Social Class and Culture: Some Findings

I’ve started to write my dissertation for my final year of University, which has been a fab way of merging all my political and musical interests into 12,000 words of non-biased research and debate. Some of my findings have been extremely eyeopening, and here’s why.

My dissertation is focusing on elitism in classical music, and has expanded to look into society and culture as a whole. My assumption before I started my research was that people from high socioeconomic backgrounds would mainly watch and participate in events in the ‘high’ arts, such as classical music and opera, and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds would mainly participate in popular culture activities, such as popular music for example. However, I have been proven wrong, and my findings have made me realise that the culture in the UK is even more unequal than I first anticipated.

The Government help to fund the arts, which is fantastic in some cases. It means that some community arts projects can receive funding to help get more and more people participating in the arts. However, most of that spending goes towards ‘high’ art establishments, such as large orchestras and opera houses. ‘High’ art is mostly interesting to those who are well educated, and if you’ve ever seen the price of an opera ticket for Glyndebourne, you’ll know that it is also only accessible to those with high financial capital. So, by the government helping towards funding opera and classical music, surely more people from lower socio-economic backgrounds will be interested in attending, right?

Wrong. Often the price of tickets isn’t the only aspect putting people off attending these events. If you have no interest in the opera, you’re not going to spend money on it whether it costs £150 per ticket or £10 per ticket. If individuals feel that they won’t understand the culture, or fit in with the other audience members, this can put them off too. So, what is the government spending on the arts actually doing to our country?

Effectively, by mainly funding the high arts, the government are giving a very large discount to those people who are already interested in the ‘high’ arts. Most of these people, as stated earlier, come from high socio-economic backgrounds and therefore have the money to spend on tickets anyway. For people from low socio-economic backgrounds, this is a big issue. Popular events are not publicly funded, perhaps because they are not seen as educational or valuable. This means that accessible events such as popular music concerts and cinema tickets (that appeal to the masses) are very much financially inaccessible for many. This is leading to a problem that the government would find very undesirable, surely,  in that people who cannot afford the culture that they are actually interested in are not experiencing any culture at all. Middle and upper classes are in fact going to a very large variety of cultural events, including ‘popular’ events, where people from lower class families cannot experience anything unless they want a ticket to see The Marriage of Figaro.

Surely that is inequality at it’s finest? It is a well-known fact that exposure to culture enhances education, well-being, career prospects, health and many more factors of life, but the majority of the British population cannot have access to it. This could lead to a larger divide between rich and poor, leaving the poor with nothing and the rich experiencing all the vibrant culture the country has to offer.

‘Swarms’

So it turns out that the PM can be rather, well, insensitive.

Luckily for Dave, he’s had a pretty plush upbringing; elite private school education and wealthy family life in Oxfordshire. His daily struggles would have included decisions like which jam or chutney to have with his afternoon tea, or whether to play croquet or badminton on a Sunday afternoon.

He doesn’t seem to understand that not everybody has that.

‘Swarms’ is the word that our PM used to describe those thousands of people so desperate to find better lives that they are risking them trying. These are not people who are looking to come and sponge money from our welfare system, or steal jobs, or take advantage of free health care. No. These are people who simply want the safe life that we have: without the constant fear of getting harmed or killed.

There is an assumption that the people trying to move to the UK for a safer life will not contribute to our society in the slightest, which is such a flawed argument because: a. why does it make any difference? Surely everyone deserves a safe life regardless. and b. many of the migrants trying to move here are qualified, intelligent people (doctors, nurses….) who would be an asset to the country.

Most importantly, these people are people. They’re humans, like us in the UK. They have families and ambitions and wishes and needs just like us. So why do many, many Britons (including our own Prime Minister) seem to think they deserve a better life to these people? Have they earned it more that people in other parts of the world? No. We’re just lucky we were born in a safer, more peaceful place.

Hopefully Dave will start to see sense.

Internships: The flaws

Having just finished my second year of university, I’ve had to really start thinking about what I want to do next year. I have one year until my education safety net that I’ve had since age 4 is taken away, and I enter the big wide world with no one to make my decisions for me. A little scary.

I am one of many people who despite studying various subjects, having a number of jobs and being interested in lots of different things, I have still got no idea which career I want to pursue. In this day and age, for me to have any chance of getting any job at all, it is expected that I should participate in unpaid work experience in various places, and this has opened my eyes to the flaws of the job market today.

Flaw no.1: I have learnt far more valuable and transferable skills from my work in university societies and paid minimum wage jobs than I have from any unpaid work experience. The work experience placements I have had so far in offices have taught me many things; how to kill time when there’s nothing for me to do; how to make cups of tea and coffee for very fussy office workers; how to kill time in an hour long lunch break… but for some reason, employers LOVE that I’ve done two weeks work experience in an office being unpaid to do crosswords all day, and that’s far more valuable than standing on my feel all day in a busy environment working and communicating with a team to sell food to people. Yes, it’s only working in subway, but the valuable skills I’m learning there are far more useful in life.

