Letters: Family life in Japan

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Pete Dorey's observation of the four young women sitting in a pub chatting and texting on their phones while not exchanging a word with each other (letter, 11 October), brought to mind an outing with my daughters last week.

During lunch, we couldn't help but steal glances at the attractive, well-dressed family at a neighbouring table. Mum, Dad, daughter and son all had their own hand-held games and proceeded to play them constantly, only stopping when their food arrived.

Not a single word was exchanged between the four the entire time we observed them. I couldn't help but conclude that "a game the whole family can play" had taken on a whole new meaning.

C R Ogawa, Yugawara, Japan

Far from not saying a word to each other, the four young women Pete Dorey saw round a pub table were probably phoning and texting each other. Face-to-face communication is so 20th-century, and hand-written letters (such as this) positively antediluvian.

David Seymour, London, SE4

Literary banquet of the future

John Walsh writes, in the run up to the Booker Prize announcement, of the turmoil among the book publishers with the advent of the electronic book or e-book ("The end of the word as we know it", 7 October).

Rather than gathering in Guildhall, just imagine in a year or two's time e-book readers and "retired" book publishers will, on a specified date and time, be sitting at home in their favourite chair with the candles burning low. On the floor beside them will be the empty ready meal containers and a nearly finished bottle of wine.

Their wi-fi communicator is switched on and at 9.45pm precisely they will discover who has won the E-Booker Prize and will raise the last glass in joy or sorrow. Not quite as it was in the "old days'".

Peter Erridge, East Grinstead, West Sussex

Education for everyone

Your perverse argument that "neither Labour nor the the Liberal Democrats have set out a convincing case for why the whole population, through general taxation, should subsidise the tertiary education of a minority who can expect to earn well above the average", reflects a great deal of what is muddle-headed about the conduct of policy in this country (leading article, 11 October).

Your paper has often in recent weeks emphasised the vital importance to the economy of preserving the quality of our universities and ensuring that we produce a good "crop" of graduates drawn from all sections of society.

Our education policy should not be based on the supposed advantages to individual graduates but should be viewed as a social and economic benefit to the whole nation. Why do you suppose that firms and institutions are often prepared to pay graduates and other qualified workers higher salaries?

To focus the argument on benefits to individuals rather than on the cost and benefit to the nation demonstrates that in practice this government in formulating policy ignores their much-vaunted slogan, "We are all in this together". That in turn generates much concern over the general direction of their shortly to be announced "cuts".

D J Powell, Whitstable, Kent

The Browne Review of university funding sets out plans to establish a competitive market in higher education. By removing the cap on student fees, moving towards a system where funding follows student numbers and calling for more information about graduate outcomes, the review intends that students will increasingly act as consumers, choosing among providers of higher education.

A successful HE market requires informed consumers, responsive suppliers and a well-defined set of performance indicators. However, neither the current arrangements nor those set out in the review meet this standard. University performance indicators are fuzzy and dependent on the subjective opinions of students who have no basis for comparing across institutions. Market outcomes in circumstances of constrained information are unlikely to be perfect.

Behavioural economics suggests that people weight probable losses more heavily than probable gains and, in this light, the proposed arrangements appear to run the risk of deterring well-qualified candidates.

Finally, successful markets allow consumers to move away from inefficient or ineffective suppliers. However, choosing a university course is for most people a one-shot game. If a course or institution fails to live up to expectations, the students on that course cannot easily return to the market place to buy a replacement or to get a refund. While future students may be deterred by poor satisfaction ratings, the current students have no choice but to remain at the failing institution.

Regardless of the wisdom of establishing a market for higher education, it is clear the Browne Review has sought shelter in earnings and repayment schedules, rather than dealing with the serious conceptual problems at the heart of this issue.

Philip Wales, Cambridge

The market-based approach suggested by the Browne Review is fundamentally flawed. Everyone benefits from good-quality, accessible universities. They are an investment in the country. Placing a market fee on university courses turns education into a financial transaction. Higher fees will price both the middle classes and the poor out of education, and with more and more bright potential undergraduates being put off, British universities will face a drain of talent which will seriously compromise the economic recovery.

