Wednesday, 27 April 2011

A Miserable Little Compromise

An important day in our national history approaches, and lots of people are getting very excited. No, I am not talking about the "how on earth is it considered appropriate 24 hour rolling news that someone is getting married and some barking old woman has camped out to watch it and dressed her dog up in a tiara and veil show?" Or the Royal Wedding as I believe it is more normally referred to.

No, whilst I'm very happy for the bride- and groom-to-be and think both the engagement and the actual wedding day of such a prominent royal are indeed newsworthy, I am hopefully not alone in tiring of hearing about the niff naff and trivia associated with it day in, day out. I hope it doesn't ruin it for you if I let the cat out of the bag. She's going to wear a white(ish) wedding dress and look pretty. I wonder if I can still get odds on that.

No, I am in fact talking about an event a week later - the national referendum on the voting system. To get it out of the way early, I'll let you know I shall be voting 'no' to AV. And here's why…

Our voting system is not all about being 100% representative of how the nation feels. It is not. The  voting system that people might think would be 100% representative of how the nation feels is proportional representation (PR). Except it isn't. It only divides up their votes and allocates exactly that percentage of 'seats' to the 'parties' they voted for. It isn't representative of how they feel, it's a compromise, where people vote for the representative they think best represents their feelings, but they will not mirror everyone's every wish. And PR is rubbish. You get Nazis in Parliament and the nation would go down the plug hole as true PR for voting-in MPs should also mean PR Government. How adept at dealing with Labour's economic cock-up would a Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, BNP, DUP, Green, you get the idea, Coalition Government be? Simple, we'd be Portugal. Nearly as sunny at the moment though, I guess.

As I have written before, democracy is the compromise we have for two reasons. Firstly, because Parliament isn't big enough to fit in 61 million people, and more importantly, because we wouldn't get anything done with 61 million votes on everything - quot homines tot sententiae (so many men, as many opinions). That's what democracy is - the best compromise between having a say in all the decisions that affect you, and there being a chance of some decisions actually being taken. You pick the candidate or party you like the best and hopefully they pushes for all those things they said they'd do which you agreed with.

So what is our electoral system there for? It is there to fairly balance the feelings of the people, their 'will' if you will, and the need for effective Government. It is there to interpret the votes of the people and produce an effective Government that best represents them whilst standing a chance of strong Government, and we should make no apologies for that.

Therefore we need to look at what system fulfils that compromise, that balance, best. First past the post (FPTP), our current system, is not perfect, but it is far better than the alternative on offer - or indeed any other alternative I would argue. It asks the people what they want and based on which party got the most votes says "right then, a higher number of you voted for this lot than voted for anyone else, so this lot win and can have a crack at governing". It is fair and representative without allowing vicious minority groups a platform, or without condemning every Government to the infighting and inaction that plagues Governments in constant coalition.

There are three main problems with the alternative vote (AV). Firstly, it is a very negative system. It is as much about making sure someone doesn't get your vote as deciding who does. That is no way to decide who should run the country - it breeds totally the wrong idea as to what your vote means to you. That is, it is not about what you feel, what you believe in, but a negative sense of what you don't like. Whilst some might say this already exists under FPTP with tactical voting, it is vastly increased under AV. Every vote under AV bar the ones for the top 2 candidates (or occasionally more) is tactical.

Secondly, AV politics would be far more about not alienating your 2nd, 3rd and 4th choice voters than about attracting 1st choice voters. This means you will not see political parties coming out with what they actually want to say, but pandering far more towards other parties' voters. It means in the great political spectrum analogy which I like to call my ice cream seller theory, the parties become less representative of what they represent but move towards their opposition to steal their voters or at least make themselves appear a valid 2nd choice.

