Category Archives: Fair Play

On the Browne Review Leaks

OK, so I was planning for this next blog post to be about the catalogue of errors being made in UK Museums across the board, however I am finding it really hard to write a diplomatic enough post not to destroy my hopes of a museum career, and recent trends in the UK government have given me an excuse to rant; so here goes nothing…

At the beginning of next month Lord Browne and his appointed review will report on the subject of how to finance higher education, which is good in itself because higher education is in desperate need of a better funding strategy as the current one neither pays the bills nor encourages poorer students into the system.

However I bet every student will be able to guess which method of funding the system is the one that has been leaked out as the favourite? Yep, you guessed it, according to an article in The Times newspaper, the review looks set to call on parliament to raise the Tuition Fee Cap to a whopping £7,000 per student per annum – you heard me right – £7,000.

So what exactly have they discounted to come up with a preference for this hideous, elitist option? Well there are I am sure a great many options have been tabled, including the Russell Group‘s call to completely remove the fees cap, the Graduate Tax and the option of asking Businesses to pay towards the costs.

The Russel Groups “suggestion” does not even merit discussion (from a student/equal opportunities perspective) because it would allow the universities to charge whatever they like! Between you and me I would not be surprised if that meant charging international student rates to UK Students (£10,000+). Meanwhile the Graduate Tax was the preferred option of the National Union of Students and one or two lecturers unions, and although not my personal favourite (because I am a cynic and expect the taxation would never end), is one of the better options for the task. This option however is said to have been ruled out completely by the review. The final option that I know anything about is this idea of making businesses “pay” for the luxury of the huge pool of graduates available by asking them for a tax contribution to higher education, this is a good idea, but does anyone honestly see large or small businesses willingly letting such legislation pass? of course not, lobbyists rule the day on that, and business can afford to buy the best.

Now back to this £7,000 figure, this is just the fee that is paid to the university for the privilege of being taught your subject, it doesn’t go towards living at the university of your choice (not even halls residents), or the costs of any learning materials or even the cost of field-work if you are in a subject like I am (Geology).

The BBC (1/2), Telegraph, and others have all been quoting the results of polls by various groups (notably including that “useless” left-wing organisation, the NUS) stating that most students wouldn’t go to university with higher fees, and they may be right, although I’m sure there’s an element of “if we have to, then we will” amongst students, especially all the while that Student Finance England are paying the fees for them. This isn’t quite the point though, the rich will always be able to afford it, and won’t be worried about the costs of the loans in the long-term, so why should they care?

It’s the poor and the middle classes that are going to feel the pinch, even more especially those parents with mortgages and other debts to pay off. If it wasn’t for my parents I wouldn’t have got past the second year of university, let alone be entering into my fourth or even considering a PhD, and while I know an anecdote is useless as evidence; I dread to think what the financial situation would be for students without some amount of parental help.

Another point (which I will expand upon in a different post some time soon) is that the UK looks set to be paying for and doing less science research, we are as one columnist put it, set to retreat from the knowledge empire. I would say “What the F*ck”, but the current Vice President Academic Affairs at Southampton University Student’s Union put it far more eloquently when he tweeted the following:

@robstanning: fees rumoured to be increasing & research cuts also planned: http://tiny.cc/8l11z how can the gov. justify charging students more for less?

Anyway, enough of my ranting. Sufficed to say if you are a potential student from the UK, you have three options as I see it –

  1. be rich,
  2. get screwed or
  3. go study abroad.

Thank heavens I’m going to have graduated before this disaster hits the undergraduate schools at UK universities.

Ben Brooks

Short-Link for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-7y

Early Morning Geologising…

 

…which basically means I am unable to sleep!

I promised a somewhat more geological blog post, so here you go! The single biggest geological story doing the rounds at the moment is the huge oil-slick in the gulf of mexico, caused by an explosion on a BP oil rig called “Deepwater Horizon”. The oil has been leaking for exactly a month as of tomorrow and was caused by a large combination of factors, primarily the failure of the blow-out preventer which should in theory have halted the flow of oil can capped the well the moment the pressure of the well increased. I’m not going to speculate as to who is to blame for the ecological disaster that will no doubt result, nor am I going to bemoan it because at the end of the day the earth will recover.