Two of the report's guiding "principles", those of student choice and of fair access, directly contradict each other. As Browne himself acknowledges when arguing for the public funding of "priority" courses, "the costs of these courses are high and, if students were asked to meet all the costs, there is a risk they would choose to study cheaper courses".

These flaws in a market system where students will make choices based on ability to pay rather than academic interest and aptitude render the idea of an open market between universities both ludicrous and dangerous. We believe this will be immensely damaging to Oxford and Cambridge's work on increasing access, as well as saddling our graduates with huge levels of debt coupled with higher interest levels. World-class universities cannot simply be the preserve of the privileged, and it is a very real risk that charging fees upwards of £10,000 a year will deter potential students, especially those from poorer backgrounds. University choice should not be dictated by debt but by the potential of the student.

Rahul Mansigani, President, Cambridge University Students' Union

David Barclay, President, Oxford University Students' Union

However much the universities might be in need of extra funding, all Liberal Democrats elected to sit in Parliament signed a pledge before the election not to raise the tuition fee cap. Whatever the financial circumstances we now find ourselves in, that was a promise – in writing.

If Liberal Democrat MPs renege on that promise, why should the electorate ever trust their word on anything else again? And if electors don't believe that Lib Dems will carry out their proposed manifesto policies when in government, why should they bother to vote Lib Dem next time?

Marjorie Harris, London NW11

Imagine you're a teenager from a deprived estate. These are your options: become a celebrity; start a band; marry a footballer; buy and sell drugs; stay on at school, try for university and face a debt of several tens of thousands when you leave. What do you do?

If you've any sense: you do the drugs, lottery tickets, X-Factor, lap-dancing, or pull a footballer and sell the story to the press. Oh, to be in England!

Ian Flintoff, Oxford

A few months ago we were told that raising the price of alcohol was the best way to stop people drinking. So now we are meant to believe that raising tuition fees will not stop young people going to university?

Dr Margaret Barrow, Knossington, Leicestershire

'Envy' argument serves the rich

Dominic Lawson is right that envy is intrinsic to human societies (Opinion, 12 October). Rousseau realised more than two centuries ago that wherever there is difference, hierarchy will swiftly follow.

Detailed studies have shown that envy has real consequences for people's mental wellbeing. The poor are indeed unhappier than the rich, but largely as a result of being relatively worse-off.

People are not so ignorant as to fail to understand that through no fault of their own their quality of life is significantly prejudiced by the system; the point is that this understanding is in itself prejudicial to their satisfaction with life. In a wealthy society such as Britain, Lawson's sole emphasis on absolute poverty is misplaced.

The point regarding the morally arbitrary nature of (biological and social) factors which lead to economic success is correct. But the logical conclusion would be that we must above all else focus on compensating those whom nature or nurture have not favoured, in order that all may lead as fulfilling lives as possible. The huge differentials in wealth we see in this country are counter-productive to this goal.

Lawson's position, that since envy is ineradicable then any attempts to reduce its causes are futile if not dangerous, is unfounded. In the realm of material wealth, a progressive tax and benefits system is a tested and effective – if not particularly imaginative – way of doing so.

That the majority does not see the fairness in subsidising the richest 17 per cent, as the cited opinion poll shows, is of no surprise. The more worrying aspect is that the rich will attempt to justify such a subsidy. To argue that the entire notion of "fairness" is vacuous merely serves to legitimate such a self-serving stance and to prevent positive change.

Francis Jackson, East Bridgford, Nottinghamshire

Failures in Afghanistan

The British press would do well not to make too much out of the failed rescue of the British Afghan aid worker Linda Norgrove by American special forces. There is risk in any military operation of this type, and these American soldiers selflessly put their own necks on the line attempting the rescue. That things went badly wrong in the heat of the fight in no way detracts from their bravery.

If there is one useful message to be drawn from this tragedy, it is that Afghanistan is simply no place for Western aid workers, and the charities concerned should therefore be thinking about pulling their people out.

We are in the forlorn position of neither having conquered Afghanistan nor won the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. The charities can therefore be as kind and well-meaning as they want, but the locals will just throw it back in their faces.

We went into Afghanistan with the best intentions in the world – not just to defeat the terrorists but to build a stable Muslim state to rid the country of poverty. We have paid a heavy price in blood for this honourable approach. In return we have been met with hatred, ingratitude and corruption, and a general population that is secretly willing to do business with the insurgency.