The theory goes thus: ice cream sellers of equal merit position themselves along a stretch of beach. Customers go to the nearest vendor. The ice cream sellers at the extreme ends realise this and move inwards. As they move in, providing they are still the furthest left and right, they are guaranteed all that custom between them and the beach edge, but can start to take customers away from their next nearest rival, those who started nearer the middle (this was what Blair did with Labour, taking the centre ground whilst keeping all the left as there was no option left of them, and undoubtedly what Cameron realised as he moved the Tories more central, though UKIP, BNP etc can cause genuine harm in some hard-fought areas, but it is beside the point).

The problem with this moving is that it encourages the wrong type of politics; not a principled one based on what your beliefs are, but one which is rather quiet about what your beliefs are, hoping your core vote stays with you, whilst you pander to other people's voters. UK residents may recognise this as the politics of the last 14 years with Labour and then the Conservatives supposedly gravitating towards the middle to win the vital middle ground that decides elections. It is a dishonest politics if you ask me, and not something we should further encourage with our electoral system. It also means you do not get strong Government as everyone is afraid of upsetting someone they might need as a 4th choice vote - and you need strong Government.

My final big problem with AV is the weighting of the votes. They say that everyone's votes count equally in AV, some people simply vote many times for the same person, some jump from bed to bed like Premiership footballers and BBC political correspondents. Whilst I'm not truly comfortable with this explanation, I can accept it because there is a deeper set flaw.

Proponents of AV say it is better than FPTP because it is is more representative. Not only have we looked at why that isn't exactly the point but we can also look at why it isn't even exactly right. Imagine there are 10 candidates (A-J) and they get the following breakdowns of the 100 strong voter turnout: A-48, B-10, C-10, D-10, E-10, F-5, G-5, H-3, I-1, J-1. Next round A gets up to 49, but still not over the magical 50%. As they run through the many rounds within AV, the candidates fall out from J backwards until we are left with A-49, B-26, C-25. When C is eliminated, A wins 51-49.

AV says that is a fair representation, 51% want A, 49% want B. Yet 48% actually voted for A 1st time and only 10% for B. How is that even close to being representative of the will of the people. Imagine if C's votes were redistributed so B won 51-49. Apparently now a candidate who is only 1st choice of 10% of voters should beat the one who had 48% approval as 1st choice. FPTP is simple here - you get more people to say you should win, and you win.

The miscarriage here is that whilst all men are equal and get one vote, that is on the premise of voting once. You cannot think it fair that a vote for someone as 9th preference (as B could have been for over half its votes in the case where it wins) should carry as much weight as a vote for someone as 1st preference. It doesn't ring true to me. In terms of how representative it is, surely when the first round had A and B at 48% and 10%, calling a win under FPTP there is far more 'representative' of who they want to win than the last round 51% for A and 49% for B? AV not only flatters B, but with a slightly different distribution of C's votes, could even have B winning when clearly lacking genuine popular support. And all because of hanging their hat on 50% - you can't be elected until at least 50% of the people who bothered to turn up to vote hate you less than the other people still in the contest. Pro-AV campaigners claim you need to have "the support" of 50 % of voters. I don't call rating someone 9th out of 10 "support", I call rating someone 1st "support", but maybe that's just me.

So there you go - a pretty long and perhaps at times hard to follow argument I don't doubt. What I'd like you to take away though is that not only is AV not more representative and genuinely calls into question the weighting of all votes as equal, but that being representative is not the only function of our electoral system. It is there to interpret how we vote and deliver accordingly as strong and decisive a Government as it can in line with our wishes. Not only is FPTP simple, but its simplicity gives it its validity and transparency. AV on the other hand is unrepresentative, shady and negative. In fact I think it flatters to deceive that it could even be "a miserable little compromise".

Monday, 18 April 2011

M.O.T. - More Over Taxation?

Right then, today we're going to regurgitate a news story from last week, and in fact for those with a memory for the news, from 2008. Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has ordered a review of the current MOT system. For the few without contact with this system, it is there to ensure that cars are legally roadworthy, passing a number of specific tests on various common components in cars; brakes, lights etc. Mr Hammond has ordered a review with a view to trying to alleviate the considerable and growing financial pressures on the British motorist by making said tests less frequent by law.