Firstly it should be noted that this is the first time this sort of event has occurred on a deep oil rig (i.e.: ocean depths >1km) and is not likely to be the last. When it happened, everyone started heckling and moaning at BP as if “they should have known better” but to be fair no-one has ever had to deal with this sort of thing before so who are you to judge? The company in question and it’s sub-contractors took (presumably) all the normal precautions involved in drilling the well, including employing the blow-out preventer which has now failed. Should they have employed more – back up – systems? possibly, but at the time the cost-benefit analysis probably meant it wasn’t worth it, and you’d only end up in an infinite regression…

“well what if the BOP fails?”

“oh… we’ll have a back-up.”

“and if that fails?”

….and so on. Which helps nobody.

So why don’t we wait until all the various senate committees have done their jobs before we go blaming BP? After all this problem will have to be faced repeatedly as oil companies have to constantly drill in deeper water because the shallow or terrestrial reservoirs run dry… all because modern society NEEDS oil so much.

 Anywho, something interesting occurred when BP tried to siphon off the oil with a funnel… the funnel filled with Gas Hydrates (or Clathrates) and this made it unstable – it started to float – which is fascinating… and I can’t wait to find out why these clathrates formed, something for my to-do list after exams!

I have a couple of Geology related links for people too if you want to have a look…

Palaeontologically, Archaeopteryx soft tissue preservation and a “missing link” between it and modern birds: Eoconfuciusornis has been found in china!

In the world of engineering vs. geology… rules for aviators have been relaxed so that airlines can fly with higher atmospheric ash concentrations caused by the volcano under Eyjafjallajökull glacier in Iceland… and yes that is the name of the Glacier, not the volcano… the volcano is called something far simpler but I cannot find out at present (media has decided it will be called Eyjafjallajökull so web swamped with this… probably because they put in so much effort learning to pronounce it).

Finally for tonight… The Science Museum bows to public opinion and sells out on anthropogenic climate change; something for which I think they should be very ashamed… it’s a SCIENCE museum… so report the damn science, not the general public’s (mis)conceptions of it!!!

Ben Brooks

Shortlink for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-3C

Students’ Unions breed the future’s MPs

Hi all,

During the recent uncertainty about when the last government were going to call the General Election, and when the Students’ Union at my university were in the middle of the election for next years school presidents; one of my lecturers said something which worries me somewhat.

I didn’t write down what he said and as such will have to paraphrase, but basically the comment boiled down to “Student politics like the students’ union is just for people who want to be MPs in parliament”. At the time I semi-dismissed it because most of the people I know who have been involved in the union at any depth have had very little interest in that sphere of our world known as “politics” but the more I think of it the more I seem to see his point, though I don’t think it is quite as simple as “wanting to be MPs” though that is one of my guilty secrets…

OK so we have at least established that I conform to the lecturers stand-point – though I will never make it to Westminster because I don’t do the whole lying thing very well – SUSU (the union) has produced two MPs that I can think of at the moment out of over 90 union presidents over 87 years… who happen to be two of my local MPs when I am in Southampton; Alan Whitehead and John Denham… both Labour.

The problem that student politics has is that it is seen by the wider student community as “cliquey” and uninviting… despite the efforts to make as many of the meetings open to all as possible. This is reflected in the fact that if you happen to be involved in the union in some way you will almost inevitably know most of the other people involved in the union by sight if not by name. By way of illustration I live with someone who works on the student radio station, and work as a student representative who has to attend some union governance meetings. This means that I know by sight most of the student radio committee, the sabbatical, executive and administrative officers, and the heads of all the union departments (Athletic Union, Community Volunteering, Wessex Scene Newspaper etc.) and many of them by name. Compared with one year ago exactly, when I was “merely” a course representative and knew only the VP Education and Representation and the Schools Liaison Officer by name, let alone by sight.

The result of this situation is that if you don’t get involved in the union in the first year of your degree or via a long winded route through being a lowly rep, journalist, DJ or technician… you are unlikely to be in a position to get well and truely stuck in over the other 2 or 3 years. I have no suggestions as to how to better this situation at present, and will get back to you when I have some; but there’s a big problem here, and it needs fixing.

Sorry to have spammed you all with my Election Coverage and Political ramblings over the last month… I promise my next blog will be somewhat more Geological.

Ben Brooks

Shortlink for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-3x

“Is this Clegg’s dagger which I see before me…”

Previous Election Posts: The Election from a Students’ Union, Generational Ping Pong

Political Events have unfolded in a very interesting way today, and I will admit before I go any further that I am a liberal, fiscal conservative whose alleigances lie with the Conservative and Unionist party (or the Tories). I did however vote for the Liberal Democrats in this election because I naïvely thought they were in for a chance at this election.

