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Monday 28 September 2009
Bring back polytechnics – and useful education
I am with Shirley Williams on the subject of the polytechnics ("Bring back the polys and scrap A-levels", 24 September). In the 1980s and '90s I was in contract teams building financial and manufacturing computer systems. We sometimes were allocated a junior – a new member of the company's staff – as part of their introduction to the business.
Mostly, these would prove to be graduates of "proper" universities, trained for academia, catapulted into the real world: fish out of water who needed retraining. On two occasions, the zealots in personnel had failed to reject all the suitable candidates and we received the assistance (and commercial insight) of trainees with polytechnic qualifications, who were immediately useful instead of endangering timescales and budgets.
The traditional university has its place, but so should the polytechnics, with their industry-friendly sandwich courses.
Thank goodness for Shirley Williams. The abolition of the polytechnics is one of the prime reasons for the failure of UK manufacturing and the gravitation of cerebral talent to finance and politics.
Baroness Williams would like to go back to the polytechnics and for A-levels to be replaced by a baccalaureate which would give equal weight to vocational and academic skills. Absolutely right. Polytechnics were never "second-class universities", but this is what many of them have become, seduced by "media studies" and the status and trappings of academia.
As polytechnics, they knew what they were doing and did it well. We should lament their passing.
Leamington Spa, Warwickshire
One-sided ban on nuclear weapons
While I hold no brief for President Ahmadinejad, it would be helpful if someone could explain why one Middle Eastern country which deceives the Western world is threatened with sanctions while another, Israel, is given most-favoured nation status by America and the EU, with favours including billions of dollars given every year, the latest weaponry, trading rights denied to many other nations and a blind eye toward any war crimes it commits.
If the approach was not so obviously one-sided, it would be easier to get widespread support behind a strong campaign for a nuclear-free Middle East, backed by strong sanctions against all nations in the region which do not open up their nuclear programmes to international verification.
Your otherwise excellent series of articles (26 September) on the crisis around Iran's nuclear plans contains one crucial error in the section "Qom by Numbers", where you state that the necessary enrichment for weapons-grade material is 7 per cent. The typical enrichment for weapons grade uranium is actually around 96 per cent, as compared with 3.5 per cent for a typical light water reactor power plant.
This is extremely important, as the huge difference between the requirements for the two applications, power production or bombs, offers room for compromise if we wish to take it.
The claim by Iran that it needs enrichment for its nuclear power programme could be a valid one: enriched fuel is used in many countries because it enables a smaller reactor, perhaps more suitable to a large country such as Iran with a widely dispersed population.
Instead of a blank refusal to countenance any enrichment at all, the West should offer Iran uranium enrichment up to 5 per cent only – a level useless for bomb material but suitable for most reactor designs. Inspection by the IAEA of all Iran's nuclear facilities would of course be required.
Iran's acceptance of such an offer would calm international tension and destroy the excuse for the military action which Israel is itching for. Adrian Hamilton is right: "Rhetoric against Iran must be cooled for the sake of the Middle East."
Dr Phil Nicholson
(former Lecturer in Nuclear Physics, University of Strathclyde), Glasgow
The USA, a country with one of the largest arsenals of nuclear weapons and which has attacked dozens of countries in the past 40 years, is telling Iran, a country which has not invaded any other country in living memory, to "prove its peaceful intentions". Where are the journalists clamouring to question this absurd stance?
Someone should point out to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that denial of the crimes of history is a game that two can play. Foreign powers could bomb his country's uranium enrichment sites, army bases and prison torture centres, and then deny it ever happened
Would someone please explain the criteria by which we distinguish between those who can have weapons of mass destruction and those who cannot?
What the Church is trying to say
It was sad to read Mary Wakefield's observations on the Church of England's Back to Church campaign (26 September). Clearly she sees the various stunts and comments by bishops as being at best embarrassing and at worst offputting. So, why do the Church and the bishops really bother?
They bother because they truly believe that to follow Christ is the best way to live our lives and the way our lives can be saved from becoming meaningless and destructive – both to ourselves, our neighbours and the environment. And that is what Church is all about.
It's true that there is disagreement in the Church about all kinds of things – just as there is within any group of human beings, in the Church or a political party or the most professionally run corporation. But it's time to stop dissing the Church and to listen to what the Church is trying to say. And that means – getting back to church.
the Rev Martine Oborne
St Mary's Islington, London N1
The case for a tax on mansions
David Whittaker (letter, 24 September) asserts: "Taxing income is generally accepted as fair. However, the mansion tax would be a tax on having, for which there is no moral justification."
