Monday, 25 October 2010

Funding Universities

I rarely play computer games, however, one that I have owned for a number of years and always return to is the fantastic Age of Empires II for the PC - a "Sim-City" styled game in which one takes on a race of dark age people and has to lead them through the social, economic and military evolution of the middle ages in order to conquer the land and win the day. I love it - it’s a great game and incredibly therapeutic after a stressful day - nothing better than laying siege to a city and raising it to the ground in anger! However, it is the components of the game’s development that are the most interesting. As part of your societies progress you can build town centers, markets, stables, castles and... universities

You see, even in the midst of war and conquest, the principles of education and scholarship are deemed vital to the development of society. And the makers of this excellent game are entirely right to make this so. Without the transfer of academic knowledge, the engineers and craftsmen of the Middle Ages would not have been able to embrace the developments of the scholars that followed in the pursuits of science and technology.

We have a rich history of university education in this country - from the medieval halls of Oxford and Cambridge, though to the temples of Renaissance and Enlightenment, to the modern polytechnic and college-based centers – however, it has only been in the past decade or two that the issue of funding has become a central problem and one that threatens to destabilise the system within the United Kingdom.

The problem can be drawn up to a single year – 1997. The year that Tony Blair jumped upon the good steed New Labour and cantered into Downing Street. If you recall, he had announced the fulcrum of his policy intent at the Labour Party conference the previous year with the line “Education, education, education.” The focus, it seemed, was that the education system had been under-funded by the Tories and we had slipped down the pecking order of the world league (whatever that is). The truth was, when it came to education his intent was clear – simply to kill two birds with one stone. By expanding the number of university places, he would endear himself to the youthful voters who had supported his party and by doing so, reduce the unemployment figure as a whole raft of students who would perhaps have found themselves placed in the dole queue at the age of sixteen would be in the twenties by the time they would have to find a job.

And what about all these people suddenly going to university? What did they study? Did we suddenly find a new generation of doctors, lawyers and accountants? What about engineers, programmers or teachers? Try media studies and business administration.

Back in the eighties, there was some truth in the comedy of the Young Ones - I don’t mean the Marxism ideals, I mean the poverty-hit student flat with stereotypical “student-types” struggling to make their grants last for a full semester. Since Mr Blair’s intervention, a student now has more in common with a city executive than a bedraggled hippie, such are the comforts of modern student living.

However, these developments have come at a cost to the taxpayer and to the student. Universities must be funded, supported, developed and nurtured. Similarly, students have a need to survive and even if the legion of iPhones are removed from the equation, there remains a basic need for food, shelter and books. Having spent four years at university myself, I remain saddled with a large student loan that I will continue to repay throughout the rest of my working life, as I was not as fortune as those before me who received grants to fund their time as students. Conversely, those entering into university life since that point have had to contend with the increase in tuition fees which adds a further dimension of expense to the equation. With an increasing population, the number of university places is seemingly going to increase and increase until something gives.

Listen to the left and they tend to follow Ed Milliband’s idea for a graduation tax. Listen to the right and they simply skirt the issue. But I am afraid that someone has to pay for university education, or do they?

Surely if we scaled back the number of degrees on offer and stuck to the basic academic requirements for entry, then we wouldn’t have such a dilemma? Medicine, law, finance, engineering, science, languages – these are all necessary practices that require academic tuition. But what of nursing, mechanics and such like – are they not better served as apprenticeships? Furthermore, when it comes to “football culture”, “under water basket weaving”, “soap studies” and “surfing” – surely there can be no point in these existing under any circumstances? I notice that it is often the people with banal degrees who advocate their continued existence – Stephen Merchant has a first class honours degree in Film (I’m sure that was a challenge), whilst I met a couple in Scotland who had studied to become directors and were intending upon graduating to hold out for a job until they were offered full control of a film. I graduated with an honours degree in Marketing, a discipline based upon academia and business principles, but I would even question the validity of that as a degree.

When I first arrived at Plymouth, I had a preconceived notion that universities were full of leftwing time wasters. By the time I had completed the first year, that viewpoint had been fully confirmed. I recall, for example, walking to the library one morning with a friend and being approached by a young student who asked us if we wanted to sign a petition to legalise the smoking of pot. Now, there is nothing more guaranteed to gain instant approval of most students than a cause such as this. However, with little interest in putting my name to any paper, I stepped aside, whilst my friend eagerly scribbled his name down. It was only when I glanced at the sheet that I noticed the yellow paper and bird-like symbol as indicating that it belonged to the Lib Dem party. I pointed this out to the girl, who mumbled some feeble excuse in response. As it turned out, the signature he had bequeathed indicated in writing that he was interested in joining the Lib Dems (the link being that they were at the time loosely considering supporting the legalization of Cannabis). This was only one of a number of similar instances throughout the first year that told me that in essence, the vast majority of university degrees simply acted as a melting pot for all the frustrated left-wingers to assemble and attempt to recruit naïve first years to whichever ridiculous cause comes their way.