Flaw no.2: I could afford to do work experience only because I worked 9-5 in the weekdays unpaid and then all weekend I worked at my paid minimum wage job. Lucky me. If you don’t have wealthy parents to fund you whilst you do your unpaid internship, then you end up working long seven day weeks and hardly sleeping because you need to afford to live, too. So our job market at the moment is making it a LOT easier for people from moneyed backgrounds to get a job, because they’re the ones who can afford to do the work experience pain free. Someone who works at their minimum-wage paid job for seven days a week during the holidays just to be able to afford to go to uni at all is far less qualified for a graduate job than those whose mummies and daddies can afford to let them commute to their fancy placements in the city.

Flaw no.3: Why has it become part of life for big, rich companies to expect students to have to work for free? We’re paying so much and earning so little and working so hard to get a degree, and then we come out the other side and we’re told that to get a job we’ve got to keep working for no money. Why is that okay?! There are so many laws about work in our country; not working for too many hours, not working too many days; not being paid too little for the work you’re doing… so why is it so acceptable for companies to expect graduates and students to work for free? Companies claim that the intern is gaining more from the experience than they are, but even if that is the case, they are still getting free work done for them and do not have to guarantee a job for you at the end of it.

So basically, yes it is great to have people who have experienced the world of work and who have made the effort showing how willing they are to get a job, but opportunity should definitely be taken into account. If employers started to look past those who have given up their summers to do work experience, they may find that there is a talented bunch of people who have just as much (if not more) valuable experience that should be taken into account. It is highly possible that employers are missing out on the best candidates.

Zero-hours: Stay or go.

One of the biggest disagreements between parties in the upcoming election is whether zero-hours contracts should stay or go. The Tories, who brought in these new employment contracts, believe they are absolutely vital to sustaining economic growth and lowering unemployment in the UK. In the last five years, these contracts have evidently contributed to lowering unemployment in the country. However, we do not see the whole picture through the claims of the Conservative party, and the negative implications of these contracts could be significantly outweighing the benefits.

I currently have a zero-hours contract for my part time job; as I am a student, I can only really work 15 hours a week during term time, the hours I can work change drastically each week due to my flexible timetable, and in the holidays I move home for sometimes months at a time. The contract suits me down to the ground- I can pick up work whenever I want, and if I need time off then I just write it in the book and I’m under no obligation to be there. However, for those who have a zero-hours contract for their full time work, the story is a little more bleak. There is no guarantee of any work from week to week, so for those relying on a zero-hours contract to earn money to feed their family, this lack of job security is worrying. Also, taking time off for holidays and sickness is unpaid, so if an employee becomes ill suddenly then they will not only have to worry about their recovery, but they will have no financial security while they recover.

From the employers perspective, zero-hours contracts are a God-send. In fact, hundreds of big employers have written to the Conservative Party to show their support for the election as they admire these contracts so much! Employers are under no obligation to give out a certain amount of shifts per week with a zero-hours contract, and they can save money on labour where possible. However, if extra staff are needed then it gives them the flexibility to be able to ask for more hours from their staff. You can see why this flexibility is so desirable from the employer’s perspective, but is it right to be able to expect your staff to have such uncertainty in a job, and a lack of security?

The question that many people want to know the answer to is this: have zero-hours contracts allowed more people to get enough work? Undoubtedly they have meant that more people have become employed, but are people getting enough hours on these contracts, or do the implications of a zero-hours contract make finance even harder for those who were already struggling?

I can’t help but wonder if David Cameron and George Osborne would be able to survive on a zero-hours contract at all.

A quick thought on the price of student housing

Being a student, money is an issue that you only have to take into account for one person; yourself. In most cases, you only really have to worry about how to afford to house, feed and entertain yourself and as long as you’ve got enough in the bank (or a big enough overdraft!) then that’s enough to keep most students at ease.

However, when you look at the bigger picture, students are spending so much more than they would usually have to if they weren’t students, despite having little or no income whatsoever. Looking at the difference in prices between normal rental properties and student properties, it is very clear that landlords can make a lot more money from students than they can from other people and they certainly take advantage of that. All they have to do is take away some of your living space to turn into a couple more bedrooms, and they’re taking hundreds of pounds extra per month.

I’ve had a really brief look at some prices of houses in Manchester (my current city) and it is evident that student housing is more expensive than other housing, even at a really quick glance. I currently live in a house of five and we all pay £80 per week for our accommodation, which adds up to around £2,000 per month between us. For a house the same size in Manchester outside the main student areas, prices fall drastically to around £500 per calender month.

Suspiciously, the prices that we’re all paying for our rent and bills add up to almost exactly, if not slightly more than the basic loan given by the government. Therefore it seems as though landlords and agencies know those figures, therefore know how much each of us have as a minimum, and then just take it all off us!

So why is it that this is allowed to happen? Should there not be some sort of cap to stop students having their entire loan pinched by landlords, before they’ve even considered the cost of food, bills, books and other everyday spends?