His justification is that "car technology has come a long way since the 1960s" and they wish to revisit the rules and regulations drawn up from that era to see if they still have "the right balance for MOT testing of modern vehicles." In principle this doesn't seem to be that wacky. Now there are various proposals being investigated, but all with a view to making the compulsory tests less frequent thereby saving the motorist a bit of cash.

The have been catcalls from many directions, which is to be expected; you can't please them all. What might look like a nice way of directly saving the motorist money will apparently also be the ruin of many garages who rely upon conducting MOTs to put food on the table. Ah, the Lord giveth and he taketh away. Also anyone interested in seeing this proposal fall flat on its face (mechanic types, anyone who has 'safety' in their job title, and the Opposition) is screaming blue murder at this reckless suggestion which is apparently tantamount to lining up row upon row of small, cute children and mowing them down with a car in a sort of Grand Theft Auto frenzy.

Now I don't know if changing the rules is a good idea or not, but I do think that a review is worthwhile. What might be useful is some proper research showing road incidents and accidents which were directly or indirectly caused by the un-roadworthiness of vehicles, not just ones involving unroadworthy cars. Then we need to see projections of which parts are likely to become unroadworthy when, and how they might contribute towards accidents. Models have to be run for various lengths of MOT validity and varying ages of cars. There's quite a bit of work there. In all, it is the kind of research one hopes was done when coming up with the first timings for MOTs in the 1960s. When one has done the research you need to work out the pros and the cons, and weigh up which option is the best.

Now that all might sound rather like common sense to you, but I fear this will not happen. This is because of scaremongering idiots misusing statistics, a particular bugbear of mine. Listening to the naysayers on this topic on the radio last week there was much talk of the poor mechanics, but an even greater emphasis on the 30 odd people who will apparently be added to the road death toll if one of (they naturally failed to mention which) the MOT validity extension options were to come into being. Now I don't know where this figure came from, and indeed it may be accurate (though I doubt it), but I take umbrage with the way in which it is used.

It appeared that people seem to think if they point out that one more person dies this way, it is an evil and wrong policy. They misunderstand that almost all Government is about as Mr Hammond says, finding "the right balance". It's up to our elected representatives to work out where that balance sits. Sometimes the cons are financial costs, sometimes human costs, but they all need to be put into the equation, and sometimes, as bad as cons may seem, the pros will outweigh them. Far fewer people would have died if we had let Hitler crack on with his living-room fetish, but on balance, the sacrifice was worth it. Rather extreme example, but the point works for all decisions, no matter how trivial.

If you want to eradicate deaths from road traffic accidents we could enforce a national 5mph speed limit, or maybe just ban all automobiles. The economy might take a bit of a dive though. Balance. We could make MOTs a weekly requirement, or go for the ultra-safe daily option. That would also probably give a great boost to the car repair industry. That said, most of us would all be broke in days. Maybe we'd all stop driving. What then of the economy? Also, with the golden goose of the motorist cut open would the mechanics now find no eggs left as we resort to bicycles and horses? Balance.

That is what annoyed me. I don't like to see idiots on the rampage with crappy headlines and soundbytes. They stop debates that should happen from happening. It may be that 5 or 500 more people die if a policy is enacted, or 5 or 500 garages go under, but if our elected representatives decided it was worth it, then that's what they're there for. If you don't like their reasoning, vote for the other guys next time (and make sure you put the current lot last, because AV is far more about making sure who doesn't get your vote than who does - next post I think).

In case you think I'm taking sides here, I am not. Not only do I not know which way MOT validity should go, but I also do not feel sorry for the Government coming in for stick for proposing nothing more than a sensible review. Being angry at the idiots doling out the abuse does not require me to feel sorry for those receiving it. Why not? Because they should have seen it coming. They did exactly the same to Gordon Brown's Government. The Tories questioned the validity of an almost identical proposal put forward by Labour in December 2008. They questioned, in particular, why the proposal was announced to fanfare of 'saving cash for hard-up motorists' before a feasibility study had been completed. Which is exactly what they've just done themselves.

