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Archive for November, 2010

Comment on Privatisation of Universities in the UK

It has been a momentous few months for the higher education sector. Rumours flying, numbers crunching and minds racing. But the key question seems to be where tuition fees will be capped.

It would suit the top universities in the UK to be able to charge whatever they fancy, and with the publication of Oxford Vice-Chancellor Professor Andrew Hamilton’s letter it made it very clear that in order to ease the black hole in funding that the 40 percent cuts would lead to fees must be set at around £8,000. Any addition to this would be a bonus, but with Browne proposing levies on fees above £7,000, universities if left to their own devices might look to start charging fees on a par with the US Ivy League.

Another option being toyed with by universities is privatisation. The London School of Economics was involved in a case of crossed wires with its Student Union over its review of the merits of privatisation. If universities drop out of the Higher Education Funding Council of England then they will be able to charge students whatever they please and not have to cooperate with HEFCE regulations. Again it looks like many of the top universities in the UK see the CSR as an opportunity to rise to the heights of the Ivy League universities like Yale and Harvard.

Many businesses will be gleefully rubbing their hands together at the prospect of private universities. In going private many universities will have to out-source funding from investors, and this would be an opportunity for big business to get their hands on share not only of the high tuition fees it is likely private institutions would charge, but to take their pick of the best candidates emerging from these institutions, or even to set teaching and research priorities. GlaxoSmithKline have recently set a up a partnership course at the University of Nottingham, in name to provide practical and industry standard pharmaceutical training for third year students in and out of the laboratory. In effect it will allow GSK to weed out the best students, but it is also a free pool of labour. With students doing pharmaceutical research in to the drugs GSK are producing, the company benefits from having the university doing its research for it.

Small institutions will be just as eager as the big ones to secure private funding, but for the opposite reason, staying in business, compared to maximising business.

What scares me the most is the idea that academics will have to have their agendas and research proposals approved for funding by private investors. This, I feel, might compromise the intellectual integrity of academic research world-wide.

 

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The Cat Empire Review (originally published on Guide2Bristol.com)

The Cat Empire, one of Australia’s finest musical exports, came, saw and conquered Bristol last Friday.

With a fantastic array of hits, improvisation and energy, The Cat Empire wowed a packed crowd at the O2 Arena, in central Bristol.

Trumpeter, Harry James Angus, stole the show with his trumpet solo improvisations and his vocal range, which have made The Cat Empire famous throughout the globe. The music spanned genres without missing a beat, and managed to keep the tempo high enough for the audience to remain buoyant the whole evening long.

Whilst the new album is very indie, live The Cat Empire managed to pull together the full range of influences that they have dabbled in, ranging from salsa to reggae. Angus managed to produce a trumpet solo to almost every song, but the balance was restored with a solo performance from every band member, the highlight being a double trumpet and trombone medley between Angus and Empire Horns, that made the crowd go wild.

Although some might say the band were being fairly indulgent, the crowd loved the variety of music on display. At times the crowd would sit back and enjoy the music, a sign of a band having immense fun, but when Riebl or Angus took the microphone the tempo would increase dramatically. Hands were in the air, and the music was vibrant, the energy at the venue was truly electric.

The light and sound was in perfect harmony, and it was plainly visible that the band were enjoying playing to the crowd. The arena was packed, and the mood was excited, and the encore, culminating in Chariot had even the shyest audience members bouncing to the eclectic beats.

All in all, a performance to remember.

Rabbit Ears Review (originally published on Guide2Bristol.com)

The latest production by Theatre West showing at the Alma Theatre is a subtle and intriguing production, and not just for its suitably ambiguous title, Rabbit Ears.

Written by Bruce Fellows as part of the Theatre West season, many will not know what to expect from a local production performed by a cast of only three. After the first seemingly straightforward scene where Rosie’s boyfriend leaves her to go on active duty in Afghanistan the plot thickens and then twists in to quite the climax.

The venue is small and intimate, which benefits the small cast of Susie Riddell, Dan Winter and Ursula Entry. The audience is right up close and personal with the actors emotions, as is the intention, and throughout the performance you can tell that Fellows is trying to offer a glimpse of emotion that is usually too raw to be aired publicly.

The writing is subtle, and Fellows drops all sorts of hints that there may be a twist not to be expected. Rosie, performed with subtle dignity by Riddell, is not a character the audience is intended to empathise with. She talks to the clock on the wall, the only heirloom of her deceased father when alone, and hints at a dark and selfish side to her nature, whilst being openly generous and friendly with her companion in waiting Bren.

The two women are waiting at home on ‘passive service’ describes Fellows, while their respective partners are on duty. Thrust together, the show is stolen by Entry as Bren, whose nervous energy, open demeanour and subtle wit carry the audience through the long waits when all that can be heard is the clock ticking their frustration and heplessness in to near anxiety.

Winters is strong as the male figure, moving between his relationship with the two smoothly and not betraying much to the audience. His lengthy soliloquy about his time on duty is poignantly held together by the emotion he adds to the dialogue. Although we have all heard similar stories of wartime strife through cinema and theatre, being so close to the performance only added to tension, the beat of which was measured by Rosie’s clock.

