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The State of the Union – Scotland and England Divided

The argument for Scottish independence heats up on both sides.

A sign of unity or division?

The Scots remember every victory and defeat against the English. We mark them on the bed-posts, with the score filled out in brackets. Our cousins south of the border do no such thing. While the Scots count small victories and nurse a grudging resentment to the Auld Enemy, the English actually take very little interest in Scotland, until recently. I think in essence this highlights a very great difference between the two factions debating over independence at the present.

And this is why I was deeply concerned to read all the Scotland bashing in the news yesterday. The Daily Mail front page headline: A Kingdom Deeply Divided, brought home the growing resentment for Scotland simmering south of the border. Because the formula used to divide tax between the home nations is over 30 years old, each individual in Scotland gets just over £10,000 spent on them in tax-payers funding, compared to about £8,500 in England, a difference highlighted many times as 15 per cent.

Ross Clark in particular alleges that Alex Salmond, in accepting of these extra funds and charging English students more than Scottish students, is subtly attempting to make England grant Scotland their independence and do his dirty work for him. The Scots are widely dubious about a referendum and rightly so.

We are currently still in a recession, and every second day one newspaper or another has some economist saying we could be heading for a double-dip. If this is the case then this might be the worst time to secede from the Union. Even Salmond, in his heart of hearts, knows this. But to accuse him of stirring up trouble seems a bit unfair. If the Barnett Formula, drawn up in 1978 gives Scotland ten per cent of the nation’s tax based on the fact that we had ten per cent of the population back then and this deficit is because we now have only eight per cent of the population then who wouldn’t take advantage of it? Are you telling me Mr Clark, in your infinite wisdom that if the tables were turned and since 1978 Scotland had grown to encompass 12 per cent of the UK’s population so that everyone in England got more tax money spent on them you wouldn’t take it? That Mr Cameron wouldn’t use that to make university cheaper for the English? Don’t make me laugh.

Of course it’s an unfair situation, and it needs rectified. But for my knowledge Joel Barnett was English. This is not a case of the Scots stealing money from the English, it is a case of an antiquated law not being over-turned sooner.

But here’s the nub of the matter for me. While I grew up in Scotland and was vaguely aware of the news and current affairs and occasionally read a newspaper, I was bombarded with figures indicating the Scots have the highest levels of obesity, binge drinking and teenage pregnancy in the UK.

Scotland is a small country with a whole load of social problems, and over and above the one’s mentioned we can add sectarianism and domestic abuse to the list (I think I recall hearing Glasgow had not only the worst numbers of domestic abuse by men against woman, but also of woman against men too). And what is tax funding funding meant to do except help those in need? The rich give more because they have it to help those in need, and in Scotland we have the figures to justifiably say: “We are in desperate need!”

Labour peer, Ruth Lister, wrote a fantastic piece in Monday’s Guardian about how the connotation of welfare denotes a “narrow, rather miserable, form of social assistance for people in poverty.” She argues that the old term, social security, (which was replaced with ‘welfare’ by New Labour), “represents an end to which society aspires. It expresses the desire to ensure genuine security for all through social means.” And by using ‘welfare’ rather than ‘social security’ we have got to the point where anyone on benefits is seen as a scrounger and a lay-about. And it seems many in England are seeing Scotland in this way.

Social security would instead provide us with a language of understanding, where we realise that although we are being taxed, this because, even if we don’t earn a lot, we are secure, and what we give is used to provide security for others.

I believe that Scotland needs a lot of social security and this is why we must remain part of the Union. I don’t deny that the English do too, but I must add that bashing Scotland for using money that we were given by Westminster to support our people is redundant and unfair and all you English out there who complain the most would be the first to use that money for your own people. I call for the Barnett Formula to be recalculated, but I also call for a degree of understanding between our two nations.

Scotland has great assets. We have great sportsmen in tennis, golf, curling, but also football and rugby. We have a long list of inventors, poets, writers and academics. We have North Sea Oil, which although undoubtedly still rising in profitability by 3.7 per cent to £15.9bn over the year 2009/10, wont last forever. But at present I believe that it still contributes a nice lump sum to Westminster every year.