So all in all, what I'd like you to take away from today's rantings is nothing to do with failing brakes, cracked windscreens or bald tyres. We may be over-testing, we may be under-testing; we may (more by luck than judgement in all likelihood) have it just right. My point is that we should allow sensible debate with genuinely researched arguments behind them. We should not let debate be quashed by some arse grandstanding over some isolated statistic or other. All Government is balance, maybe to an extent all life - this is what logical reasoning depends upon. As Paul Boese said, "we come into this world head first and go out feet first; in between, it is all a matter of balance."

Friday, 15 April 2011

Manners Maketh the Man

I was asked a little while ago by one of my friends (if this wasn't you, it was the other one) if I might be able to write an entirely positive post. Would I be able to quit my bitching for one day? Could I find something to be happy about or thankful for rather than just ranting and raving at the ills of my world? I said I would try, and I have, it has just always been the post I was going to write when something really got my goat.

Today, I have stayed at home. I woke up and all was well. I gave the house a thorough spring-clean and sat down to some admin. I intentionally spoke to nobody and ignored the news lest something get on my nerves. I wondered whether or not to have the Monte Carlo Masters on in the background in case something on it offended my delicate sensibilities. My love of tennis won in the end and the risk has proven well taken; Murray is even playing well. You see, when I went to bed last night, I had been reminded of something nice to write about and I wanted nothing to spoil that before I could get to the computer. And here it is.

A month or so ago I bought an inflatable roll matt for camping from Millets. As with anything under £100 I inadvisedly discarded the receipt. Night one went fine. Night two not so well. I woke up on a flat mattress with a slightly hurty back, to use the correct medical term. It appeared the screw top valve had failed. I briefly looked for the receipt when I returned home. On not finding it I simply thought I would chalk that one up to experience and throw another £50 at the problem next time I needed one.

I realised that I would require a matt for a camping-based stag weekend recently. On seeing my sad looking crumpled mattress in the corner I thought I would have a shot, no matter how unlikely, at exchanging it or securing a refund without a receipt. I called Millets who simply asked for the date I purchased it. I gave them a 2-3 day window and they said they'd get back to me once they had gone through their receipts. That they did and we found mine in no time. All I needed to do was pitch up with my bank statement to show the same total amount.

Along I trotted to the store where they were happy to either give me a full refund (not store credit) or a replacement. Whilst he processed the refund I picked up a camping first aid bag off the shelf. I had been looking for one for a while, but swamped with the myriad of choices, had yet to make up my mind. I was happy though, and filled with warm feelings towards these kind strangers, so I just bought it. You see, good customer service not only is something we should aspire to as pleasant behaviour between us and our fellow man but it more than often costs nothing, and many times will bring many benefits in tow.

The staff at Millets didn't have to act like that, and I am pleased to say they are not alone. My future brother-in-law recently got home from The Scottish Restaurant and found his bag one McSomething-or-Other light. The lady he spoke to simply took him at his word over the phone and gave him a code for a free meal next time he popped in. It heartens me to see this sort of behaviour, and especially in large companies. As much as I transfer between banks or mobile 'phone companies it seems they almost all prescribe to the "if we're all equally bastard-like you'll still give us your business because it's too much hassle to change to another bunch of equal bastards and you know it" way of doing business.

So that little piece of negativity aside, let me just say I like it when people are nice when they don't have to be. Whether it is out of Christian fellowship, a good upbringing, or a feeling that it will do them better in the long run financially, I don't care. As they say, good manners, like good grammar, are free, and that is all good customer service is really. Take a man at his word and you will be rewarded more times than you are stung, and you'll be all the better for it. Another strand of the Big Society? Maybe not, but a society where everyone behaved like my Millets men I'll wager would be less broken.