Just a thought.

Students! Here’s who you should vote for and why.

The general election is fast approaching, and it’s the first since the current Coalition government made a decision that would affect university students for the rest of their lives; yes, I am talking about the £9,000 tuition fees.

Of all possible outcomes of the election in 2010, this was probably the worst for future students, of whom most were too young to vote in 2010. The government dressed the decision up with idealistic features, and stated that we could borrow money for the fees that would be paid back so slowly that we wouldn’t even notice the fees existed. However, the bottom line is, we will still be spending £27,000 plus on a university education.

So with the next election approaching, which party has student priorities at the heart of their policies? Which party will benefit our futures students the most? Here are the policies!

The Conservatives, our current leaders, brought in the tuition fees and unsurprisingly will not be abolishing them any time soon. Not to mention that they encourage science subjects and not the arts, which will only discourage some students from going to university. The most similar policies to the tories are those of UKIP, who will abolish some tuition fees, but only for those who are going to study what they consider a proper degree. These are science-based subjects including maths, technology, medicine and engineering, but bearing in mind that subjects such as law, languages and english are some of the most employable and transferable degrees possible, it seems as though they are restricting many people with great potential.

The Liberal Democrats are still apologetic (and perhaps embarrassed) about their decision to join the Conservatives with their policy on raising tuition fees so dramatically when they had promised the nation that fees would not rise at all if they gained power. It caused a massive uproar, and caused the Lib Dems to lose a large percentage of their vote; they had many student supporters in the last election. From their website it is evident that the Lib Dems plan to keep the tuition fees exactly where they are, but they have emphasised that you can pay the loan back slower and in smaller chunks if they gain power over labour and the tories. However good this sounds, I suspect that they will not have a very large student vote this time around…

So Labour. The party that believe in equal and accessible education for all. However, there is absolutely no mention on their website of the party abolishing or lowering the fees in the slightest. Instead, they emphasise that they will make vocational skills more highly regarded which does benefit many people who have no interest in following an academic route into university, which can’t be a bad thing. Although, it is most likely that the £9,000 fees will stay.

The most beneficial and obvious choice for students is the Green party. They have promised to not only lower but abolish tuition fees altogether for UK residents. This would be amazing, and would make university a very popular and possible choice for students from all backgrounds. It seems to be one of their key policies, and one that differs hugely from every other party, which makes one question why and how they can afford to do this.

It seems as though there is an obvious choice based solely on the policies on university education. However, it is vital to remember that you’re only a student for a small percentage of your life and it’s important to consider the other policies of the parties when making a decision on which policies are best for you.

Money, money, money.

Being a student, I have discovered the value of money. I did not realise how expensive grapes, shampoo and alcohol were until starting uni and living on a budget. The loan I am given goes in minutes, and I have to be really careful about how I spend it and which luxuries I can actually afford.

I have thought of myself as really hard-up for the past few months. I used to go out for coffee (a lot), buy clothes on big shopping sprees, go on expensive day trips and nights out… but now, I can’t afford those luxuries as often. However, my lack of money has lead me to look into the bigger picture to see how others are affected by the global money climate; I have found that some of the figures are grossly eye-opening, and have made me realise how lucky I actually am.

One of these figures was a new discovery from the charity Oxfam; they’ve calculated that the 85 richest people on earth share more wealth than half of the world’s population. So that’s 85 rich people who have more money than 3.5 billion people. So, that either means the richest people are incredibly rich, or that the 3.5 billion are incredibly poor. Or both. Something here doesn’t quite add up; how can 85 people be perfectly content (when they are travelling around their multiple homes in multiple countries drinking champagne for breakfast) knowing that 3.5 billion are struggling to live in their financial deficit? I don’t really understand the logic. These rich 85 are each richer than several countries put together, and whilst there are billions of people who cannot even afford to eat or drink clean water, these rich people are sitting on countries-full of cash.

It isn’t just third world countries struggling to survive with very little money. Millions of people in developed countries, including the UK, live in poverty; in fact, one in six children in the UK grow up in poverty, with their families not financially able to support them. So many people work full time and get paid so little that they can hardly afford the necessities, especially after the rent and the bills have been extracted from their mediocre wages. So many people have full-time jobs and earn wages that are below the poverty line in the UK. Surely the minimum wage should not be below this line. People earning less than that are in poverty. Low incomes in the UK are not sustainable enough for a family to survive without being in poverty, and it is not a case of lowering benefits to the minimum wage, it is a case of raising wages to let earners live above the poverty level too.

Why there is such inequality in the world with money is debatable, but one thing is for certain. Those people at the top, be it politicians or the rich, need to turn around and get some perspective. Whilst they are comfortable in their heated homes with warm dinner on the table, perspective needs to be maintained, greed needs to be cast aside, and giving needs to occur. Redistribution of wealth across the globe is vital, and it will most certainly make the world a happier and more equal place.