So what’s happenned today? well firstly we found out that the Liberal Democrats have been holding “secret” talks with the Labour party over the weekend – crucially without the knowledge of the Conservatives including David Cameron. The second dramatic event that has occurred is that Gordon Brown has confirmed that he will give up the prime ministers post by october to facilitate talks between the Liberals and Labour.

OK so what do I think… well if I am totally honest my gut reaction is best reflected in the title to this post; that this smacks of double agency and backstabbing. Allow me to explain: I have nothing against having the Liberals holding talks with both parties to get the best deal, indeed this is the sensible and prudent option. The problem I have is that these serious, wide ranging talks were done without the Conservatives’ knowledge, and that this is in comparisson to the Lib/Con talks in which there has been almost full disclosure, and in good faith. The Liberals said that they were “talking to the Conservatives, and listening to what Labour have to say” but this now appears to have been a lie. As someone who gave up my vote to the Liberal Democrats because they struck me as honest, in with a chance and offerring a different, better politics I am very, very disappointed.

Either way, we are rid of Gordon Brown, which I think everyone except the few Blairites out there will agree is a good thing. I have no animosity to him because of the consternation and “upsetting-of-apple-carts” that this has caused as it is only what anyone in his position would have done.

In a final twist to this sworded affair, the Conservative party have given a final offer which crucially involves a referendum on the Alternative Vote system, though not full blown PR, it’s as far as they can go from their current position and maintains the 1 MP for 1 Constituency link.

So the question now is: Will Clegg be able to convince his party (if indeed he wants to) to form a stable coalition or confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservatives after Mr Brown’s effective resignation?

Ben Brooks

Shortlink for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-3d

The Election From a Students’ Union…

Hi Everyone,

Tonight is the General Election in the UK and I am going to attempt (and only attempt) to blog this event from the Students’ Union Bar of the University of Southampton… I’m on my way in shortly and all hell… as these unplanned events always end up… will break loose!!!

*****************************************************************************************************

19:43  –  OK so i’m in the Stags Head… but we have a problem… there are no plugs anywhere… so my laptop is soon to die… hopefully this can be resolved somehow, we shall see.

20:02  –  Problem Solved… and just in time too… only 15 minutes of charge left before laptop death and the event is about to begin… at least for SUSU, we’ve got another two hours before the polls close; so if you haven’t voted yet get out and DO SO!!! Don’t loose your voice to the abyss!

20:10  –  Just as an aside… has anyone noticed the Election Counter is going fairly quickly now that the polls closure is drawing near? 38,000 in an hour; seems quick to me! opinions welcome.

20:33  –  Things are starting to get atmospheric, the bunting’s up and the people are trickling in slightly more slowly now… let the partying begin!

21:00  –  one of the Politics Lecturers is up on stage having just been introduced by the President of the Southampton University Politics Association, he’s giving a small and frankly incomprehensible speech (they need to turn the mike up) about the election in general, the unusual amount of interest this time around and making some vague but telling predictions at the now distant hope of a Conservative Majority at 6 a.m. tomorrow! There’s going to be a Q & A when the speech is over and I think it could be a good one!

21:17  –  Well he’s still up and talking, that’s the good news… but unfortunately due to a significantly large number of people talking far too loudly and the mike issue I cannot hear a word despite being only 20 feet away!

21:23  –  He’s off stage now… and the SUPA people are now chattering amongst themselves.

21:35  –  OK so we’ve got 25 minutes to go and now it’s the chance of what I am in my naivety going to call a “Punk Rock Band” to entertain us with their noise… oh joy for the ear drums… Bring on Dimbleby!!!

21:55  –  5 Minutes till the Endgame begins! The first thing to come out will be the Exit Poll at 22:00…. only time will tell.

22:01  –  First Exit Poll @ 10 p.m.: Con: 307 | Lab: 255 | LibDem: 59 | Other: 29 seats => not enough for a Majority, we have a prediction of a Hung Parliament at present with the Cons trailing the Magic number by 19 seats! Labour currently banking on a Lib-Lab Coalition.

22:17  –  We’re now waiting on the first result… which is due to arrive with us at 22:40. Time is ticking! Paxman is pressing the Lib Dem on TV for an answer to “would you ally with Labour to keep the Tories out” and the good old Liberal is sticking to the party line!