The only music score is a famous Rosemary Clooney show tune, due to the fact that Rosie’s dad named her after the famous singer. The addition of Rosie singing it to Winter and forgetting the words simply adds to the realism of their situation, and ultimately wrenches on the heart strings.

Cleverly directed by Alison Comely, Artistic Director of Theatre West, it seems that in some cases she has added the light touch to the relationship between Rosie and Bren. The dialogue between the two over glossy magazines, and the sharing of a mug each of ‘rosie lee’ makes you feel like you could be sitting their with them. But Comely’s direction in the mundane only makes the dramatic scenes more compelling, with Rosie’s stubborn reticence to talk about pregnancy building the relationship of the two women to breaking point.

Not knowing what to expect from a small, independent production, I entered the Alma for the first time with an open mind, and can’t say I was disappointed. The first thing I did on leaving was pick up the listings for future showings at the Alma, knowing that a return visit will definitely be on the cards.

 

Comment on Student Riots

I was left in shock today by David Cameron’s words following the demonstration yesterday that culminated in the ransacking of Tory HQ in Millbank. Over 50,000 turned out to protest peacefully about the plans to triple university tuition fees, scrap teaching grants to the arts, humanities and social sciences and the u-turn taken by the Liberal Democrats.who allowed these proposals to gain ground despite assurances made to students in their pre-election campaign that they would openly oppsoe this scheme – many of them signing a National Student Union pledge to vote down any rise in fees.

Cameron, speaking from Seoul, where he is attending the G20 summit, declared: “I believe the will of the public was expressed at the time of the election when they rejected debt and deficit.” Now I find flaw with this statement in two areas.

Firstly, I think the man has a nerve to declare the will of the public granted him a full mandate to make these cuts. When it is plainly obvious that here are at least 50,000 people who oppose these measures, people who had literally just marched from Embankment to Tate Britain in protest. Quite apart from the fact that the Conservatives took power with the narrowest margin in my lifetime, Aaron Porter, NUS president stated recently on hisblog that he estimates 50 per cent of students may have voted Lib Dem in light of their pledge to vote against any rise in university fees. In light of this frankly his statement verges on offensive.

Yes, by will of the people, Mr Cameron has been granted a mandate, but to totally reject the will of those people who didn’t vote for him is both arrogant and rude.

The second and almost more outrageous part of this claim is that Cameron says that the UK has rejected debt and deficit by voting Tory, when he and his government are actually going to increase student debt! I hope I’m not the only one who felt like they’d been slapped in the face after this comment.

With tuition fees in England set to treble this could potentially raise the debt that students go into on a three year degree from £9,000 to £27,000. Although the plan is to increase the threshold of payback to £21,000, it will still leave students beginning university after 2012 in a whole load more of debt than at any previous point in history. As many commentators have pointed out, Mr Cameron and his government didn’t have to pay for their degrees, and I highly doubt many would have even of had to go in to debt to do so. It verges on sheer hypocrisy.

I will admit that we are in a situation where some drastic measures are necessary to get our economy back on track. I am aware that raising fees is one of the few options left to universities with the imminent scrapping of teaching grants. I am actually less frustrated by the extent of the cuts than by our honourable minister’s reactions to them.

What really takes the biscuit is the way the rioters have been condemned as anarchists, youngsters, rebels, socialists, probably even communists, etc. Every political body is trying to play down the fact that at least some of the 200 or so people who broke through the “thin blue line” as Cameron called it, were students, university staff and ordinary people. Is this not evidence enough that our government wants people in our country to think that only extremists are angry? This is simply not the case.

It was the same with the protests over the Iraq war. I remember going down to Princes Street in Edinburgh and seeing it filled with more people than you usually get at Hogmany. By all accounts over 2 million people protested our previous government’s decision to pursue that course of action and it made not the barest hint of difference. It is the same again today.

I am not one to advocate violence. I am not a violent person. But I can feel the frustration boiling in me that led to the 200 hundred storming Tory HQ. For all Aaron Porter’s words, it is likely that his peaceful protest will not make the slightest impact on what cuts the government make.

What we have seen over the last decade in the UK is that peaceful protests haven’t moved our governments one inch. It has been mentioned in the Guardian, and by John Pilger in New Statesman, that a crisis like the one we are coming out off is a great time for governments to implement radical changes for their own benefit. Last week’s mid-term elections in the US sparked heated debates over the policies of President Obama, with some stating that he is held in check from any form of liberal reform by the multi-million dollar investments from corporations that funded his campaign. Is it the same in the UK? It seems that if people in our country are reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet that 50,000 or 2 million people is too few to challenge political policy with simply a peaceful protest.

I can fully understand the frustration that caused people to storm Millbank. I can understand how students feel when the party that said it would reduce their debt triples it instead, and I can understand, no matter what sort of drastic proposals are required, how politicians being flippent about the strife of their constituents can really grind people’s gears.

I’d like to finsh with a quote if I may, and it would be amazing to hear it resounding round the streets of the UK. We have not gone mad in decades and maybe our politicians have forgotten we can. Anyway, it’s a famous line, you’ll know it’s from Network, so I’ll let Harry Beale speak for himself:

“I’m mad as hell! And I’m not going to take it anymore!”