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Wednesday 8 December 2010
Letters: University funding
Steve Richards is right ("Only Tories win from the student saga", 7 December). The policy argument over university funding has not been won – or even properly aired.
For some years vice-chancellors have been clamouring for the power to increase student fees. But now they will have less money, will not be allowed to increase income by recruiting more students (because the Government will continue to penalise over-recruitment), and will be prevented from raising fees to what they consider an economic level. Posh universities will shortly realise that they can "serve the public" best by going private, charging massive fees and salving their liberal (or Lib Dem) consciences by throwing in a few extra bursaries for the poor.
Meanwhile other institutions will have to cut subjects and devise short, intensive courses that offer only a second-rate education to their students. We are constantly being told that their courses are second-rate already. But this is nonsense; England's most distinguished academics do not all teach at Russell Group universities.
Education is a social benefit in itself. Leaving aside the iniquity of burdening graduates with half-a-lifetime's debt, the policy about to be implemented will remodel tertiary education to the form that already cripples secondary education in this country: an elite, well-funded private sector with a chaotic and unstable public sector alongside it. In every sense, then, Steve Richards is right that only the Tories will win.
The cutting of university teaching budgets by almost 80 per cent – deeper than any of the other proposed cuts – and the removal of all public funding for university teaching in the arts, humanities and social sciences, is a powerfully regressive move. Increasing student fees to cover these brutal cuts amounts to the out-and-out marketisation of these subject-areas.
The message is clear: these fields of knowledge make no contribution to society; they are not public goods, and do not deserve public support, hence their future will depend entirely upon their market value as commodities.
Quite apart from the effects that these reforms will have in amplifying social inequalities and shutting down what little remains of post-war social mobility, they will tear the public heart out of higher education and leave it hollowed out, driven purely by the shallow logic of the market.
The greatest strides towards a fairer society were made after the Second World War when this country was in far more debt than it is now. The deficit does not excuse regressive policies; it is a question of political will and political priorities.
Replacing public funding with a privatised market undermines the core values of education itself, leaving it little more than an instrumental tool in the pursuit of individual advantage over others in the competitive game of life.
Dr Richie Nimmo
Lecturer in Sociology,
University of Manchester
The current student protests will one day be seen as one of the most ironic protests of the modern era. I recently found out what the NUS's preferred solution to higher education funding was: make the rich pay the most. How is this any different from what the Government is planning?
Ed Miliband says he wants a graduate tax. How is that different from what the Government is doing? The principle is the same: make the richest graduates pay the most on a sliding scale to the poorest paying nothing.
Only the 40 per cent richest will have to pay back their entire loan, the Browne Report estimates. The 25 per cent poorest will pay less than they currently do or nothing at all. There will be maintenance grants worth up to £3,300 for poorer students and more loans for most students. From 2012 onwards, no one will be unable to pay their living costs.
Universities will have an incentive to provide enough spaces in the courses students want. Since funding will come from the student rather than as a block grant from the Government, universities will have to cater for student demand. You are more likely to get into the course you want, rather than your second choice.
When I was standing up in front of 500 Bristol University students speaking about this subject, one girl asked me what I would say to her 16-year-old brother who no longer feels he can afford university. I would tell him he does not need to worry whether he will be able to pay because the richest will provide the funding for the less fortunate. A care worker earning £21,000 a year will repay £7 a month compared with the £81 a month he/she currently pays, and the £35 a month she would pay under a graduate tax. A graduate who becomes a top banker will repay £293 a month, according to the Browne Report. If you disagree with that, go ahead and protest.
When the Conservatives launched the "Big Society" theory at the disused Battersea Power Station, it seemed a fatally flawed concept. These doubts have been dispelled by the brave actions of Britain's students in protesting against the Coalition's totally unjustified plans for hiking undergraduate fees and cuts to the Higher Education budget.
The students have powerfully demonstrated the power of action "from below" in challenging out-of-touch "big government". It is also gratifying to see that "Big Society" principles are at work within the Coalition with the rebellion by MPs such as the Conservative David Davis and several Liberal Democrats. The next time they assemble in Battersea, the Conservatives should be more careful about what they wish for.
The priorities of this coalition – like those of the previous government – make one despair. The most important investment this country can make is educating its citizens to the highest level possible (remember "education, education, education"?) Yet we apparently cannot afford to pay for our best to attend university. The cost, at around £3.5bn a year, is just half what City bonuses are. It is scandalous.
Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Medical Research Council, Cambridge
If government understood its own rhetoric about society, there would be no dispute about university fees. We need university students, and it is the taxpayers who should be paying, as they do for schooling, health and welfare, and much else that benefits society.
East Preston, West Sussex
A Naughtie word on the radio
No one should apologise for James Naughtie's naughty on the Today programme.
if one's idea of Culture is to remove funding from community arts projects in favour of providing "super-speed Broadband" to one and all, then it should come as no surprise if one's name is inadvertently mispronounced.
I feel sure Mr *unt will have the loyal support of all those living in deprived areas who, thanks to the policy he has trumpeted this week, can now look forward to many solitary, cooped-up hours hunched over a computer instead of participating in the many valuable music and drama activities now forced to close through lack of Government grants. Progress indeed!
Well done, Mr Naughtie.
Douglas, Isle of Man
Congratulations to The Independent on cutting through the cant and actually printing the dreaded c-word that hardly differs from our unflinching daily use of "can't" Can we use the full richness of our language? Yes we can!
In 1965 we had to rent a tubular bell for the school play from the Hunt Drum Company. My, how we laughed.
Nudging the nation's health
The Coalition's shake-up of the NHS presents a number of dangers as well as opportunities.