22:52  –  First Result: Houghton & Sunderland South => Labour take it with a 11,000 majority. Howver it’s a  8.4% swing in favour of the Cons none-the-less. There were cheers and boos in equal measure from the student population here however it soon settled back down to quaffing alcohol and engaging in discourse…

23:15  –  Exit Polls have now been revised to take account of larger than expected swing: Con 305 | Labour 255 | Lib Dems 61 | others 29. => Prediction Remains a Hung Parliament… Students remain excitable despite this. Next result due from Washington and Sunderland West now….

23:26  –  Labour Have It! 11.6% swing to Con… Blimey… that’s better than Thatcher in 1978!!! That’s put a slight damper on the Labour supporters in the room.

23:37  –  Sunderland Central Result due now… the result is: Labour again, but with a much lower mandate, only ~7000 votes in it, only a 4.8% swing here. So where will be next to announce?

23:50  –  Given the variously strange and hugely different responses to the queuing at polling stations nation-wide, I wouldn’t be surprised if the legal wrangling for months and many will be disputing the legality of the election result.

00:00  –  now awaiting the announcement of the next results… 5 constituencies in total.

00:34  –  still waiting… much chit chat amongst TV pannellists and drunken students alike about what will happen if x, y or z happens… let’s just wait and see.

00:39  –  Democracy is AWESOME! The Stag’s Head is rammed full of people who care about the election and our future government, let’s hope this is a scene repeated in SU’s all over the country. Ans as I type Sinn Fein have won a Northern Ireland seat as have the DUP.

00:48  –  First Liberal Democrat seat in Thornbury & Yate, of the 9 seats now announced, the numbers are 5 labour, 1 Lib Dem and 3 to other parties. Added to all this, the DUP have been decapitated… with Peter Robinson loosing his seat.

00:59  –  This is shaping up to be a very, very interesting election… with 11 seats now called and our first Labour Loss – to Plaid Cymru.

01:03  –  First Conservative win of the night in Skidmore with a swing of 9.4% and taken from the Labour Party. Added to which this is target seat #134… well above the level needed for a majority parliament.

01:12  –  Liberal Democrats win Torbay with a ~4000 vote majority. The mood in the room here is fantastic… with people showing real camaraderie no matter who they support, and only the friendliest of booing… and now the Conservatives hold Putney with a 10,000 majority, and simultaneously lose a seat to an ex-conservative standing and independent.

01:28  –  It’s now at the point where I cannot keep up with the announcements as they come in… suffice to say that these results are still very interesting and despite the swings all over the place, it’s still wide open and too close to call!

01:41  –  Gordon Brown holds Kirkaldy, increasing his majority in the process.

01:50  –  Returning officers blaming large numbers of students turning out to vote… understandably negative student reaction here in SUSU. At the end of the day… there is a reason why we have the Electoral Roll is so that you can PREPARE for everyone turning up. If the returning officers think that blaming high turnout for inefficiency and pure incompetance they have another think coming! Ben Bradshaw holds Exeter for Labour… maintaining a small island of red in a sea of blue!

02:20  –  Current Seat Numbers Lab: 45 | Cons: 30 | Lib Dem: 5 | Others: 13 |  it’s still all to play for at present… The stags has died down to just the hard core politicians and I, but we’ve settled in for the duration and are enjoying the banter!

02:50  –  A very interesting set of events now as the Tories are catching up with Labour over time, and there’s a Re-count taking place in Birmingham Edgbaston. To add to a set of several interesting circumstances Lembit Öpik has lost one of the safest Lib-Dem seats in the country… which is a shame as Lembit Öpik is a jolly nice (if a little weird) chap!

03:11  –  I think now it may… but only may… be safe to call this election for a hung parliament… that’s the way I am seeing it going at the moment at any rate.

03:34  –  It’s getting fairly slow in SUSU now… people are flagging and getting tired, we’re going to get thrown out at 4 a.m. so I’m getting ready to pack up and head back to Portswood… I may continue this upon my return but given it’ll just me me I might not… we’ll see.

04:45  –  It’s now a quarter to 5 in the morning and this election is looking like it’s pretty much sold. So with that and a highly disenfranchised view of the public and a Lib Dem missed opportunity on my mind, I’m retiring to bed, to be awoken tomorrow to a new Government in whitehall.

Goodnight

Ben Brooks

Shortlink for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-29

EDIT: See my Follow Up posts: 09/05/10 , 10/05/10 , 12/05/10

On the EVAs and a year of volunteering

Here’s hoping everyone had a glorious Bank Holiday weekend, and that anyone who could managed to get down to Lyme Regis for the annual Fossil Festival. It was a gloriously wonderful three days of touting the wonders of the natural sciences (and shamelessly selling fossils to tourists). I’ll save this for my YouTube Channel as I intend to incorporate the Fossil Festival into a video at some point.