P.S. Normal griping service to be resumed shortly. If you haven't the time or inclination to comment on these posts, please use the voting buttons below so I can gauge your general opinion on individual posts (and duly ignore them).

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Quote Unquota

Well seeing as we are on the subject of universities, I shall let you all know something else that grips me. In case anyone was thinking I blindly sign up to whatever policy comes out of Tory HQ I hope my criticism of their handling of university fees goes some was to dispelling your worries of bias. Today, a step further, with indeed an individual element. You see I cannot square myself as a little 'c' or big 'C' conservative with the total and utter tripe spouting forth from Clegeron, or Cameregg, whichever elision you prefer for the Dave and Nick show.

This week Cameron and then Clegg have lambasted Oxford University for their poor (or indeed "disgraceful") record on admitting black students. Now we can certainly spend some time on the foolish misuse of statistics Dave embarked upon by including only statistics for 'black-Caribbean' students in his statement about black students gaining places. Surely he must have seen from Opposition how damaging misuse of a statistic can be, especially when it is so easy to prove a deception. It was one of Labour's favourite modus operandi - trot out some statistic that in isolation might justify the crap one is about to talk about or even the legislature that one is about to attempt to pass.

So, first smack on the wrist to naughty Dave. Not least it was foolish because if you are going to take his upside down view of who is responsible for low percentages of one group or other (compared to society's cross-section) attending top universities, only 41 children of any black parentage gaining an Oxford place would still be a headline low figure. But that is all immaterial, because the way he is going about this is desperately foolish in its leftwards leanings.

Quite how you can think the number of students good enough to attend a certain university is down to said university is beyond me; for that is the problem. If you have been to pretty much any university in the past 15 years (and it is probably more true of Oxford than of most others), you will see the enormous amount of time, effort and money that goes into encouraging poorer students to apply. That though, is pretty much where the university's responsibility ends.

Certainly it has to conduct a thorough assessment on who is the most gifted and would benefit the most from a university education (and who would benefit the country the most by said education). To do this it will of course take into account many things, and those factors won't be exclusively to do with money. There are poor children on bursaries at private schools, there are rich children whose parents do not pay for their education. We do not all fall into the rich/poor circles of the Venn diagram and those circles only - unique snowflake and all that.

This is where we trust our institutions to use their not inconsiderable intelligence to differentiate between grades and potential, though that is not to say they don't very often go hand in hand (On a side note too often the liberal media and politicians seem to think if you go to a good school, you are given good grades on a plate. Yes there is an opportunity, but just that. It takes brains and a lot of hard work to realise that potential). I truly believe this selection process is happening. What is more, given the choice of letting non-political academics make these decisions or two-a-penny politicians after cheap points in sound-bytes, I'd go with Professor Plum every day of the week and twice on Sundays. After doing all this, the university can and need do no more.

The problem is clearly that the state is failing to produce the raw material. Not enough quality is getting to the doors of the Russell Group. To blame them for not admitting people not good enough is farcical. Oxford and Cambridge work. They are still world class institutions. This suggests they might be doing something right. Likewise, most private schools seem to have a pretty firm grip on things - if they don't, people vote with their feet and take their money elsewhere. Most at state school do not have this luxury. To blame the university they fail to get into for their lack of schooling is ludicrous though, and does them a great disservice in shifting the focus from where it should be - namely raising the standards of state schooling to somewhere nearer that of private schooling, level or beyond.

The even more worrying leftist tosh, Clegg dribbled out yesterday. He essentially threatened Oxford and by extension all other universities of withdrawal of funding if they didn't ensure more students from poorer backgrounds were admitted. Here are his actual words: "if you want to continue to get support from the taxpayer to educate our young people, you've got to make sure that British society is better reflected in the people you take into the university in the first place." Some pretty important language to pick up on there, and some statistical nonsense.