Handing over 80 per cent of the health budget to GPs excludes other healthcare professionals and integrated approaches, which was a chief reason behind the creation of the primary care trusts.
A second worry is the unclear approach to public health. While it is potentially beneficial to move public health to local government, it now seems to be the purview of David Cameron's "nudgers". Some progress can be made in "nudging" people towards more healthy lifestyles, but our recent research – Unequal Lives - shows that tackling poverty, stalled social mobility, poor and overcrowded housing, high population densities, rundown local environments and variable air quality are key to reducing health inequalities.
Our study of Birmingham shows that life expectancy in inner-city neighbourhoods can be 10 years lower than the more affluent suburbs, and that this is correlated to poverty and disadvantage. Housing quality is a particularly important factor.
Cuts in the social housing budget, area regeneration programmes, local services and welfare, coupled to rising unemployment, will widen health inequalities and leave the new GP-led consortia floundering.
Director, HUMAN CITY institute, Birmingham
Victorian strife in the workplace
David Prosser (30 November) comments that for all the talk about chief executive Willie Walsh's hardball approach to outdated labour practices, the Unite union has actually achieved almost all of its aims in the British Airways dispute.
The point to make is that it is unions, not employers, that continue to use outdated practices – and have become outdated themselves. Unions were established to react against unscrupulous Victorian business owners, who forced their employees to labour for a pittance in squalid conditions, driving them to exhaustion, starvation, disease and death. No such conditions exist today, especially not in public companies such as BA, where corporate governance is a strong force for good. Moreover, EU employment law has afforded employees powerful protection for many years.
Strike action in the 21st century is often seen as both cynical and immoral. Certainly it has contributed to the decimation of UK manufacturing and the destruction of value – and, in this case, to many BA passengers choosing to use other airlines. It's a free market Willie, but now also a fair one too.
A choice of elderly care
The Coalition Government has promised in a "vision" for elderly care to accelerate rapidly the provision of personal budgets – an overdue but nonetheless welcome move. I was pleased to read the vision's statement that "older people should be supported with information on quality of providers readily available" and that "people in residential care should have the same entitlement as anyone else to exercise choice and control over their care and how they live".
Such words make it even harder to comprehend the decision of the regulator, the Care Quality Commission, to ditch the simple star-rating system which, until May of this year, enabled users of home care or care homes to see instantly whether a service was excellent, good, adequate or poor.
Chief Executive, Anchor, London WC2
Forecasters wrong again
As motorways and major roads were brought to a standstill on Monday following a "perfect storm" of snow during the morning rush-hour, the obvious question is why the weather forecasting was so poor.
The weather forecast was for "light snow", and it almost beggars belief that, with the technology available, meteorologists were not able to predict the appalling weather just a few hours ahead. Had the forecasting been accurate, and had people been warned not to travel, problems such as people being forced to spend the night in their vehicles in freezing conditions might not have arisen.
There could be a negative effect of encouraging those over 45 to take aspirin daily to guard against cancer and heart disease (report, 7 December). Before I donate blood I have to fill in a form asking me various questions about my health. One of these is whether I have taken prescribed aspirin within the previous seven days. I understand that donations from those who answer yes are refused. If every donor aged over 45 is ruled out there will be a serious shortage of blood.
Perspectives on banks
Where Madoff went wrong
I was shocked but not surprised to read that it has been alleged that one of our major banks, HSBC, was legitimising Bernard Madoff's "financial products" (report, 7 December). Every time I have contact with my bank here in Germany they try to sell me various "investments" which, on closer inspection, seem to me dubious to say the least.
One sentence in your article caught my attention: the allegation that HSBC may have "looked the other way and pretended they were ensuring the existence of assets and trades".
Here I ask myself what exactly is the difference between Bernard Madoff's scheme (with no assets) compared to the housing bubble where products were backed by assets (unsustainable mortgages) which bore either no or very little correlation to value presented to the clients investing in those products?
It seems to me that the main difference between Mr Madoff's scam and that of the major banks is the fact that the banks were bailed out while Mr Madoff has received a prison sentence of 150 years.
If Mr Madoff had been cleverer then he would have backed his "products" with a few worthless "investments" (for example mortgages pressure-sold to poor would-be house owners with no prospect that they would be able to service that debt) so that he didn't fall into the Ponzi category. That way Mr Madoff would be raking in government-funded bonuses rather than languishing in prison. Poor Mr Madoff.
Leaving? There's the door
Three cheers for Professor Simon Szreter ("The markets are holding us to ransom", 6 December). After so much discussion on the credit crunch during the past two years, it is evident that the fault lies at the door of those charged with financial regulation.
All we hear these days is that those earlier tough regulatory ideas being continually watered down. Yes, we should ignore all threats by the bankers that they will escape abroad if life is made too tough for them. There will be no problem finding good people to replace them if they really mean it.
East Bergholt, Suffolk
Simon Szreter comments on bankers' threats to leave the country if their "industry" is regulated in a way that they don't like. Fair enough, let them go. But to emphasise our displeasure at their action, we should ban them from setting foot on UK soil for a minimum of five years. Any income from any business or financial interests that remain in this country should go direct to the Exchequer during this period.
We should make sure that, as we're all in this together, any who decide not to be will still feel their share of pain.
An old tradition
In answer to Ellen Bradbury's question as to when deception and dishonesty became the guiding principle of British business (Letters, 3 December), the best answer I can give is, "Some time before 1776", the year Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations was published. Smith writes: "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices."
It just happens that today the banks and energy suppliers have raised the commonplace to high art.
Scarborough, North Yorkshire
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