Yesterday (4th May) saw Southampton University Students’ Union’s annual EVAs or Excellence in Volunteering Awards. This was a really well organised and run event at the Southampton Guildhall which by the by is a beautiful building and should anyone ever get the chance to go I would thouroughly recommend it!

Anywho I was nominated for two awards in the Education category for work done over the last eleven months as the School President of Ocean and Earth Sciences – the awards being “Best School President” and “Innovation in Student Representation”. Now anyone who follows me in the twitterverse or on Facebook will have noticed that I wasn’t too impressed by my nomination because I didn’t consider that I deserved either. The reason behind this being that in my opinion I would have expected anyone to have put in at least the amount of effort I put into the role.

It would appear however that the powers that be disagreed and I was awarded the latter of the two awards – Innovation in Student Representation – and although I still haven’t seen the citation on which this was awarded, I have been informed as to the reasons behind it. I should also mention that I am extremely grateful for the recognition as being a representative of any constituency is a fairly thankless task.

The other award for which I was nominated was awarded to the Management School President – Bradley Fitchew – who has been a fantastic holder of his office, has been both vocal and level-headed in his arguements in Union Council and other activities and in my opinion is far more deserving of the award than I would have been.

It is true to say that whilst I think the idea behind these awards is fantastic, and long may thay continue; that they recognise only those whom people deem to nominate. It is also true to say that I think the best administrators and representatives are those who never have to be called upon, and who are never in the news or publicising something to improve the way things work.

With this in mind I would like to give my thanks to the following people who have worked tirelessly to improve the education system at the University of Southampton and with whom it has been my honour to work:

  • All the Members of the Students Union Education Committee: School Presidents, Executive Officers and the UCOM’s who provide our ever watchful oversight.
  • Becky Maclean – VP Education and Representation, who is probably getting less than minimum wage given the hours she puts in 🙂
  • The SU Staff members: Erica Hussey and Daphne Bright
  • The SOES Staff members: Duncan Purdie, Hilary Bush and Nicola Reader
  • Every single course representative, without whom most of the issues affecting students would never get up the chain to me and whose tireless efforts are least recognised.

I haven’t mentioned everyone by name because it would make this post dreadfully long, and also there would be issues with privacy laws… not that I think anyone would mind too much.

The fact remains that these people work either in a paid capacity or completely voluntarily to make sure students get the best from their three (or four) years at Southampton and it is only fair that somewhere they should be recognised.

I hope all the students who read this will remember that next time they are walking around campus, they are surrounded by volunteers who, mostly through no thought of personal gain are giving up a not trivial amount of time to make this a better place to study.

Ben Brooks

Shortlink for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-1U

Of Voting and Politics.

(or the background politics of the polling booth)

OK… here’s a little bit of audience participation to get us started…

  1. Put your hand up if you did NOT vote in the 2005 General Election.
  2. Put your hand down if that was because you were too young or were otherwise ineligible (not a UK citizen or EU/commonwealth  citizen with leave to remain etc).
  3. If your hand is still up, think about the last 5 years and keep your hand up if you have (at any point) complained about something the government has done.

Firstly well done to everyone with their hand down. Now to everyone with your hand up you should be ashamed; and here is why:

“If you do not vote in the election, you therefore relinquish your right to complain when the parliament does something you don’t agree with or don’t want.”

What… you  didn’t realise this? I find that hard to believe as I distinctly remember the UK Electoral Commission putting out a very prolific advertising campaign including the TV Advert you can view here. Believe me this is no ploy by the Electoral Commission to make you do something you don’t want to, afterall you don’t have to vote… unlike in Australia where voting is compulsory an it is enforced by small (AU$20 – 70) fines. (REF: Compulsory VotingElectoral Offences )

However let’s just think about this for a bit, lets say you vote for a party and that party has won the election – Whoop – that party is now directly accountable to you as a voter because you have contributed to its’ mandate (i.e. how many votes/seats more it got than the opposition) and when the next election comes around they will want to make sure you are as happy as possible with what they have done – and by corollary what they put in their manifesto in the last election.