But we also have, like the rest of the UK, a deep divide between rich and poor, and social problems, which although can’t totally be solved by funding, can at least be alleviated to some extent.

And, I say to all the English all over the country, who continuous quote that London pays two-thirds of the UK’s tax and so basically pays for Scotland, it doesn’t matter, because unless you live in London on a six or seven figure salary (in which case say it to your hearts content), London is paying your taxes too. London is like California, which is one of top ten largest economies in the world on it’s own. If both declared independence on there own it would destroy the Unions on both sides of the pond.

I freely admit that the Scots need the English, but maybe it would be more true to say the Scots need London. But don’t call the kettle black, because the rest of England and Wales needs London too. The rest of our taxes compared to the high-flyers in London are but a drop in the ocean.

We are a Union, and as such we rise and fall together. If we are sectarian and petty with each other we will fall. If we argue and bicker like little children we will fall out. If we actually talk like adults we stand a chance of creating a Great Britain which actually lives up to it’s name.

An opportunity to vent – Littering, a law unto itself

August 30, 2011 1 comment

I am not one to rant… Actually I am, so I must clarify. I am not one to rant without reason. The dictionary definition of ranting is: To speak or write in an angry manner.1 This gives it some very unpleasant overtones for those of us who wish to write or speak angrily, the accusation of raving, which is ‘to speak or write with wild enthusiasm’.

So instead of raving, or ranting like a lunatic, I am going to vent, as in ‘vent ones frustrations’. So I’m merely providing an outlet for my frustrations. But I hope that the two topics I’ve picked can be empathised with by many who read this and are maybe causes for other people to rant and rave themselves.

Our streets are littered with horse dung and cigarette ends.
Horse dung and cigarette ends litter our streets

The first thing that has really been grinding my gears is police horses, for two very distinct reasons. The first is the fact that in a technologically advanced society, where the police and armed forces have access bikes, motorbikes, cars, vans, jeeps and even tanks, what use is a horse in modern law enforcement? Of course a horse is very large and imposing, but surely putting the life of another living thing in the danger zone is totally unnecessary nowadays.

Anyway, the real problem I have with police horses is the fact that they crap everywhere. Walking to meet a friend for lunch in Bristol I had to avoid two extremely large and still steaming piles of horse-shit! If I had stood in this excrement I would have not been very popular at my final destination, but this is beside the point.

My main problem is that while civilians can receive anything from a £40 to a £1,000 fine for leaving dog-mess behind, why can’t the police be fined for leaving piles of crap that would put ten dogs to shame? An innocent, but admittedly lazy dog-owner can be fined a months wages for forgetting to scoop their dog’s poop, but a police officer on a horse can let the horse shit where it likes: on pavements, roads, cycle paths even! And we should all have a small place in our hearts for the poor cyclist who streaks through horse dung accidentally I tell you now.

It is simply a case of a rule for them and another rule for us – which in my opinion should be abolished right this instant. It may hold up a police patrol, but if they are so worried about our streets being covered in shit that they will fine civilians for a a mug of poo, then they should have to dismount and scoop up what seems to be a pot of crap of our roads. Otherwise they should give themselves a fine somewhere between £1,000 and £5,000 for ‘befouling our streets’. And they are our streets, we pay tax and road maintenance, so befouling the streets is a crime against society.

So, officers, either clean up your animals crap – or stop using horses. One rule for you and another for the rest of us makes a mockery of justice, and as Martin Luther King Jr. famously quoted 1963 : ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ Not to mention the frustration of cleaning one’s shoes in the name of justice.

So, enough about this crap (sorry about the pun). The other topic I wish to vent my spleen about is cigarette butts. As a smoker I always, and very conscientiously in my very own opinion, try and pop my butt in an ash-tray or the bins provided. But this is a drop in the ocean, with thousands of fag butts littering our streets, next to little piles of dog-doo and considerably larger piles of horse-dung.