Students studying proper subjects are unlikely to be able to waste their time and therefore are more likely to succeed in life – and surely that has to be the central aspiration of any university? The way it is going, all the government will achieve is to devalue every degree ever undertaken.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Ashes Down Under – A Preview…

So, we are raring to go – the first Test in Brisbane is due to start at the end of next month, the squad is assembled and soon to fly out, the stakes are high – all set for the latest bout between England and Australia.

I can only hope that history does not repeat itself from the events of four years ago – and I say that with a degree of foreboding, given the similar circumstances. In 2006, England were the current holders, having beaten Australia the previous year, they had just beaten Pakistan in a controversial home test series and hopes were incredibly high of a first series victory in Australia since 1986/7.

The subsequent 5-0 thrashing was, therefore, somewhat distressing to say the least. However, it must be pointed out that there were a number of clear circumstances that contributed to this – perhaps even made the defeat inevitable. People point to player complacency in the wake of the 2005 series victory, especially given the fantastic drama of the series and the fact that it was the first time England had won the Ashes in over 17 years. However, complacency was not to blame for Simon Jones’ crippling injury that saw him miss the series (and all since), nor was it to blame for similar injuries to Michael Vaughan and Ashley Giles, and certainly not Trescothick’s depression. You can add in the abysmal choice of Flintoff as captain, which subsequently stifled his contribution, weakened the team and contributed to Strauss’s loss of confidence, plus the strange choice to replace Reed and Panesar with Jones and Giles, only to switch them back after the second test. Finally, if those things were not enough, Harmison’s unprofessional attitude and Hoggard’s loss of pace meant that we stood no choice of taking twenty wickets in any of the matches. Meanwhile, Austraila were at full strength and, following their painful loss in 2005, had trained hard for the one objective of winning back the urn.

This time around things are a little different. We have a settled team with few significant long-term injury absentees (touch wood). We have a better captain, who scores runs at the top of the order and is more effective against pace. We have a better wicketkeeper batsman and a stronger tail end. The bowling attack is proven and has a world class wicket taker in Graeme Swann. Most players, with the exception of Collingwood and Pietersen are in good form. The system works and is seemingly improving. Compare that with Australia. Their best batsmen are at the end of their careers. They no longer have a world-class bowling attack (Lee and Tait don’t play tests anymore, whilst Warne and McGrath have retired).

Pretty good signs – certainly the best since the eighties. That is not to say, however, that everything points to an England win. Our bowling attack is less effective outside of these shores – especially the likes of Anderson who loses a great deal of potency when the ball doesn’t swing. We tend to struggle with the Kookaburra ball as opposed to the Dukes. I feel that the selectors have missed a trick by omitting Shahzad, who offers the best “Simon Jones” type of option available in so much as he reverses the ball at pace (useful on flat pitches when the ball goes dead). Add to that the fact that Cook had issues over his technique, Collingwood is out of form and Pietersen is struggling with confidence and a lack of runs (remember how much we relied upon him last time we toured Australia in a losing cause). Australian crowds are hostile, especially at the start of the tour and Brisbane is a total fortress for the Aussies in all sports. Ricky Ponting’s men will be fired up and prepared to compensate for the deficiencies within their team by going all-out for victory.

It is clear that we cannot hope to regain the Ashes by trying to draw the series or simply containing Australia. We must attack them and play to our strengths. We need luck with injuries and decisions – unlike last time. We need to pick the right team for each match and pitch conditions – unlike last time. We need three of our top six batsmen to have good tours, with at least one having a great tour. We need Prior to play well. We need to take twenty wickets on at least two occasions. And, if the players are to have a disastrous performance, then it needs to be together in one game – rather like Headingley last year. If all this happens, we’ll retain the urn. If not, we will lose. How about that for a prediction?

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Persian Cats in Iran

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – the current President of Iran and acclaimed nutcase. Where would we be without him? Where would we be, for that matter, without Iran? A safer place, that’s where…

Just recently, he calmly stepped up to the podium at a UN Conference and proclaimed that the US Government had organised the terrorist attacks of 9/11 simply in order to re-ignite their flagging economy by justifying Zionist-led imperialism upon the oil reserves of the Middle East. Just one in a long line of amazing claims he has made over the past few years…If a western leader did the same, one can only imagine the reaction of the Middle East.