What if you didn’t vote for them then? Well in this instance you have contributed to a narrowing of that mandate. If the mandate is narrower then the government of the day might be slightly more wary about how it goes about its’ policy changes, might call more referenda and debate their bills longer to get the best possible outcome. Similarly the opposition (the parties you voted for) will have more seats and can mount a more aggressive “check” on that government – once again they are directly accountable to you.

So final scenario: you don’t vote at all, or spoil your ballot paper (which is at least voting). In this instance you are in effect voting for the winner (whether you like that party or not).

You might think that by “automatically voting for the winner” it doesn’t matter if you don’t turn up to the polling station on May 6th… but you would be very wrong indeed. No vote means no control over the outcome, and also no contribution to whatever mandate the winning party has. This means that there is no accountability, and you lose your right to complain about what is or is not being done in your name as a British citizen.

I hope that you see what I’m getting at here. Now whilst we don’t have compulsory voting in the UK I personally think that given the voter turnout comparisons visible in the aforementioned compulsory voting document from the Australian Electoral Commission it would be a damn good idea! That said no-one in modern British Politics would dare agree to it, they would become too accountable!

In closing… I’m going to merely ask another question, are you going to let yourself throw away your vote, and in turn your right to complain about British Politics after all; we all have to have something to moan about?

Ben D Brooks

Shortlink for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-1E

Authors Note: If you haven’t yet registered to vote, it’s really simple to do by visiting www.aboutmyvote.co.uk, filling out a form to print then signing it and sending it to your local electoral registry office. The cut off is the 20th April.

**I had previously stated that “and university students can vote in both their home and university constituencies.” however I have been informed by a good friend that this is actually not legal… so thanks to Miriam and Oxford Electoral Services for correcting me on that**

If you won’t trust a scientist on a scientific issue…

…then who will you trust?

I get the impression from the blogosphere, YouTube and from individual members of the public that there is an increasing distrust of science, and indeed of anything scientific. This isn’t a new phonomenon either, Ben Goldacre’s book; Bad Science was published in 2008 and its purpose was to expose the prolific abuse of science by both large companies and individuals. Did the publication of this book change anything? Well no, a few journalists and reviewers commented about its honesty and veracity but nothing changed. Today there is such a backlash against science and reasoning that many scientists and science advocates are having to temper their coment and criticism. (Dr. Goldacre can be found here – http://www.badscience.net/)

Where has this backlash come from I hear you ask? Well the few religious readers I may have (and I don’t think there are many) will at this point expect me to blame the main monotheistic religions… but for once you are only partly correct. For sure there are rather huge fundamentalist movements; most notably in the United Tanks of America (USA) and middle eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and these are coming over to the UK either through large scale immigration or through media bought in by satellite TV… attribute blame where you will!

These “Fundies” may well be encouraging individuals to ignore or distrust science for their own ends (i.e. spreading religion) but in my opinion these are more of a symptom of the problem rather than the root cause… que cheers from the three great god-bothering group-thinks.

So what can we then narrow this down to if we discount the fundies? I think we can trace this back to a couple of major influences, one being Education, another being the abuse of science by large corporations (including the ludicrous misuse of UK Libel Laws) and finally something called “Equal Time”, which I will deal with individually.

First then let us tackle education, the UK lies 21st on the 2007 UNDP list of countries by Human Devlopment Index*; which is not a bad rating considering that there are upwards of 140 countries in the world… but we lie below some countries which may surprise you (go and have a look!). This may lead you to think that we have a really good education system, and I would love to agree with you, but think about the battle that is had every year when people like the Daily Mail decry declining education standards every year (Daily Mail, 2009 and retort at The Daily Quail, 2009). When I left school after collecting my A-Levels I would have adamantly defended them, and the hard work I put in to get them yet now, three years on and considering what I have read and heard from people who took the exams years ago I am (to my chagrin) inclined to agree more with the people at the Mail. Though I wouldn’t say that dumbing-down is the ONLY reason the pass rates are rising, Teaching is geting better and just perhaps the kids are getting smarter too!

But there are larger problems than “dumbing down” here… another problem was highlighted by Sir David Attenborough in a speach made to the launch of the Society of Biology this week (The Daily Telegraph, 2010a). The issue is that laws passed to prevent the over collection of endangered animals in the UK are preventing amateur naturalists (be they young or old) from collecting and learning about all species for fear of breaking the law! I am an avid fossil hunter, and luckily live on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset when not at uni, which has a very lenient collecting policy because if the fossils are not collected then they are lost to the sea, all they ask is that they get first dibs if you find something important and wish to sell… simple enough, and fair no? But even here the National Trust as a landowner on the Jurassic Coast, successfully won a crown court injunction to prevent any fossil hunting on their land (The Daily Telegraph, 2010b), perhaps it’s just me but I can see where Sir David is coming from.

