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Wednesday 18 June 2008
Letters: Blair's fluffy thinking
Blair's fluffy thinking ignores fundamental religious rifts
Sir: Far from making the case that we need to learn to live with "a diverse religious ecology", Tony Blair, in his article (14 June) plugging his Faith Foundation, merely succeeds in reminding us of the intellectual poverty of his signature "focus-group" approach.
Despite any good intentions, unless you degrade religious practice to the status of a lifestyle option, religion sets itself up as a revealed truth. Unfortunately for Mr Blair, whose foundation will apparently seek to avoid such pesky issues as "doctrinal inquiries", the Jewish faith holds that the Messiah has yet to come, the Christians assert that he has already come, in the person of Jesus Christ, and the Muslims accept that Jesus was a prophet, but believe that the Koran is God's last word on the subject, a view denied by both Jews and Christians.
That's a pretty fundamental disagreement. If you sincerely believe in any one religion, you have to believe that the others are wrong, not a good recipe for living peacefully with your neighbours. This may be the reason why a man who has gone out of his way to adopt Roman Catholicism, the most sternly doctrinal of all the Christian sects, chooses to escape from the dilemma by presenting himself as "a person of faith". We should take him at his word for once: the dictionary definition of faith as "belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence" sounds just about right for the man who took us to Iraq on the back of a dodgy dossier.
In fact, perhaps we could even forgive him for so modesty naming the institute after himself: as a monument to fluffy thinking and misplaced concern, it is the perfect symbol for his failure as Prime Minister to deliver "education, education, education", the only thing that will ever stand between us and a return to the faith-based bigotry of the Middle Ages.
How to ensure the right degree results
Sir: To me, a retired lecturer who has sat through many degree exam boards with an increasing sense of futility, Professor Geoffrey Alderman's revelations come as no surprise ("Lecturers 'pressed to boost degree results'", 17 June).
Degree-awarding institutions are required to do several things to get funding and try to climb the league tables. Recruit with integrity (only accept students likely to prosper and pass), fill the course, maintain high retention rates, and get good results. These objectives are largely incompatible, given the Government's determination to get 50 per cent of school students on to a degree course. So the solution is obvious – you pass them.
Everyone involved knows that this is a dishonest slippery slope, not least because students leave saddled with debt and a degree which does not impress employers much. A 2:1 degree at least is what every student wants and needs, which is one reason why the appeals against final classification continue to rise, plagiarism is rife, and lecturers are constantly confronted with angry students demanding their work be second- or third-marked
There are many wheezes to nudge people over the pass mark. You could, of course, just lower the pass mark, but this is a bit obvious. Quite popular is to play around with the compensation rules, which allow – reasonably enough – for a student with otherwise satisfactory marks to be compensated for a poor performance in a module. You can lower the mark at which the student becomes eligible for compensation and you can increase the number of modules that a student can be compensated in. Other possibilities are extending the number of resits allowed, or allowing resubmission of dissertations.
This system degrades just about everyone associated with it, but it is particularly unkind to those students who should not have been there in the first place, and who struggle with three years of mounting debt and anxiety, only to leave with an unvalued qualification. If the Government wants 50 per cent of school-leavers in university then it will have to improve secondary education so that they arrive in higher education able to think, research, evaluate, write and cope with basic statistics
Sir: After 26 years lecturing at one of our ancient universities, I resigned in 2002 in despair at the shockingly low standards of student attainment. British universities now admit large numbers of semi-literate students and allow them to graduate in the same condition.
This was an inevitable consequence of the move to mass higher education and a reduction in resources per student. I don't know what is more reprehensible, the decline in standards or the university management which rolled over and let it happen.
Sir: While there may be pressure to relax academic standards – after all, it won't look too good if a majority of the 50 per cent the Government wishes to go to university duly fails – many of us are taking a perverse pleasure in resisting it.
Professor Michael Rosenthal
History of Art, University of Warwick
Sir: In view of the disgraceful state of affairs at British universities, I am recommending to the Israeli Teachers' and Lecturers' Union that a boycott be immediately instituted of all British institutions of higher education, their staff and students until these people prove they can be trusted to be open, honest and upright.
EU chiefs ready to disregard Irish vote
Sir: Interesting to note, in your pages, European reactions to the Irish referendum. Apparently, the French and German governments led calls for the other 26 EU nations to "push ahead regardless". The Commission president said: "I believe the treaty is alive." A group of countries led by France argue that "Ireland will be obliged to have a second vote" if other countries ratify the treaty. And "officials in some capitals" argue that "Dublin would have to be bullied into accepting some kind of semi-detached European status, like that of Norway."
I believe Brecht wrote: "The government has lost the confidence of the people, so it is necessary to elect a new people", an aphorism that sums up much of what is wrong with the whole EU project, and why Irish voters cast their ballots as they did.
Dr Andrew Crawley
Atlantic Shores, Barbados
Sir: I am a believer in the EU, and I am also pleased at the Irish "No" vote. The Irish have done a huge service to all the people in the EU who have been denied a vote. This treaty embraces issues which, for a healthy Europe, must be supported by a majority of all Europeans.
Of course we want an efficient administration and executive in the EU. We also want the politicians to come up with a way of delivering that which is neither a constitution in disguise nor a gravy-train for the politicians. If EU politicians and civil servants don't like the Irish vote, the best places for them to start an examination are Brussels and Strasbourg.
