Congratulations to Carrie Symonds, who is pregnant, and of course to the father, prime minister, Boris Johnson.

As no doubt many will be quick to remind her, Ms Symonds will soon be looking after two big babies – one presumably less prone to embarrassing red-faced tantrums than the other, but we shall see.

While one hesitates to proffer unwanted advice, as a seasoned mother of two, could I politely suggest that Johnson’s aide, Dominic Cummings, not be the very first choice for babysitter, should the exhausted couple need a night out?

For a start, Cummings’ hoodies would need to go straight into the sterilising nappy bucket, and the thought of a man who resembles the Incel-Gollum putting his own spin on The Tale of Peter Rabbit chills the blood (“Seems to me that Mr McGregor was well within his rights, kiddo”). Heaven knows, Cummings seems caught up in so many of the nation’s nightmares, but best leave that innocent child out of it.

Joking apart, no one could envy Symonds going through her pregnancy in the public eye. She can be proud she might have scored a first – a No  10 baby conceived to an unmarried couple. Her first child, and the proud dad’s fifth? Sixth? Oh, whatever. I – like Johnson? – was never very good at counting.

It’s hard to be a student today, but try making your way without a degree

Graduates leave a degree ceremony at Birmingham University.

Graduates leave a degree ceremony at Birmingham University. Photograph: Andrew Fox / Alamy/Alamy

Seriously, who’d be young, these days, even with every educational advantage going?

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that one-fifth of graduates would be better off if they didn’t go to university. While 80% still enjoy “graduate premium” earning power, the big picture is complicated. Male graduates do better on average than women by the time both sexes hit their 30s. (It’s still women putting children before their careers.) Then there’s class: a previous study from the London School of Economics showed that able students from low-income families were more likely to “undermatch” (aim lower) with university choices, affecting future earning power. A graduate’s background (factors such as parental help) also has an impact on earning potential. The IFS found that the highest earners opt for the “right” courses (law, economics, medicine). Other degrees (including languages and creative arts) don’t cancel out debt, and are now deemed “low value” by the government, with some ministers looking to restrict numbers and funding.

By now, anyone old enough to have obtained a degree for nothing, should feel – like I do – embarrassed. Obviously, it’s good news that four-fifths still gain from attending university. Certainly, young people who don’t go to university remain far worse off, whether inadequately catered for in terms of apprenticeships, or harassed into dead-end, low-skilled low-income employment. However, older generations need to acknowledge that even those young people who make it to university are having a markedly different, more stressful and, above all, financially fixated and economically shaped experience than students of the past.

That’s why I feel embarrassed – at my own relatively easy ride. I was skint, squatting and working throughout my degree, but the education was free, I received a full grant, and was encouraged to study what I was interested in.

Did I appreciate any of this at the time? Did I hell, but I should have done. This goes beyond money, and into the territory of educational-cum-vocational freedoms, and whether those are becoming reframed as unaffordable luxuries – not just by debt-raddled students but also by a government over-keen to promote subjects that “pay” at the expense of others.

While it is only fair for students to know which degrees are more lucrative, churning out lawyers, medics and economists is not the sole purpose of academia. Ministers should not feel justified in further increasing pressure by pronouncing obviously valuable subjects (literature, art, drama, languages) “low value” and unworthy of funding. The government makes money from taxing higher-earning graduates so, while there’s no wishing tuition fees away, there is some justification for lowering them for struggling students, and not just for approved (ie, profitable) courses.

The higher-education conversation has moved on – this is no longer just about losing the right to study for free in money terms, but about feeling able to make educational choices on grounds other than economic ones.

As for older generations who didn’t have to deal with any of this, let’s at least have the grace to count ourselves lucky.

Universal credit condemns the poor to a cruel merry-go-round

A rough sleeper in Oxford

A rough sleeper in Oxford. Photograph: Oxford_shot/Alamy Stock Photo

What’s the point of stressing and demoralising job seekers to the point of psychological collapse? A study by Liverpool University, published in the Lancet Public Health, found that the introduction of universal credit across the UK was related to a 6.6 percentage point increase in jobseekers’ mental health issues, compared with the employed or retired. The findings, based on interviews with 52,000 people between 2009 and 2018, are equivalent to 63,674 claimants being affected by stress.

The study didn’t include disabled people who claim other benefits – one can only imagine how anxious they are. Regarding universal credit, the stress is multifaceted – caused by anything from the five-week wait to receive benefits, to mounting debts and falling behind with rent, to being hit with sanctions and punishments, and having benefits withdrawn.

The most shocking thing is that it doesn’t seem that shocking any more. Last year, a study by Newcastle and Teesside universities found some low-income claimants in the north-east of England had considered suicide. Indeed, nothing about this mess is surprising, considering that the widely criticised welfare system changes have resulted in less money for claimants to live on, and a much more difficult time accessing it.

To add to the senselessness, the Liverpool study estimates that around a third of those affected are likely to become clinically depressed. These people would need to eventually seek help, putting more pressure on the NHS.

So, this amounts to psychologically damaging people in one part of the system, and using taxpayers’ money to treat them in another. What a bleak, shaming merry-go-round, and one that the Conservatives would doubtless cheerfully continue to facilitate, rather than sort out what has become a cruel, incomprehensible, inefficient welfare system.



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