Another isue is that students can now take a far wider variety of courses, and are allowed to finish school with 5 A-levels, of which none are STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths), and often not even vauguely scientific subjects (Such as Geography, History or Information Technology).

Now don’t get me wrong, allowing people to study what they want is a beautiful way of ensuing continued interest in education. But given that GCSE’s these days don’t give you a good science grounding, and the “General Studies” A-Level is a joke not even worth the hour a week we had timetabled for it, I am of the opinion that people should be encouraged if not made to take a subject that is going to give them some critical thinking or science skills – Especially in a world where people are wiling to abuse science to get you to do things or buy their products.

This brings us quite neatly to the second factor I identified up in paragraph five (if you are still with me then MAJOR Kudos to you). I will be brief with this one because it is something far more comprehensively covered by others such as the aforementioned Dr Ben Goldacre at www.badscience.net. Large companies are experts at selling you their products, and more often than not are willing to lie, misrepresent or just plain bullsh*t you to get you to do it, in fact some cosmetics companies spend more on marketing than on R&D… wouldn’t this worry you? it does me!

So here we finally come on to one heck of a BIG EVIL… “Equal Time”, now this one is simply pathetic, and it is one that I can blame in part on the twin evils of Religion and Mass Media (sorry guys).

Equal time says that no matter how blatently stupid an opinion is, it is entitled to have an equal amount of time on the media dedicated to it… so we end up with…

  • Creationists “debating” Scientists,
  • Global Warming Sceptics “debating” Scientists
  • Flat Earthers “debating” Scientists
  • Chiropracters “debating” Doctors
  • Crystal Healers “debating” Doctors
  • Pro-Lifers “debating” Stem-cell Scientists
  • Pro-Lifers “debating” Abortion Doctors

and the list goes on…. and if you cannot see the problem here let me give you an analogy…

We have two people, first there’s James who studied several branches of science and published many papers on the science behind food… he spends five minutes explaining why a healthy diet is good for you…

then the TV presenter turns to the other end of the couch where Bob is sitting, Bob thinks tomatoes are from Mars and want to kill us all…

THIS OPINION DOES NOT DESERVE 5 SECONDS…. let alone five minutes… but it’s TV, and that means Equal Time!!!

Hence equal time is a bad idea, though yes I know that’s a generalisation, but it hopefully illustrates the point in a non-subtle, anyone can understand kind of way.

I hope you enjoyed this blog post, and if you got this far then well done.

Ben Brooks

Shortlink for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-1A

* The HDI is an index which is not just based on education, but it’s the closest I could find to a list of countries by Educational Quality, via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_Human_Development_Index

REFERENCES:

The Daily Mail (2009), A-levels are so easy a monkey could be trained to do them, say teachers [ONLINE] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1206973/A-levels-easy-monkey-trained-say-teachers.html (accessed 04/04/2010)

The Daily Telegraph (2010a), Let children collect flowers and fossils says Sir David Attenborough [ONLINE] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/7530566/Let-children-collect-flowers-and-fossils-says-Sir-David-Attenborough.html (accessed 04/04/2010)

The Daily Telegraph (2010b), Fossil hunter banned from digging in cliffs [ONLINE] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/dinosaurs/7520196/Fossil-hunter-banned-from-digging-in-cliffs.html (accessed 04/04/2010)

The Daily Quail (2009), Newspapers complain of Dumbing Down of A-Levels for 27th year in a row [ONLINE] http://www.dailyquail.org/2009/08/newspapers-complain-of-dumbing-down-of.html (accessed 04/04/2010)

Una Septimana Horribilis

(title translation: one horrible week)

So this week started really really well, I was back at university about to re-start my studies after a rather boring christmas, but before I even arrived problems started to arrive thick and fast.

First off the Bank refused to honour a rental payment (with good cause in the end), and no sooner had this been rectified and the rent payed when I was accused of plagairism (collusion/cheating) on a major peice of coursework.

For anyone in any doubt, that is a major accusation in the realm of science, and one which I will hasten to add was a false one. I want to leave uni after my MSci and go into academia proper as an academic, which means doing a PhD… so I defy anyone to find any reason or encouragement for me to have committed plagairism in that career plan! Whilst this isn’t being taken any further by the lecturer concerned, this will be hanging over me for the rest of the year at least, If not for any other reason than my integrity as a person, a student, and as a future scientist has been questioned; and bloody hell that’s one really psychological sword of damacles to have, even if you don’t take your integrity too seriously – which I do.