Nowadays, every city has mandatory fines for smokers who drop their butts, as they should. But in some cities (are you listening Edinburgh), they have specific Litter Wardens that patrol the streets and can dish out instant fines for those dropping litter. Of this I approve, anyone, civilian or otherwise should be meted out with a considerable fine for befouling the streets, in context with their mess. How about £1 per fag end, £50 per dog-crap and £100 per horse pat?

Anyway I digress. My main beef against the litter wardens is that they can spend all day without tolling out a single fine. A new level of law-enforcement encourages criminals (used loosely of course) to take their law-breaking to a new level. So if you’re thinking of throwing your fag butt away just take a quick look to see if there’s any litter wardens about.

This means that in some cities in the UK, there are public sector staff getting paid to do absolutely nothing (‘Duh,’ you might say, but I’m not talking about bureaucratic pen-pushers today, just litter wardens). Why not have litter wardens, or police officers on litter duty actively pick up rubbish and fag butts as they go, so that even if they spend a day without handing out a fine ,they can at least earn their respective wages by cleaning our streets up?

In fact, how about scrap litter wardens and mounted police patrols completely. Instead our councils could invest in more bins and ash-trays so that you’re never out of reach of somewhere to throw your rubbish, and maybe instead of investing in mounted police units we should buy them bicycles and save the money on fodder – ‘nough said I think.

1According to the Free Dictionary online: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/rant

Categories: Comment, Rants Tags: ,

A World Gone Mad: Riots Without Reason? Riots Have Causes And We Must Address These To Avert Future Damage.

August 12, 2011 4 comments
Riots in Bristol as blazes appear across the city

A burning bin in Stokes Croft, Bristol, set alight by rioters on Monday night.

Is the age of peaceful protest dead? I am of the opinion that it probably is. Hundreds of thousands marched to protest Blair’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003; over 50,000 students, lecturers and university staff marched last November in London to protest the tripling of tuition fees and the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA); on the 30th June this year, the Unions, including the NUT, UHC, UNISON, and RMT all marched in cities throughout the UK to peacefully protest about the cuts being made in their sectors. And what was the outcome of all these marches? No change in policy.

I am not one to condone violence of any kind, nor arson, nor brutality, but maybe these youngsters, branded as ‘dissidents’, ‘rioters’, ‘hoodlums’ or (in the Sun, ‘morons‘), have a point? If peaceful protests haven’t change the mind of our Government, then what form of protest is left to the public?

I reiterate that I do not condone the actions of the minority of vandals throughout our country that have destroyed the property, lives and cities of people for the last four days. But, when you realise that the kids who’s face’s have graced the Red Tops over the last few days have no union, no MP, no voice, it makes me wonder how else could they get their voices heard?

It all reminds sinisterly reminds of a poem, you’ll all know it:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me

It’s by Martin Niemöller and is meant to define the sentiments of the intellectuals in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party. In the present context, I feel it could more correctly by read as:

First they came for the students,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a student..

Then they came for the pensioners,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a pensioner.

Then they came for the unemployed,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t unemployed.

Then they came for the youth,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t young.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

What we have seen is the systematic breaking down of our society by a Government that clearly has no idea of what is going on on streets all over the UK. First education, then Healthcare, then care workers, now the youth who are being demonified by our Government in what can only be seen as an attempt to ignore the mood of the people and plough on with there policies regardless of who is being affected. Our youth are fighting back, like students, like the unions, but instead of support, they are being condemned.