First let's deal with the easy bit - yet again totally rubbish statistics; the "better reflected" part. Last year 22% of Oxford's student population were from ethnic minority backgrounds. This compares to about 10% nationally. Certainly there are individual ethnicities who do better than others and those who do poorly. However, there are many mitigating factors, not least the majority arts bent at Oxford and the oversubscription of many of the courses most popular among ethnic minorities. For an excellent review of this topic from January, read this article from the Cherwell, a student paper in Oxford (here). So, at double the national average, not desperately racist, and more than a better reflection one might think; unless we're going to ask Nick Griffin to point out how a lower percentage of white people gain places at Oxford than there is in the national cross-section. So let's steer clear of that one, eh?

Second up, the language Clegg used was the language of quotas. This misguided attempt at two wrongs making a right has long been championed by the left. Make up for deficiencies in some system or other, glossing over the cracks by simply adjusting the end product. Problem with not enough women in Parliament? Do what Harperson wants and have quotas based on the general population. Don't worry about trying to deal with institutionalised sexism, just alter the picture at the end. Don't worry about using a proportion based on full time workers who take no time off for pregnancy (which goes a long way to explaining some of the gender gap in top flight business, politics etc), go straight for 50:50. Because that is the thing about quota politics. Not only is it totally morally bankrupt as a policy, but each quota is invariably based on something utterly incomparable. It works on the exclusionist, discriminatory principle it is supposedly meant to be ousting.

I don't like agreeing with Simon Heffer, he's a little too far right for my liking, but his article (here) yesterday was spot on regarding this quota setting. Clegg is totally wrong when he says universities have "got to make sure" society mirrors their intake. All they have to ensure is a fair admissions policy and the pursuit of academic excellence. It is up to Clegg and Co to deal with the standard of student applying to university, Oxford or otherwise. They need to forget this quota nonsense and realise that it is for the Government to try to give the opportunities to the poorer children to exploit their potential. Once everyone has done that, let the chips fall where they may.

This has been dangerous and foolish talk from a Coalition I had high hopes for concerning education. I thought they understood the way to deal with high achievers in the private sector doing better than poorer counterparts was not to criticise them, legislate against them or try to drag them down (or as Labour called it "education, education, education). It is to give them a bloody good run for their money by raising the standards of the state sector.

Hopefully Michael Gove can step in and rescue this horribly backwards thinking that seems to have come out of nowhere with some real direction in primary and secondary education. That is the key to it all - education, and not higher education, because unfortunately for most, by then it is too late. Cameron needs to grip this alarming leftist lurch of his, or else he may find his abused Conservative partners bring about an end to this Coalition rather than the minority Lib Dem partners he seems to be more than willing to accommodate on almost every issue. For everyone's sake let us hope this is merely part of the courting procedure that he doesn't intend to carry through to the marriage. Like buying flowers.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

To Not Win the Lottery of Life

I was listening to radio 4 on the way to work last Friday, as has become my wont. A discussion arose from the announcement that it seems over half of all English universities are planning on charging the maximum £9,000 for at least some of their courses and a large proportion of them will indeed make that levy across all courses.

First off we should remember that the announcements of universities planning to charge over £6,000 are exactly and only that - announcements of plans. To charge over £6,000 each individual university must be cleared to do so by the Government - the Office for Fair Access specifically. So, this may all turn out to be a storm in a teacup as the Government sticks to the dictionary definition of "exceptional circumstances" and does not let 65% of universities put some or all fees up to nearly 10 grand a year. Now what these "exceptional circumstances" are precisely, is less clear. It looks like it is not to be based on which universities need more money, nor on which ones provide the better education (therefore justifying the higher fees), but on the provision of bursaries and outreach programmes for poor students.

