Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Loosely educative - a review

I'm torn over whether university should be totally free or have some form of contribution - it's a toughie and I don't think there's an easy answer. If it's totally free, then it means people who don't access HE are paying for those of us who do; but the argument that counters this is that HE is an inherently good thing for the nation. However, there have been some interesting mess-ups about the recent fee hike, which, like a lot of the rest of the stuff this government has thrown at us, was rushed and doesn't seem terribly well thought through.

Today OFFA has released the fact that a third of universities are planning on charging £9k - and the average will be over £8k - a year - for university. This is in stark contrast to the comments coming out of Downing Street not that long ago, in particular from Dave's Deputy PM and Simon Hughes, who went on and on about it only being a 'few', and it seems that they all live up to the 'access' criteria they have to abide by. So much for this only being a minor problem. (On that point, the government has said that a fee increase will not put off poorer students from applying to university. Yet they have been going on about only a few universities charging the extra. Is the government suggesting that poorer students will still apply because there are still cheap options available - as what else would be the benefit of some universities remaining cheaper? It's all very confused.)

So what has this done to the government's finances? Well apparently the fee increases may make loans unaffordable! Whether that is true or not is hard to know - but as a medical student, this is of particular interest...

Undergraduate medical students currently pay year 1-4, then there is an NHS bursary for year 5 and 6 (or the last two years at any rate - the graduate bursary is less generous). This means that, excluding living costs (which are considerable, especially in the clinical years), a medical degree costs the student around £14,000 (which is probably about a tenth of the true cost). Once the fees raise, it will cost £36,000. However, this bursary has only won a reprieve for a year - after 2012 intake, it looks like it will be removed, because it is UNAFFORDABLE! So the government cannot even afford it's own fees! That means that a medical course will cost up to £54,000 - £40k more than at present.

You might argue that because doctors earn good money this isn't a problem. However, let's not forget that doctors are public servants - and are performing a vital function. The best doctors are in it because they want, at heart, to help and heal - not because they want to earn lots. We need the best, academically and personally, to be in the profession. Yet if we tell them they must pay a lot more than any other degree, what on earth does that say. Not only does it say that we don't value education - but also that we don't value medics. If you study medicine, in other words, you'll be paying for it for years. So much for wanting a better NHS for patients...

But, of course, medicine isn't the point when we look at fee increases, according to the proponents of the idea. The problem we 'romantics' about education have is that we think all education and degrees are like the ones that used to exist - the idea of a degree for a degree's sake. Well, maybe. Maybe some degrees aren't terribly useful. Maybe some of the degree subjects could be taught in different ways. Maybe some things do provide benefit solely to the individual. Maybe payment for those should work in a different way. Maybe the arbitrary level of 50% of the population going to university was pointless and hasn't acheived much (surely getting the best kids from any socio-economic background to university rather than just increasing numbers is a far more sensible definition of 'access'). But that doesn't mean that increasing the fees across the board is the answer - simply making the current system, a very much imperfect system, affordable, rather than fixing it, seems a bit pointless.

The associated 'access' argument about allowing some students in to universities with lower grades is also missing the point. Schemes like ones run at some of the top universities that take children with natural talent but poorer grades, and get them up to speed, are very sensible, and to be applauded. The question that isn't being asked, however, is the most important one - why the hell do these schemes need to exist? What on earth is wrong with our school system that allows that to happen? My advice to government ministers desperate to meddle in universities and reduce the private school intake - sort the damned school system out first. Give the kids a level playing field and give them a chance. And don't try the money argument on me.

'We can't afford it' is the new phrase of government - that's the main reasoning for the cuts. But we can afford Libya (which has prevented genocide and which is thus fully justified). We can afford to help bail out Ireland. We can afford helping the IMF bail out Greece. We can afford the Olympics. Some of these are essential and important, of course. But if we can afford to do them, we have the money to do so - or at least we are willing to borrow to do so. That rather removes the government's 'necessary fast and deep cuts' arguments doesn't it. How about our poorest and most needy being 'essential and important'? And how about the country's future - at the mercy of its education - being 'essential and important'?

What a mess.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Graduation 2011

The following is an Address I gave in Queens' College (Cambridge) Chapel at the Graduation Service, 30th June 2011:

It’s a very great honour and a privilege to address you today, especially on the eve of what will be the first step along the road of adulthood and responsibility for many of us. It’s very hard to look back over the past three years without a fair share of happiness, regret, yes, and amusement. All of us have changed a good deal from the somewhat na├»ve and childish selves that entered Queens’ not that long ago; we are not fully formed – of course – but Queens’ has, and will always, leave a mark on us – one, I believe, that has shaped us for the better.
We are deeply lucky here to have that sense of community that a college brings. Even if it does mean everybody knowing everyone else’s business, it also means that there are always people there to pick you up if you are down; always people there who are, in a funny kind of way, just like you; and there are always people there to crib off. Relationship is, or at least should be, at the very heart of what it means to be human. Love, compassion, kindness, understanding – none of these are terribly popular when it comes to the cut-throat world of business (or, as I have found out, applying for research placements) – but without them, the very fabric of our society begins to fall apart. We are deeply lucky to have been here – and the question we must ask, at the end of it all, is – being given this great privilege of learning, what should we do with it? What was it for?
It’s perhaps difficult for me to stand here as a Christian and attempt to think this through with you. The church has managed, over its long and chequered history, to be cast as an engine of division and hurt as much as a force for social good. The bible and church tradition has been used to prop up slavery, to justify the burning of human beings because of their differing theology, and in more recent times, some groups still use it to prevent women from serving at the altar, and tell gays they are inherently sinful for showing love.
Let me tell you a story. In 1920s Harvard, it was decided that the sin of homosexuality was causing a, and I quote, ‘stain’, on the reputation of the place. Student after student was expelled. A mother wrote to the Dean of Harvard: "You could have done much good," she wrote, "had you perhaps had a little less sense of justice and a little more of the spirit of Jesus in your heart." Perhaps in today’s times, we could learn a little from that mother.
So what is that spirit of Jesus – and why is it relevant to this great period of transition in our lives? Well, that spirit of Jesus is love, and it is that love, so much stronger than anything else in our broken and sad world, which holds the key to our really bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. How many times have we passed people living in the street by Kings and rather than loving, simply judged them? How many times have we told ourselves – I’m not going to give them money, but I will give it to charity to help them – and then never bothered to do so. I, for one, looking back at the number of times I got it wrong, am ashamed.
Christ, of course, doesn’t mince his words. ‘The gate is narrow, and the road hard’ we are told. Too often we opt for the easy way out – the turning of a blind eye to an obvious injustice (take our recent alliances with China to support trade, whilst some human beings are being rounded up and executed for disagreeing with the authorities by the very same Chinese leadership; or our continued purchase of cheap clothes whilst human beings a quarter of our age are working in sweat shops in what can only be called slavery). But it’s not happening in our consciousness – so we don’t care. Talk of a global village is, of course, political claptrap. But it shouldn’t be – and it is for our generation, and for people who have benefitted from the amazing opportunities of Cambridge, to change that.
But will we? The world we live in, and are about to work in, is not designed for those who care – the easy road is very much in the ascendency. It is hard not to be totally swept up in the pointless acquisition of wealth or material goods that we are constantly sold by commercial after commercial, celebrity after celebrity. ‘Look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap, yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?’ And we are given a solution: ‘Ask and it will be given to you. Search and you will find’. If we spent a little more time asking and searching, rather than judging and taking, how much more fulfilled and rich our lives would become.
But no, we are told that modern life is only worthwhile if you have the greatest possible material happiness; happiness is that perfect house, or those perfect designer sunglasses, or that perfect and illicit sexual encounter. John Terry, and I believe I can say that without being lifted off by the police, is just the last in a long line of celebrities who promote the lifestyle of take, take, take, and who cares about the consequences. ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’. Just how many of us follow that, truly? Who cares about the consequences? Well Christ quite clearly tells us – ‘I do’. ‘Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father’. In the words of David Brent, we can talk the talk, but if we don’t walk the walk, or at least attempt to, then there’s not really much point.
Christ tells us: ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. So, as we come to the end of our three or four years here at Queens’, I suppose what the real question should be is – where are we going to store up our treasure? What will we do with all the learning and opportunities we have been deeply privileged to share in? Will we continue to sacrifice it on the altar of consumerism – where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal – or will be try to look a bit higher, and try to become more like the lamp that gives light to all in the house? Jesus tells all those who try to follow him that we are to be the light of the world – but the more that we turn towards ourselves, and selfishness, greed and ignorance, and away from asking, searching, loving, then the more that light becomes hidden. Life, and love, are deeply intermingled, and the more the latter influences the former, the more fulfilled it will be. Because, at the end of it all, we will all die; and if we haven’t shown love to those we leave behind, then our legacy is as nothing.
We have the chance to make the difference, we have the chance to be radical, but will we grasp it, and go through the narrow gate, or will we fall by the wayside and take the easy road? God give us strength to follow him as pilgrims on the route to the cross, working for the good of all, and not just for ourselves.

I will finish with a Pilgrims’ Prayer by St Gildas:

In health may I and all of my companions

Safely arrive with no harm or injury –

May my boat be safe in the waves of the ocean,

My horses safe on the highways of the earth,

Our money safe as we carry it with us

To pay due heed to our poor necessities.

May our enemies fail to do harm to us,

However evil the counsels which inspire them.

In the eternal name of Christ our Master,

May my roads all lie plain before me,

Whether I climb the rugged heights of mountains,

Or descend the hollow depths of valleys,

Or trudge the lengthy roads on open country,

Or struggle through the thickets of dense forest.

May I walk always in straight ways and shining

To longed-for places . . .