It was exactly the same with poor Charlie Gilmour and Edward Woollard, two young protesters who got carried away. Both have received custodial sentences, Gilmour 16 months and Woollard 32 months and it is apparent that in both cases the sentencing was pushed through by judges trying to appear strong in the face of a media and political storm of outrage demanding harsh punishment for the perpetrators of violence. But in this storm, one thing was forgotten, what it was that had pushed two middle class boys to commit acts of recklessness during peaceful protests. The answer is somewhere in the political mood of this country, and as pointed out by Matthew Norman in the Independent i Paper, it isn’t “criminality pure and simple” as Cameron claims. It is the complex mixture of a disenfranchised youth, a public sucked into the dream of consumerism based on adverts and political ideology, and a Government which is out of touch. As Norman observed, “The PM looks like a patrician one-nation Tory who has slipped through a tear in space-time, and emerged blinking and bamboozled from his comfy berth in the Fifties.’”

Harriet Harman, Deputy Labour Leader, has highlighted some the problems. The trebling of tuition fees, the cutting of the EMA, the rising of youth unemployment and closing of the Job Centres will all have contributed to a a feeling of social alienation, unhappiness and finally towards the riots. In her debate on Newsnight with Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, Harman stated:

“There is a sense that young people think they’re not being listened to. That is not to justify violence, but when you’ve got the trebling of tuition fees, when you’ve got the EMA taken away, when you’ve got jobs being cut and youth unemployment rising and you’re shutting the job centre, you should think again about that.”

Police Riot Squads are deployed to control the looting and violence.

Riot squads are deployed by police to control looting and vandalism in Bristol.

The psychology of the riots is summed up very nicely by Ian Leslie, author of ‘Born Liars’ in his blog. Noting that rioting is “imitative behaviour compressed and sped up,” Leslie believes that social media and 24 hour news allows the “madness of a febrile crowd to spread faster and further and with more fluidity than ever before.” So we have a generation of kids, with broken links to their local community, but strong links with like-minded individuals through Twitter, Facebook and other media, who can swap information almost instantly. This means, that when one or two started rioting and news spread through this online community, the rest would have felt justified to imitate the behaviour of their peers.

This is a generation with little to no respect for police, teachers and our Government, but it is a disrespect they all share, and could, theoretically, be said to be a reason to respect each other. Shared opinions can very easily lead to shared action. Hence riots have spread from the Borourghs of London to cities throughout the UK.

To say the riots were started by social media is probably incorrect. They were organised through social media, they were started through mutual disrespect and social injustice. What emphasises their lack of unity and political polarity is the fact that they attacks lack any focus, only a need to lash out.

To fight the Government or police can inspire sympathy in those who have been on the wrong end of their policies or activities, to attack a corporation shows they have a common goal, consumer capitalism. To take out your anger on everyday people and their livelihoods inspires outrage, and hence the current backlash again ‘scum’, ‘dissidents’ and ‘terrorists’.

There is the additional fact, that these are kids, which over the last few years have seen the moral breakdown of our media, banks and politicians. First we had the expenses scandal, with MPs taking advantage of the public purse for their own ends. Then the banking crisis, which would have been generally accepted as a mistake, if the top bankers weren’t still taking six-figure bonuses at a time when austerity sweeps the nation. And most recently there has been the phone-hacking expose. What this highlighted was that while everyday people’s phones were being hacked for snippets of information, the top journos, politicos and celebrities were sitting comfortably at a party in Chipping Norton deciding where to invest their capital.

And, what has been made clear by the media coverage, is that they all felt totally justified doing what they were doing, like it was owed to them – so why shouldn’t a generation of kids who have watched these kinds of crimes not feel justified to take their slice of pie, however violent it is? If the bankers can find a way to take their tax back, why shouldn’t (in their opinion) should these looters? I am not justifying them, but can no one see how they felt justified?

We need to think about this outrage before it gets out of hand. Zoe Williams in the Guardian today suggests that the impetus behind the riots could come from a social class or group that lives in the consumer capitalist world of adverts celebrity gossip and glorified lifestyles, which, hint clever advertisements, everyone must have, and, hints our Government and businesses and banks, everyone can have.

