. Who had worked with a common goal. Imagine the power these young people would have, the self-awareness as well as the skills. I bet it could even increase our chances of winning international football matches …

In return for the work there is a reward – this would be the gateway to further education. Not only would you have the tuition fees paid, you would have also had a year to consider what you really wanted to do. Now it might be that you never want to set foot in a field again, ever. Or possibly it will be the way you find a calling and a connection.

It’s not entirely clear whether the proposition would be that if you did this then tuition would be free for one year or more or that it is simply a chance to earn money towards subsequent living costs. Either way, the compulsory element is perhaps not hugely appealing to the youth vote but nevertheless it is perhaps surprising this hasn’t attracted more interest in policy circles.

Degree farms

It’s a genius idea in many respects:

  • Prospective students could earn money to reduce dependence on maintenance loans in future.
  • The students would also learn about the land, food and farming.
  • Participants would develop as part of a community, and have time to reflect.
  • The work on the land would address environmental problems too.
  • Students could also take the opportunity to learn while working and could even be awarded credit for learning to allow it to contribute as part of their degree.

It is difficult to escape the notion though that this is a cunning way to get British youngsters to do the jobs we no longer wish European temporary labour to do. So is this new scheme for National Service on the land an idea whose time has come?

If this were to be a key plank of the new post higher education Review landscape it’s not going to be totally straightforward. Just a few issues:

  • First, there is the demographic challenge – the number of acceptances to full-time HE courses through UCAS in 2017 was 533,890 so that’s well over half a million student workers to be organised to work the land. And at the moment the shortage of farm workers is around 4,300.
  • Would it be 17/18 year olds only? Only full-time students?
  • How do we ensure that everyone, even the wealthiest students, have to do participate.
  • How are the organisational complexities of allocating all of these students to farms and ecological projects going to be managed?
  • And who is going to manage these substantial work forces in carrying out their duties?
  • Finally, where are they to be accommodated? Given the general housing shortage across the country it is not clear where all these new workers are going to be housed?

So, will this particular policy fly? I suspect it is unlikely. Students are possibly not going to be wholly delighted about being seen as the solution to a Brexit problem they had no part in creating. The practical problems, not least the sheer numbers involved, make this look almost completely unmanageable as a scheme. And, let’s face it, conscription is never going to be popular and is pretty unlikely to win the youth vote for any party.

It rather looks like a no for this idea of National Service for Students then.

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One response to “National Service for Students: a great idea for the post-18 review?

  1. Add to all this that most students already work – both during the ‘holidays’ and term time – to cover living costs while studying. Are conscripted students going to be paid a fair wage equivalent to what they would be earning in their already-existing jobs? And how will the urban economies that thrive on hundreds-of-thousands of student workers respond to their sudden removal to the country? Is removing thousands of students from services and care-work sectors (the bits of the labour market that are growing) actually a solution to anything?

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