(for anyone interested the piece of work in question was this graph which was produced from a dataset given to us within our coursework exercise and with specific notation guidelines… so why the lecturers were surprised by 3 people following a similar logical pathway to the result is beyond me)

Once this issue had been resolved, I didn’t even get a decent mark for the work because I hadn’t covered the basics… apparantly in a report intended for an oil company you have to explain to them what an oil reservior is… but I accept that’s my error in judgement, no-one elses; and I can see why the marker’s commentary was so frustrated about not being able to give me the marks.

Then came today, where I got up at a reasonable hour to go onto campus especially to meet up with some high ups in the students union, only to waste a day sitting around waiting for them to never turn up.

Anywho… all in all it’s really been una septimana horribilis for me, and it’s taken every ounce of my mental strength not to run back to Devon for the weekend and spend it with the folks… but the show must go on, and we must remember that there are always people worse off than oneself.

Although among those worse off I don’t count all the stupid bastards people who are continually complaining about the snow. It doesn’t happen often so just go out and enjoy it – and yes I did lose paid work (two days worth thus far) due to the snow before you go off on one.

anyway… rant over

Jediism a Religion should be?

Now it’s pretty damn obvious that as an atheist (currently) I am against any form of religion, for my own resons described elsewhere; and it takes a lot for me to defend anyone’s religious beliefs.

However I just found an article from September in the Guardian regarding the Holyhead Church of Jediism – or more specifically its’ founder:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/sep/18/jedi-religion-tesco-hood-jones

Now before you read on you might wish to read the article, or at least the comments, as they are central to this post….

…ok… so my question is this: when religion can be defined as it is by the OED:

1 the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. 2 a particular system of faith and worship. 3 a pursuit or interest followed with devotion.
-Oxford English Dictionary (italics my own)

…how can people find it so easy to be discriminatory and be disrespectful of someone who holds the “Jedi” belief system?

Most of the non-satirical comments on the above article take the attitude that “this isn’t a religion because it is based on a film written by George Lucas and his type writer” – how singularly niaive… and here’s why…

  • Jedeo-Christian Religions – based on religious text, poorly documented authorship.
  • Islam – based on religious text, somewhat better documented authorship
  • Mormonism – based on religious text, well documented authorship.
  • Raelians – based on “alien abduction”, well docuented
  • Scientology – based on religious text, well documented authorship.
  • Buddhism – Based on Buddha and religious text, well documented
  • Spiritualism – based on fakery and cold reading, well documented
  • Bahai – an islamic offshoot, based on 1844 declaration
  • Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster – based on internet satire, well documented

…and that is only a small sampling of the recognised religions from around the world, and yet some (namely Spiritualism, The Raelians and the CoFSM) are based on complete and utter nonsense, although you probably know what I think of the others.

So what’s wrong with Jediism? is it because it is 33 years old? probably not, as that’s a lot older than the church of the FSM – notably recognised even though formed in only 2005. Is it just religious people forgetting that all religious movements have to start somewhere, and all of them start with a story? I think this is probably part of it, alongside the “scary concept” of an Atheistic religion, of which there are few, the largest being Buddhism.

Maybe something that ought to be pointed out that we currently recognise such heinous and anti-human-rights religions as Islam (in some forms) and yet when a peaceful religion such as this comes along, we don’t? If we are going to have religious tolerance then that tolerance should cover all faiths*.

I’ll leave the question open, but here’s my opinion:

I think that Jediism should be recognised as a religion as it is a belief system based on faith in an all pervasive “force” for which there is no evidence (unless someone finds something comparable to midi-chlorians) and whilst in that sense it should be considered a religion, it is also inherantly pro science, which is an added bonus.

At the end of the day, Jediism poses no threat to anyone of any faith due to the so-called Jedi code, and could only be considered threatening by people whose church would lose adherants to it, and the number of adherants that the movement has (according to the 2001 censuses in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – a proportion of which certainly were a joke) should in itself be a grounds for acceptance.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jedi_census_phenomenon
Finally it is one of only two (the other being buddhism) that I could ever see me following (due to their more deistic, non-personal god perspectives).

* however where human rights and animal rights are affected (human/animal sacrifice) then I would disagree there.