Hoody sets fire to a bin during riots in Bristol

A hoody begins a blaze in a wheely bin during riots on Monday night in Bristol

But can we all have it all? The answer to that is probably not. Especially, as Harman emphasises, with tripled tuition fees, no EMA and no jobs for young people. This, then will lead to a disenfranchised group of youngsters who feel they have no hope of getting either a degree, or a job, and therefore no hope in hell of reaching the heights of comfortable living that adverts and society accepts as the norm. Therefore, when they see our ruling elite taking what they want, they attack back in retribution. It’s not big, it’s not clever, but I don’t think any of us can, deep down, say it’s unexpected.

Everyone likes to live in a cosy bubble and indulge the myth: If I work hard, get my degree, get a job, I can buy my house, raise a family, have regular holidays, and put away a pension. But in living that myth, and striking out at anyone who harms the myth, we end up with a disillusioned minority who are under-represented. Like Woollard, or Gilmour, the public outrage from the myth-buyers will put these people in jail and allow us to go back to the bubble. But it doesn’t address why these people aren’t either in the bubble or accept the bubble themselves. We could just bang all the arrested rioters in jail and carry on with our lives, but does this change anything? Will this stop more future riots? I think the answer is no.

Our Government loves the myth. It means when people with actual grievances against their policies stand up to be counted they can shrug them off as a minority, while the rest of us bury our heads in the sand and it isn’t our job that is lost, or our pensions which disappear. But one day it will be. This is why the teachers are marching, the students are marching, the Unions are marching. But unless we left our heads up and accept that everyone deserves a place in this country there will always be inequality, always be injustice, and always be riots because the quite majority, pursuing it’s own agenda, will leave a trail of mess that someone has to pick up. It might not be our jobs now, or our pensions, but it is our country. We are all going to suffer at the hands of these austerity cuts, politicians and bankers excepted, but why can’t we stand with the protesters? If we all stood together, youths, students, unions and everyone else, then no one would have to riot. But the majority of people in this country want to lie back and take the cuts and hope it won’t affect them. This is why when people complain there is such outrage – not because anyone disagrees with them – but because they worry the protests will make their lives worse.

So instead of condemning the young for feeling unrepresented and alienated, lets sort out our system. Yes, lets punish the perpetrators of injustice, but lets not get back in the bubble, but address what has caused these riots. Let us build something better and use this as an opportunity for Britain to say no the destruction of our education system, our health service, our unemployment services. Let us say no to a country where we are all so scared for our jobs that we don’t give the young any hope of getting a job themselves. Let us say ‘no,’ to social inequalities and ‘yes,’ to putting this country back together.

Harmann calls on the Government to “be on the side of opportunities for young people, and jobs for young people.” Let’s all be on the side of young people. Let’s punish the perpetrators of these riots, but not without forethought, and never forgetting that there are complex reasons for these kind of outbreaks that a quick prosecution can’t brush under the dirty carpet.

I would like to thank Doulas Hook for his wonderful images taken from Monday nights riots and for giving me permission to use them in this piece. More of Douglas’ work can be found on his blog at: http://hookphoto.blogspot.com/

More Students Working Could Impact on the Student Experience

A little publicised but extremely relevant report has managed to slide through most of the UK’s media, yet it’s findings could have a massive impact on the future of English higher education policy.

The report in question is: The Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU) Futuretrack Stage 3 report. This is a study following the 2006 cohort of 130,000 UCAS applicants from when they sent off their application until they enter their first job. The report is a fascinating source of information concerning the behaviour, expectations, aspirations, obstacles and feelings of a whole generation of students, and yet it has barely been mentioned in the media or in government press releases.

In light of recent events, namely the tripling of university tuition fees, the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and the massive cuts to university funding, this report should have been drawn upon, even if only to be used by the press to tear holes in the governments proposals. But news of Futuretrack has been scant on the ground.

The report is important for four reasons:

  • It tells us that on average more students are likely to be in employment in their last year of university than in their first;
  • That the number of hours they were doing paid work – on average – has increased;
  • It outlines students reasons for undertaking more work;
  • And it reinforces the idea that undertaking paid employment can have a on a students social life, economic situation and their expected results.