We are clearly on to a loser, slugging it out with tribesmen in a low-tech ground war that erodes our technological advantage.

Dr Mark Campbell-Roddis, Dunblane, Perthshire

The latest book by Bob Woodward, Obama's War, says that to put an American soldier in Afghanistan, to pay everything including his veteran's bill and health insurance, to take care of his family, feed him and arm him costs roughly $250,000 per soldier. There are 68,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan. That costs $17bn.

Imagine if the US Government decided to invest that money in the Afghan people, feed it, educate it, making sure that the money went to the people who deserve it via NGOs, not through the corrupt Afghan government. You would probably now have no Taliban and a much more free society.

Paul Doran, Dublin

The letter of 29 September "Why we need our aircraft carriers" is signed by an impressive assortment of naval gold braid, ranking from Admiral to Commander. The authors make their case with admirable clarity albeit with breathtaking lack of insight: "Carriers are immune to cheap mortars, IEDs and suicide bombers" and "the last serviceman killed as a result of enemy action in a British carrier was in 1945."

Carriers are useless in the age of land-based guerrilla warfare. True, aircraft launched from carriers can wreak havoc many miles away but these hit-and-run attacks from the air cause untold harm to the civilian population, breed justified resentment and generate fresh recruits to the insurgency they are trying to overcome.

For all its air and sea superiority, US-led coalitions failed to win the war in Iraq.

What we need are well-equipped front-line infantry, and safe transport, close-range air support – that is helicopters – and, above all, good intelligence and an understanding of the needs and aspirations of the populations we are ostensibly there to defend. Once these are in place, we can start rooting out terrorists.

Professor P P Anthony, Exeter

A celebration of poetry

I was disappointed to hear that David Lister considers National Poetry Day to be "an insult to poetry" (The Week in Arts, 9 October). While it's true that we have no National Film Day or National Music Day, the prominence of both these art forms is amply assisted by frequent reviews in the national media, whereas references to the "vibrant and ubiquitous part of our culture" that is poetry are comparatively rare (except, of course, the recent brief flurry of attention given to Carol Ann Duffy's appointment as Laureate, which centred, perhaps naturally, not on the poetry itself, but on the novelty of Duffy being the first woman to hold the post).

This week, I've spoken to a number of teachers who have been able to use last Thursday's "stunts" (or "resources" as they preferred to call them) as a springboard for developing in their students an enthusiasm for language and poetry that will hopefully last beyond a single day.

Instead of calling for National Poetry Day to be abolished, perhaps Mr Lister could try and see it in the way it was intended: not a gimmick, but as a celebration, and a focusing of the public eye on to an art form which is often overshadowed by more spectacular entertainments.

Tony Keeton, Chesterfield, Derbyshire

Narrow-minded travellers

I am thankful that I have not been on a cruise with Richard Ingrams and his clique of narrow- minded individuals ("Hell is other people when you're stuck on a cruise ship", 9 October).

I have been a regular Swan Hellenic passenger for many years, and because of the free seating policy found myself at meals with many very interesting people, some of whom became friends. Of course there were bores but one didn't have to sit with them again.

The parties of "mates" were a real menace on board: they shunned other passengers and in turn were avoided, so there was never any chance of their minds being expanded.

Dr Margaret Elmes, Dinas Powys, Vale of Glamorgan

Czech bounce

One reason why the Czech Republic may be so far ahead of us, as Laurence Shields suggests (letter, 12 October) could be that their politicians spend less time bragging that their next initiative will "lead the world" and more on simply trying to make things better. How long can we continue to delude ourselves that we lead the world when our infrastructure is crumbling and the prevailing political atmosphere is old-fashioned and obsessed with appearance rather than performance?

Peter Whitby, Bossington, Somerset

Gays of old

Peter Benson informs us (letter, 13 October) that to older people gay used to mean cheerful. In fact it meant, and still means, rather more than that. It was not for nothing that the art of courtly love was called "the gay science" – that is, an activity which made its expert practitioners feel both happy and spiritually uplifted. Whatever the new, hopefully transient, uses of the term, we need to preserve that original sense, for no other word in our language conveys it.

Max Gauna, Sheffield