Apparently 2012 is going to be a bumper year for protests, and I am quite looking forward to them. As the late logophile Christopher Hitchens once wrote, “seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will provide plenty of time for silence”. But what would the brilliant man have made of the recent tuition fees increase? Having earned a third class degree in PPE from Oxford, and having achieved in his short life much more of merit than Mr David Cameron – who got a first class degree in precisely the same course – he would probably advise against going to university at all. He'd say that it's vastly overrated, except for the free love and alcohol.
In saying this, Hitchens would be – as he often was – wrong but for all the right reasons. When he graduated, he became social science editor on the Times Higher Education Supplement, something unthinkable today, even with a first-class degree. Currently, a good degree is essential for all but the most menial of jobs, and even then, work experience and networking are always necessary for starting in better-paid careers.
The life of a graduate in 2012 is wildly different from that of one from the Hitchens era, which makes the tripling of tuition fees appear to be, at first sight, “the biggest betrayal of young people in postwar British politics” as anti-fees campaigner Michael Chessum wrote in the Guardian last year. If going to university is so essential, why would the Government want to discourage thousands of people with higher fees?
But is it really as bad as Chessum claims? A graduate on a standard £25,000 salary will only pay back £7 per week. Think of David Cameron as a friendly gentleman giving you four years of education and housing in exchange for two pints every Friday evening, and it really doesn't seem like such bad value. In a world where no degree often means no career, you must really misunderstand the loan repayment system to be put off going to University because of the fees.
No one should be discouraged from applying simply because they are poor: the Government will give you enough money to live and pay for your tuition, and by the time you have to pay it back you'll be quite rich by many people's standards. Of course, in an ideal world there would be no fees, and of course it's annoying suddenly having to pay more of them, but that's all it is: annoying. Like a persistent itch, or David Cameron's patronising and rather sinister voice: we just have to deal with it, it's really not that bad.
Consequently, protesting about tuition fees is a waste of good placards, especially when there is a huge number of other, vastly more worrying issues about which to protest. The semi-privatisation of the NHS, the disgustingly harsh sentences for some London rioters, corporate lobbying of the Government, the complete neglect of environmental issues, the abolition of the EMA, the technocratification of the EU, the threat of war with Iran, the secretive drone war in Pakistan, widening social inequality, the atrociously selective reporting by the popular press, rising unemployment, and the soaring price of whisky, amongst other things.
There is so much to be angry about in 2012 that protesting about tuition fees is like running into a burning house to rescue an expensive packet of biscuits while several young children scream with pain as the flames engulf them in the next room.
Nevertheless, on the 28th and 29th of January the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) will meet for its National Conference in Liverpool. There they will discuss and decide how this year's student protests will unfold. My only hope for the conference is that they leave as the National Campaign Against Cuts, putting the question of tuition fees aside until the more serious matters are resolved.
Far from being a heroic student uprising of the Mai '68 variety, tuition fees protests merely distract us from the truly important issues. As students, rising youth unemployment is our greatest worry and we should concentrate our anger there. With direct and focussed action we may be able to make a difference to something that really matters. That and the soaring price of whisky, naturally.