The fact that more students on average are forced in to paid employment by their third and final year of uni is ambiguous. Obviously when students first arrive at university they have a large student loan, a varying concept of the value of money and no links to local employers. As they go through university more will naturally pick up jobs. But the fact that third year is the most important should mean that more students should be leaving employment to concentrate on their finals. Futuretrack shows this is not the case, with both male and female students showing a tendency to be working almost four hours more a week in their final year. The main reasons given for this were to pay for increasing living and leisure costs or to get the necessary work experience for a foot in the door to a relevant employment sector.

This on it’s own is sad – it shows that the value of an academic education has been replaced by the business model of relevant experience driving the employment sector. Obviously students are heeding the message and fear that they may be left behind because others who do have the necessary work experience will have an advantage. However this is contradicted by institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, and other Russell Group universities who tell their students not to work. Students leaving these esteemed institutions are less likely to have trouble finding work than those who did get relevant work experience whilst at university, despite the fact that they may have little no work experience. It seems the business and university models of how best to get that first job are at odds.

The most interesting part of the study was the idea that students working can have an educational and socio-economic impact on their future. Although the report admits it is too early to investigate actual positive and negative effects, it does state that: “Students working long hours were more likely to be dissatisfied with various aspects of their courses, to predict lower grades for themselves than those who worked less and to participate in less other extra-curricular activities.”

Taking this altogether, it seems that students from the elite universities, which have more ways of raising money and supporting their students so they need not work, and can therefore get better grades. One would think that those who had worked would naturally have gained the experience to match the higher grades of these institutions, but no. It seems that getting relevant work experience only makes a difference if you are competing for a job with someone not from a Russell Group university. Sadly this has always been the case, so why do I grumble now?

I grumble now because with university fees set to triple a much wider gap is going to open between those institutions that can afford to support their students and those who can’t. It is my humble opinion, along with Higher Education Policy Institutes (HEPI) that very soon all the universities will be charging £9,000. The scheme has been set up as a market, and as such many universities will aim to match the highest fees to keep up with their competitors. There has been a lot of research on the governments claims of how a market driven higher education sector will improve participation, be more progressive and save the tax-payer money. Most notably by the HEPI, who said the plans had some “hugely optimistic assumptions”; and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) who reported that the plans could be “too complicated.” As Professor Roger Black, co-director of the Centre of Higher Education Research Development (CHERD) pointed out on Tuesday, proponents of the plans are falling back on the claim that increasing fees will improve quality by making universities improve standards or lose business. As he goes on to say, when picking their institutions, “it is prestige that is usually chosen, which has little or nothing to do with quality. In short, far from being an indicator of quality, price is a substitute for it.”

In this case, those students who fall into a similar demographic to those who now work because of fear of debt will be in even less of a bargaining position when looking for their first job. Under the new system I can see a lower tier where the final year students all have jobs, due to the massive rise in living expenses and fear of debt, whilst top institutions can help struggling students and very few of them take on gainful employment.

The last thing I want to touch is how these finding impact on the student experience. A few lines here and there in the media have mentioned how tripling fees will only fill the void left by cuts in public sector funding. What hasn’t received much press is how raising tuition fees will change the university experience. With fees tripling, but no improvement in education standards, it seems a bit rich to ask students to pay through the nose for the same system their predecessors paid only a fraction of the costs for, and our present politicians paid absolutely nothing for. If fees hikes are here to stay – and it looks like they are – then something has to be done by the government to improve the quality of education, which sadly wont be done because they would have to use some the funding they are desperate to save. When I approached AMOSSHE – the body responsible for the student experience – for a comment back in November, they politely refused. This implies to me that although students will be paying more, the standards will remain the same.

It is a scary time for students, and with private companies beginning to charge over £300 per week for student accommodation in London (I know Unite charges £100+ a week in Bristol, well above the usual cost of a private flat) the increase in the cost of living is going to hit students hard.

