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- Arts + Ents
Thursday 19 June 2008
First it was A-levels; now they are denigrating our degrees
Sir: I was much dismayed this morning (17 June) upon seeing your front-page headline regarding university league tables and the apparent ease with which a first-class degree can now be obtained. As a recent graduate, who learnt her results only yesterday, I feel, once again, following the similar treatment of my A-level results, that the national media is attempting to cheapen the achievements of students who have worked incredibly hard. Such sensationalist headlines undermine the amount of time, money and effort that is being spent upon these achievements.
As a graduate from the University of Liverpool who narrowly missed a first by 0.25 per cent, I find it particularly insulting to read that there has been a "sudden leap" in first-class degrees because of the universities' grading process. I myself discovered on Monday that the requirements for a first are a minimum of 8 out of 16 grades at first-class level. I assure you, at times I would have loved the opportunity to gain a first "without having actually achieved a first-class mark in any individual component of [my] degree". However, since this is definitely not the case, it angers me to think that this is the message that your newspaper and Professor Geoffrey Alderman are spreading.
It cannot be denied that the number of first-class and 2:i grades are rising in universities, but as the price of university continues to soar, is it not reasonable to think that people are working harder in order to justify such expenditure? Should this, like all academic achievement, not be applauded instead of undermined?
Conisbrough, South Yorkshire
EU 'democracy' excludes the voters
Sir: Steve Richards (17 June) complains that the Irish have a veto on European enlargement and effectiveness. But it is not only the Irish who oppose the new constitution/treaty. The Dutch and French also voted against it. And Steve concedes that "a referendum on Europe can never be won in any country at any point in the future". So instead of talking about a "veto", we would do better to talk about the "democratically expressed, European view".
We get to the nub of the argument when we are told "Ireland should be removed from the EU if it continues to insist on subjecting each treaty to a referendum campaign. It makes democratic politics unworkable in Europe." The workable democratic politics that Steve seeks seems to be a cosy relationship between the leaders of the mainstream parties and the press. There is a gulf between the agenda of Europe's political leadership and the opinion of the majority of the population. Allowing Irish or other voters to express their opinion is clearly inconsistent with this kind of democracy.
It reminds me of the debate about bringing democracy to the Middle East. Britain is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to bring them democracy. But when the Palestinians voted for the wrong party they were punished severely and continue to be punished now. If the Irish get thrown out of Europe for voting the wrong way, I suppose they will have gotten off lightly.
Dr Robin Hirsch
Sir: The Irish referendum result demonstrates that Europe cannot operate in the way that it does, being held to ransom by tiny minorities that do not understand what they are voting about but which use the opportunity to kick their government without consequence.
The EU should now insist that, once future treaties have been agreed by national governments, the choice for legislatures or electorates is ratify or leave the Union. In this way, failure to ratify would carry genuine consequences and the sensible majority could move forward without the small minority of trouble-makers.
Sir: The late, unlamented Vyacheslav Molotov once said that the problem with elections was that you could never be sure of the result. Steve Richards' attitude towards referendums seems to make him one of Molotov's disciples.
Switzerland uses them more than anywhere else and seems to be among the best governed countries in the world. Nor, contrary to the patronising view of Harold Wilson, have they led to people voting for a 100 per cent increase in services and a 100 per cent reduction in taxes.
I would not go as far as the Swiss or some American states. I would have them held along with the local elections, with one third of the MPs nationally or councillors locally able to call one and no MP or councillor able to call more than one a year. This, combined with proportional representation, would lead to more democratic and better government.
Sir: Steve Richards is correct to warn of the dangers of the referendum and its misuse by demagogues. But it is just as likely to be an instrument of progressive change.
In Switzerland, for example, referendums repealed laws treating homosexuals less favourably than heterosexuals. More recently, a plebiscite blocked attempts by the political class to make life more difficult for immigrants.
Instead of campaigning against the referendum, it would be better to campaign for more open and free use of media and a more politically conscious citizenry.
New rules for urban cyclists
Sir: James Daley's claim (Cyclotherapy, 12 June) that our plans to let cyclists go the "wrong" way down one-way streets is all about saving money on building "proper" contraflow lanes is so childish it made me wonder if he still uses stabilisers on his bicycle.
A "proper" contraflow scheme is an engineering disaster visited on our streets: ugly, largely unused by cyclists and often parked with cars in the evenings.
Instead of dreaming up intrusive engineering schemes to tell cyclists where they ought to go, we have looked at the places they actually do go, even some where they are behaving illegally (though safely). And we are trying to accommodate them by (experimentally) regularising the legal position in those streets.
This also fits with our policy of reducing road clutter; something we have successfully introduced in Kensington High Street, where safety for road-users and pedestrians alike has vastly improved.
Cllr Daniel Moylan
Deputy Leader, Kensington and Chelsea Council, London W8
Biofuels and the cost of food
Sir: It is disingenuous of Elliott Mannis to claim that the biodiesel debate is a proxy fight for those who oppose capitalism and globalisation (letters, 11 June). United Nations reports say that food shortages threaten 100 million of the world's poorest with starvation.
This year, global production of biofuels will consume 100 million tonnes of grain. About 20 million acres of maize, wheat, soya and other crops have been diverted to produce biofuel in the US. Sixty million tonnes of food produced in the US in the past two years, which could feed 250 million people, was used for biofuel. It takes 232kg of corn to fill a 50-litre car tank with ethanol, enough to feed a child for a year. Brazil, Argentina and even India use crops for biofuel.