On the contrary. Earned income is an indication of economically productive activity; taxing it is a disincentive to such activity. The value of houses is usually massively inflated from the original purchase price, and is wholly unearned. Sitting on such a windfall is economically unproductive. Wealth taxes encourage the realisation of accumulations and the release of capital to useful economic purpose.
In the housing market, this has the added benefit of increasing the housing supply, depressing the price. It encourages mobility, as people find it easier and cheaper to move house to a new job, and better matches house prices to incomes, thereby ensuring that more people are able to get on to the property ladder.
It is far more moral to tax unearned accumulations of wealth than to tax the productive activity of those who contribute to building the economy and our society.
Jailing teacher does no good
It may surprise David Battye (letter, 25 September) that there are a few teachers out there, myself included, who have some compassion. Yes, Helen Goddard was a fool, she broke the law and abused her power as a teacher, but surely, losing her job, not being able to teach again in her lifetime and being placed on the sex offenders register is punishment enough.
What good does it do sending her to prison for 15 months? She will be out in 10 months with good behaviour and then can legally have sex with the girl, as there will be no longer a teacher-pupil relationship and the girl will have reached the age of consent.
Far better that Ms Goddard received 15 months' imprisonment, but suspended for three years, conditional upon no further contact in that time.
Matriarch at the apex of privilege
Johann Hari's heartfelt and well-argued critique of the Queen Mother (25 September) should not stop at this particular "stunted family".
Why do we still need the institution of the monarchy at the apex of an exploitative class system in the 21st century? Historically there is no justification for the assumption that any kind of hierarchy is natural to all human beings at all times.
If the economic turmoil of the past two years has aroused deep misgivings about the structures and widening inequalities of capitalism, why should we not extend these misgivings to the monarchy and the inequalities that it exemplifies and sustains?
Johann Hari on the Queen Mum – "Alf Garnett in a tiara" – pure genius! What is it with us English? Why do we tolerate this second-rate, vulgar, extravagant Royal Family?
I usually find Johann Hari's pieces very thoughtful and well constructed, balanced and responsible. What happened to him on 25 September? His piece on the Queen Mother was one of the most puerile and unpleasant diatribes I have ever read. What a pity to undermine his status as a serious journalist in such a petty way - and to what end?
I am by no means an apologist for the monarchy but I do uphold good manners in behaviour and in writing. So I was astounded to read Johann Hari's article on the Queen Mother, with its unnecessary venom.
I have no reason to think that she is the sweet old dear of many people's imagination, but neither do I think it becoming to a columnist, who has won awards in journalism, to give such an account of her. Of course there is and should be room for criticism and assessment of persons, institutions, events, but within the bounds of good manners.
Rosa Wei-Ling Chang
How wonderfully refreshing to read a piece highlighting the pointlessness of the Windsors, the ridiculous amounts of money wasted upon them and their banal belief that they deserve it.
Johann Hari's review of the biography of the Queen Mother is highly entertaining. However, Edward Windsor's wife's name was Wallis, not Wallace.
Blair in the air
Tony Blair routinely flies around by private jet for many of his activities, which include advocacy of action on climate change. Upon his conversion to Roman Catholicism (letter, 25 September), did he utter St Augustine's prayer: "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet"?
Brown's duty to party
A lacklustre week at the Labour Party conference could be transformed instantly if Gordon took a lot of people's advice and just stood down form the leadership. As Gordon cares passionately about the state of the party, I know he would do anything to ensure a new Labour administration. If he doesn't and the party is trashed at the next election his words will have a hollow ring. This week should prove, one way or another, how much Gordon really cares.
Support the troops
P Ingham (Letters, 25 September) argues that we should shame the Government into supplying armour to the troops by raising it through public subscription. Great idea, but why drag the Government into it at all? Let's just fund the entire military by public subscription, all the time. We'd soon find out how much we all really "support the troops".
You report that internet service providers have said that disconnecting users for illegal file-sharing "could amount to a breach of internet users' human rights" (25 September). When my monthly direct debit payment to my ISP (one of the market leaders) failed on one occasion my internet access was disconnected without warning. It would seem that this curious "human right" applies when copyright holders are suffering loss but not when the ISP's own money is at stake.
James A Mullan
Your item regarding Colonel Gaddafi's "broach", pinned to his robes when he addressed the UN (Errors and Omissions, 26 September) reminded me that when I worked with a civil engineering business its spell-check system used to suggest that the typing of "boreholes" was wrong, and didn't I mean "brothels"?
Gunnerside, North Yorkshire
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