All this would be very sad, and really would take the value out of the educational experience itself, putting the value instead on the establishment in question. I feel this violates the raison d’etre of the UK’s higher education system, and would be a tragedy if it indeed came to this. If it matters more which institution you got your degree from, than the grade, or whether you have relevant work experience, then it will be a very sad day for the academic future of our country. As Brown says in the article mentioned above: “the new regime poses a real threat to quality assurance. We now face an increase in both state and market regulation, which will almost certainly increase compliance costs without any corresponding gains in quality.”

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.

 

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!”

 

Let’s Swap the ‘Big Society’ for a Big Laugh

I read a fantastic article in last Saturdays Times by Tanya Gold. It concerned the BIG Society that Mr Cameron is imagining, but seems that no one else can. The article was written with wit and gusto, and had me chuckling in to my cup of tea while choking on cigarette smoke. But it got me thinking.

It was the writers last few comments that began it. She talked about how the ‘Big Society’ could only be a concept that could be dreamt up by someone that had never wanted for anything before, and has no real idea about certain demographics in our society. I have been thinking about this problem for a while, and it is one of the reasons I try and avoid dabbling in politics – it’s just so frustrating!

Why? Because it has been my humble opinion for years that the gap between politicians and people is too insurmountable for us to bridge without desperate measures. The ‘Big Society’ of Cameron’s dreams is so opaque a concept that it is less a policy and more of a vague idea. It is hard to imagine a world where everyone’s nice to each other, bravely soldier the burdens simply in virtue of the fact that they’re there, when you come from a reality where some, or a few, or many, or everyone, aren’t pleasant to one another.

This was actually pointed out over 2000 years ago by Plato in Republic. At the conclusion of one discussion he informs his interlocutors that those who rule must receive no benefit for ruling. For those who rule must not rule because they want to rule, but because it is best for society. Hence we had the scandal over MP’s expenses claims, we should have seen it coming. Because it is so easy to let them get on with running the country, which I assume must be very boring, than to get more actively involved, so we let them get a few benefits here and there. But a couple of houses? I don’t think so… This is the problem with the notion that society should shoulder that extra burden, we vote for MP’s in virtue of the fact that we don’t want to do to shoulder ourselves!

Of course, I know there must be a few intelligent, witty, charismatic and idealistic individuals entering British politics every year, but the problem is by the time it takes them to get anywhere where they can remotely make any changes to the system – real changes like reducing stupidly high MP salaries, or a proper voting system referendum – they’ve spent so long striving and battling their way up the ranks that when they are eventually promoted they’re not particularly likely to say: “Now I’m here I think we should abandon all the benefits being here rewards us with.” Clearly after working so hard they too want to enjoy these benefits too. And unfortunately, no matter how hard they try to hide it, they lose their sense of humour very early on. A shame, because with a touch of humour we could have the best political system in the world. Ruled by people with wit, charisma, intelligence and idealism – no, not Plato’s Guardians, but comedians!

Good joke I hear you cry, but wait for it. I know most us love good comedy, especially political satire, impressionism, and panel shows – ‘Bremner, Bird and Fortune’, ‘Mock The Week’, ‘Have I Got News For You’, and ‘Brass Eye’ spring to mind. And the reason comedy is so funny is that 90% of the time it is so clever. All the panellists on these shows are sharp enough to disect our society, our politics and what is wrong with them with not only intelligence, bur humour. They are some of the keenest political analysts in the our country, and they are intelligent enough not to go into politics, but to make their living making people laugh about politics. This is a wonder in itself, because to make a lot of us in this country laugh about politics they first have to make us understand politics. This is something politicians in countries all over the world think is generally beyond most of their voters, so they either don’t try, or over-simplify issues, an insult either way you take it.

So lets get the comedians in to power. Of course, there’s no guarantee that comedians could run the country any better than our current politicians, but it might make people take more notice. Through engaging with an audience, a good comedian can get you to understand an issue, laugh about said issue, and actually come away liking them too – wow, who in British politics can do that?