However, we do not simply have to stick to Mr Ahmadinejad’s ludicrous war-mongering for proof of Iran’s determination to upset the rest of the global populace. Take its attitude to its own people. Rigged elections, stoning of women, illegal nuclear construction programs, attempts to double the country’s population, oppression of students and so-called radicals.

Those who dare to enter its water fare little better and as for its attempts to construct a nuclear warhead capability whilst stirring up justification for an all-out assault upon the west, I cannot see why the UN have not yet issued proper ultimatums to prevent any further expansion or development of its military capability. It is quite clear that they are determined to continue in their efforts until they are in a position to declare war on the west.

Time for Mr Obama to step up to the plate in my humble view…

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Bitter Lemons

Peter Tatchell is the kind of person I despise. In fact, even to look at him I see a bitter, twisted, warped weirdo and that is without subjecting myself to the drivel he comes out with.

It was on the Pope’s recent visit to the UK that I really encountered the level of his vitriol towards anyone other than his clan of sycophants. In truth, he is the epitome of stereotypical beardy-wierdy lefty that in previous years would simply be ignored but is now given minor airtime owing to the efforts of people of the ilk of Shami Chakrabarti.

His issue with the Pope, it seemed, lay in the fact that he refused to deem women fit to become priests and castigated homosexuals. I noticed on one of his protests that he was joined by a man wearing a frilly pink shirt waving a banner proclaiming “Jesus had two dads.” Perhaps the stupidest banner in the history of banner-creation…

Now, I am not a Catholic, nor am I am practicing Christian. I have my own philosophical viewpoint but I personally (having studied theology and having born witness to the ills of the world over these last few years) believe that Christianity is in its cultural sense, the natural base religion of the United Kingdom and by far the least harmful to the plight of others when it compared with the likes of Judaism and especially Islam. I have almost no opinion of the Pope as I do not regard him as my spiritual leader, but for Mr Tatchell to stick his crooked, bitter beak into the doctrines of the Catholic Church simply because it doesn’t quite meet his militant and quite biased views on homosexual rights is pretty hypercritical. I should point out at this juncture that this is not an attack upon homosexual people, the rights of whom I would never question – more an attack upon people with an in-built agenda that borders on the inane.

The reality is that there is a very clear reason as to why people of his ilk focus their energies on Catholicism, Christianity, Right-wingism and such like. It is because they are inherently anti-establishment, owing to the bitterness of their formative years. Mr Tatchell has evidentially felt an outsider for so many years (he has a history of opposing Thatcher’s government and having to be reprimanded for extremism by none other than Michael Foot – a man with almost communist views himself which tells you something!), which means that the vast majority of his viewpoints are formed simply with the premise of standing against those he views as “part of the establishment.” That is to say Christians, right-wing politicians, the vast majority of English citizens, the military, the US, blah, blah, blah

If he is so concerned about the practices of Christianity, then where is he to be seen protesting against forced circumcision on Jewish males and Muslim females, or the oppression of women by Muslims? What about other evils of Islam, such as Halal meat, Sharia law, and the burka? He’s not interested in them simply because Islam is seen as the antithesis of the west, which makes it ok by him. As Churchill said of Stalin, "If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons." Moreover, there is an element of cowardice in the blind eye he turns towards other religions when their retribution is often more potent than that of the Pope or the Archibishop. Criticise a Christian and you might make them sad. Criticise a Muslim and they’ll threaten to cut your head off.

The point about these people is that they are no better than the fundamental Islamists who threaten to burn and bomb the west every time someone makes a joke about Allah. Both Tatchell and Bin Laden share the same preoccupation with being “offended” by everything the west does. If you don’t like the fact that the Pope doesn’t like homosexuals, then don’t become a Catholic. I’m not homophobic but I don’t care if certain religions are opposed to gay people because it makes no difference to my viewpoint – so long as they don’t harm others let them believe in whatever they choose to. I cant control people’s viewpoints – there are people who stand in the street draped in crucifixes claiming that Jesus told them they would rise from the dead and conquer Mars but I don’t stop them and tell them they’re mental as it’s a waste of time. When the Pastor in the US stated that he was going to burn the Koran, why should Muslims care? Offensive? I think someone burning a book is slightly less harmful than a bunch of nutcases flying planes into skyscrapers and killing over three thousand people. Whatever happened to sticks and stones?

Friday, 1 October 2010

Weekend and some music...

It is the weekend, it is a new month and I don’t care if Christmas is already being thrust upon us as I simply intend to ignore it. And to celebrate this fact, here’s a great music video for you (you must have been living under a stone if you haven’t yet enjoyed this one)…