The result is that prices of staple foods have risen 80 per cent in three years. The problem is made worse by almost 760 million tonnes of grains being fed to animals raised for meat. The biofuel model to solve the climate change and energy crisis needs to be revisited. A return to a plant-based vegetarian and vegan diet is also of great importance if we are to avoid the double whammy of biofuel and grains diverted to feed animals. Opposing biofuel should not be seen as opposing capitalism or globalisation. Capitalism with a humane face is in the best interest of all.
Ensuring excellent care for toddlers
Sir: In "Revolt looms over new curriculum for toddlers" (report, 5 June), it is not true to say that we are on a "collision course" with parents, early-years specialists and childminders over our Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS).
We consulted many early-years practitioners and professionals during the development of the EYFS, which had an overwhelming level of support from them during consultation, as it continues to do.
Under-fives will not "be required to be assessed on 69 writing, problem-solving and numeracy skills". The EYFS is not a curriculum and children will not be tested against early-learning goals. But watching out for those goals, and noticing the way children develop towards them, will allow childminders to identify early if a child needs additional help and support, and alert parents.
It is nonsense to suggest that the EYFS breaches human rights. Parents will have the option of applying for an exemption for their child for some or all of the learning and development requirements if they can demonstrate that they conflict with their philosophies and beliefs or that EYFS cannot accommodate their child.
With the EYFS, parents will be sure that their children, irrespective of the type of setting they attend, will get the same excellent standards of learning and care.
Minister of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families, London SW1
'Hypocrisy' over Israel boycott
Sir: When I was President of the Association of University Teachers, a predecessor of the University and College Union, we passed resolutions critical of China but not of Israel; now it's the other way round. Contrary to Dr Hutchison (letter, 17 June), there neither was nor is anything illogical or hypocritical here: the boot is on the other foot.
If we decide not to oppose any evils because we cannot oppose them all, we entirely trivialise the concept of evil. The list of morally similar things is always indefinitely long and always disputable at every point, because similar things are always a bit different. The demand that we check off the entire list before we speak out against, say, Israel or China is a demand that would cause all moral language to die in our mouths.
Something bad does not cease to be bad because something else is bad too. We constantly face rhetoric that changes the subject from bad acts in the world to the state of mind or alleged hypocrisy of those who condemn those acts, rhetoric which is really a sign of guilty conscience.
Sir: P J Stewart and Sara Cohen (letters: 11, 12 June) both make pertinent and helpful points. Despite the superficial divergence of their perspectives, they identify two important truths central to the tragedy of Palestine.
One: the Arab struggle was and is against Zionism, not Jews. Two: without the West's acquiescence to Zionist terror, Jews and Arabs would still be co-inhabiting a region they had shared for centuries.
Cars across the roof of the world
Sir: Before the 1939 Mercedes Benz reached the southern plains of Kathmandu ("Nepal puts Hitler's Mercedes gift on show", 16 June), it would have been carried across the Himalayas. In Hassoldt Davis's book Nepal, Land of Mystery, he describes coming across the phenomenon while making the first professional film of Nepal in the 1930s with Armand Denis.
He says that while walking towards Kathmandu at a height of 8,000 feet his party saw a 1925 Dodge sedan appear out of the mist, carried by 77 men yoked together and carrying the car on their shoulders, two-thirds pulling, the others surrounding it and a dozen pushing from behind. The wheels were carried by four women.
He was later told that three steam rollers and one bronze equestrian statue weighing two tons had been transported in the same way.
Ban on Bin Laden
Sir: One would have thought that the home curfew bail condition on Abu Qatada that he is not allowed to meet Osama Bin Laden would have been omitted on the offchance that Bin Laden might visit and be caught.
Sir: Do not Richard Ingrams (16 June) and his like realise that without the EU they would have so much more difficulty in finding culprits to blame for whatever bugs them. His latest concern is the closure of our post offices by (of course) the Eurocrats. Yet does he never send emails rather than letters? If he shops online does he cancel the order if he discovers that the product is sent via one of Royal Mail's competitors? Does he really favour monopolies over competition?
Sir: In your article about maths (7 June), you ask: "The result of squaring a number is 49, the original number must be 7 – true or false?" The answer is certainly false but so is your explanation that "it should be -7". Squaring plus or minus 7 gives 49. The main problem seems to me to be the assumption among children and adults that it is acceptable to be bad at maths, even something to be proud of.
Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands
Sir: As a pedant, I feel the need to advise Stephen Lowe Watson (letter, 17 June) that Euripides was not responsible for the saying "Whom the gods would destroy. . . ." It was originally in Latin – Quem Jupiter vult perdere, dementat prius – and does sound classical. Tacitus perhaps? It was in fact invented by a 17th-century English scholar and divine, James Duport, who in 1660 produced Homeri Gnomologia, ("Homer's table-talk"), in which this quotation occurs. I don't know of any earlier evidence for the idea. Mr Lowe Watson was right about Schiller, though.
Fix that figure
Sir: With price indices indicating inflation of 3 or 4 per cent, I wonder how long it will be before the Chancellor is arguing for house prices to be included in the calculations.
Harrogate, North Yorkshire
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