Sir: In recent times our Prime Minister, and a host of ministers, repeatedly told us they must listen more to what "people" are telling them.
The Irish people refused the proposed Lisbon Treaty by a fair majority. What was the reaction of our Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary? "We know best; we must press on and ratify the treaty." So, when is the new style of listening going to start?
North Shields, Tyne and Wear
Ways to succeed in business
Sir: I congratulate Lee McQueen on winning The Apprentice. He has challenged the bizarre belief in this country that you must have a degree to be successful in business. It's very disappointing that he felt he needed to lie about his qualifications to be successful; it's a problem we see often because people think university is the only path to success.
Lee has proved that you need a range of skills to succeed, many of which can only be learnt by doing. I congratulate Sir Alan Sugar on recognising that; I just wish others would follow suit.
Chief Executive, Edge, London W1
Poets in battle on home ground
Sir: "The Week in Arts" (7 June), suggests that poetry boxing is a new phenomenon spearheaded in Japan. The first poetry boxing event I went to was in Brighton some years ago.
The concept of the poets' three-minute battle for audience appreciation is alive and kicking in the UK, as can be seen by the hugely successful poetry slams held at Swindon and Cheltenham literature festivals as well as regularly at hammer and tongue events in Oxford and Brighton.
As a slam poet, I am biased, but it seems to me a great shame that more festivals such as the Hay don't invite slam poets. It is also a tragedy that the events don't get reviewed and celebrated more often.
Davis defies Labour attack on liberty
Sir: Whatever anyone thinks about David Davis's motives or his wisdom in resigning as an MP, anyone who values freedom of speech, civil liberties or the rule of law should applaud his attempt to bring to the forefront of public debate the attempts of New Labour to turn the UK, step by step, into a police state.
Since Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997, there has been a sustained assault, often under the pretence of protecting us from the threat of terrorism, on legal safeguards built up over the centuries to protect the individual from those in power who would abuse that power.
I had hoped that getting rid of Blair might reverse the march toward totalitarianism. Unfortunately, while the rhetoric is lower-key, the legislation continues to take us down that slippery slope, with most Labour MPs too spineless or indifferent to put a stop to it. I suspect Mr Davis has rightly concluded that opposition to this process within Parliament will continue to be ineffective. Forcing this by-election may actually make the people see more clearly just how big a threat New Labour is to freedom and democracy.
Sir: Civil libertarians, whose demands are always absolute and inflexible, ought to recognise that the world is changing, with greater citizen demand for security. There may be support for David Davis but it does not account for the majority opinion on 42 days. David Davis's vanity puts the voters in his constituency in a difficult position. Do they vote for him as a Tory candidate or against him on the issue of civil liberties? If he is as principled as he states, why doesn't he stand as an independent?
Sir: Ben Bradshaw MP (letter, 16 June) is guilty of the same selectivity of which he accuses David Davis. Mr Bradshaw seems to believe that if the Government has brought in progressive and liberalising legislation in one field (such as equality for gay men and lesbians), that somehow entitles it to bring in regressive and authoritarian legislation in another (detention without charge for 42 days). Mr Bradshaw is right to oppose David Davis's attitudes in the former case but he needs to be consistent.
Sir: Ben Bradshaw is in no position to lecture anyone on freedom; Davis may be a strange friend of liberty, but Labour turns out to be no friend of liberty at all. It is a measure of how bad things have got that Davis (pro-hanging, homophobic) looks to many to be a better option than Labour.
Smacking is lazy
Sir: Norman Wells advocates "loving physical correction", and, along with Jeremy Legg, appears unable to distinguish between disciplining children and hitting them (letters, 14 June). Smacking is lazy parenting, the last resort of someone who cannot be bothered to explain to a child, patiently and repeatedly, the difference between right and wrong.
Bolton, Greater Manchester
Sir: We are to send even more troops to Afghanistan even though the Russians had half a million and were defeated. We are to make a difference with 8,000. The Irish voted No on the European constitution, yet to hear Milliband, Brown and even Sarkozy it's as if none of this happened. These are the actions of failed myopic politicians who should have the good grace to leave the stage. They are so typical of the men that the Irish voted against.
Sir: I was at this year's Orange Prize party, and I would not want readers of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's article (16 June) to go away with the impression that people didn't want Rose Tremian's novel, The Road Home, to win because "who wants to read about bloody migrants?" There may have been one embittered ex-Trotskyite of her description in the audience, but to judge by the huge cheers when Tremain won, nobody else shared her views. Tremain won because she was by far the best writer.
The reality TV misses
Sir: Your correspondent, Nicholas Janni (16 June) asks: "Where are the programmes that show people of real vision and inspiration, and the countless selfless heroes of everyday life with whom our future, if there is one, lies?" They have more sense than to allow themselves to be filmed for "reality" TV. Leading and encouraging people, in any field, takes months and years of support, with small, quiet actions coupled with seizing opportunities as they occur. TV requires structured events to happen within a short space of time and to have conflict.
Bikes by train
Sir: The rising oil price must be an opportunity for the Government and the rail companies. The extra revenue that the oil brings in could subsidise a more affordable rail network and legislation could compel all trains to take a minimum of 12 large bicycles, with the carriage having a special, coloured and easily visible light for when the train enters the station, and without the cyclist feeling like some sort of freak.
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