Even before the pandemic, everything was done to promote the immediate well-being of the elderly, against the interests of the youngest. This is particularly true in developed countries, whose decisions today have the greatest impact on the future of the planet. And even when their leaders wish to act in the interests of future generations, their electorates are there to remind them that their mission is first and foremost to serve the interests of the majority of their electors, who are everywhere over 40 or even 50 years.
The rejection of inflation, the denial of climatic issues, the consumption of single-use plastic, the pollution of rivers and seas, are some manifestations of this preference for the elderly. Another is the way in which, almost everywhere, students are neglected; especially during the pandemic. And even in a country like France, where almost everything is being done to financially cushion the impact of this terrible shock on all the professions, people refuse to do what is necessary to provide young people with the means to live decently enough to be able to study serenely.
Poverty among young people is not a new phenomenon; before the pandemic in France, 22% of the people under 30 years who did not live with their parents were poor (less than €885 per month) and they made up more than half of the country’s 5.3 million poor people; among those young people who studied, nearly 20% lived below the poverty line; more than half had to work; and more than half of those who worked could not study properly.
It’s much worse since the health crisis: a young person, in a university residence, with or without a scholarship, with or without an odd job, to supplement what his parents can still give him, now has to study all the day in his room and he can’t even eat at the university restaurant. What does he do when odd jobs have disappeared, or are much harder to find? Does he have to give up his studies to find something to survive? Many of them do it. What do we do for them? Apart from scholarships, which are very limited, nothing. We apply the theory of human capital, which has been irrigating American and French economic theory for decades, according to which university studies benefit only the student, and that, consequently, the community does not have to finance them. So they are told : “Studies are your business. It’s up to you to find out how to finance your university fees, your housing, your food. By working if necessary. We will only give you extra help if you give up studying to enter the job market; then you could benefit from subsidised employment in the private sector (what we call “CIE jeunes” in France), or in the public and voluntary sector (“PEC jeunes” in France), or from support towards employment; and we will even pay a bonus to companies that are willing to hire you”. And with, in a few very limited cases, an assistance, capped at €497 per month.
Who can live and study with that?! And more than that, who can live without it? And what is the future of a country where many of today’s students, forced to give up, will not acquire the skills needed for the world of tomorrow? Some countries have a completely different approach: they have understood the importance of putting themselves at the service of the present generations, and in particular at the service of the students. They have understood that a country in which no more young people would go to university would soon be plunged into the deepest decline, that studying is a socially useful activity, and therefore deserves to be paid.
Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Scotland, Austria and Greece have long since exempted undergraduate (and sometimes also graduate) students from paying university fees; four of them (Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland) go much further and provide all their students with a decent income regardless of their wealth. For example, Denmark provides an allowance of €750 per month to every student over 20 years of age with no other income over €1500 (90% of the students); it also provides very generous loans and supplementary grants to finance the sometimes very high tuition fees for studying abroad; it also grants this aid to European students studying in Denmark, provided that they work 10 to 12 hours a week in addition to their studies. Equivalent mechanisms can be found in Norway and Sweden and, to a lesser extent, in Finland.
It is therefore necessary to go far beyond a simple young RSA*, which is refused today, and which would nevertheless be the least we could do; we should recognise the social utility of university and professional studies and pay all students, because their studies prepare the future of the country. It would be to the honour of the European Union to propose to all member countries to set up such a mechanism, based on the model of the most advanced among them.
* In France, the RSA (the Active Solidarity Income) is a complementary assistance which enables every person, able or not to work, to have a minimum income since 2009.