Ok, not necessarily the way I would have done it, but I see where they are coming from. Some questions though… Is the waiver to allow higher fees to be based on the quality of the programmes? On the number of applicants from 'target backgrounds'? On the number of accepted students from 'target backgrounds'? What if they give the waiver and the following year, not enough 'target' types are successful in winning places? Does the waiver get withdrawn? Do the university simply cram in the set number they require, regardless of talent, to keep their ability to charge lots and fart in the general direction of their pursuance of academic brilliance?

You see there are a lot of questions here, and many more. If it is only to be in "exceptional circumstances", you'd have to think the Office for Fair Access can only line up all of the outreach programmes etc and decide on the best 5, maybe 10. Well 11 at most - that's 10% of the 111 state-funded universities in England who offer undergraduate degrees. Any more than that can't be exceptional can it - otherwise it stops being the 'exception to the rule' and would just be called 'the rule'?

Anywho, I guess this will be a watch this space whilst we decide just how wide a bracket "exceptional" is. I don't hold out much hope. In the meantime, what I actually wanted to talk to you all about was what bursaries are meant to be available. It appears some universities are offering up to £6,000 off fees. This is where I take umbrage with the system. Suppose I should briefly go through the system first...

The fee structure has supposedly been brought in to make those who benefit from taxpayer-funded university education contribute more towards it financially. As you perhaps remember, I'm none too keen on the way they have gone about all this. For a refresher, or if you are struggling to sleep, it's here. The idea is that there is to be an end to up-front annual fees (previously of £1,000 and then £3,000), and replacement with up to £9,000 per annum charges. These are to be deferred in loan form until the graduate starts earning over £21,000. If they never do, they never pay back a penny. If they haven't paid off their loan by 30 years after graduation, it gets written off. If they earn over £21,000 then they pay back 9% of earnings over that. The amount over £21,000 they earn determines the interest on the loan balance in the form of increasing taper interest. Those earning £21,001 will accrue no interest on their loan. Anyone earning over £41,000 will be accruing 3% plus RPI on their loan. On today's RPI a 22 year old graduate from a 4 year £9,000 pa degree earning £41,000 would be paying 8.3% on an initial £36,000 loan. That's £4,500 pa, to start. It would take him 20 years in all and he would pay back over £67,000. All that is of course on top of any living costs he deferred from university in loan, overdraft or credit card form. Fun, huh?

Lots of maths there, and there's not even a firm announcement on potential early repayment penalties. It seems that the loan system is not so much there to make attending university more affordable but to extract the hidden cost of university, namely the loan plus interest, and there's potentially lots of it as you can see above - £36,0000 fees does not equal £36,000 payback .

Now my problem is with the type of financial assistance for those of meagre financial standing. The bursaries should not be reductions in fees. So we're clear, I'll say it again - bursaries should not be reductions in fees. The only good thing about this God awful system is that a large barrier to poorer talented students has been removed - up-front fees. Now it is the higher-educated graduate who pays for the education, not the aspirational poor school leaver. The amount paid back is paid based on earnings, and if you choose to go into low paid work, you are not saddled with a crippling debt. Someone from a poor background and someone from a rich background attending the same course have cost the tax-payer the same. They have been given the same increased earning opportunities that (a proper) university education is meant to bring. Why because one student's parents were richer, should he pay more back the the graduate from the poorer background?

It makes no sense and is desperately unfair. If we are to produce a system that essentially taxes your earnings in later life to pay for your education, and we base it on earnings, why would you also base it on background. The system is all about the advantage you have been given for future earnings, it is not about the privileged or otherwise life you enjoyed pre-university. If anyone isn't clear, giving a £6,000 bursary on £9,000 fees to the poorer student means he pays back his loan plus interest on a £9,000 loan from a 3 year course. The richer student will pay back loan plus interest on a £27,000 loan. If they go into the same job, and earn the same, assuming they make reasonable money after university they will pay vastly different amounts back to the taxpayer for the same education, for the same earning potential gained.

That is not to say, however, that there shouldn't be bursaries. There should, but they need to be living costs bursaries - cash for books, rent, food and drink, clothes etc. This is still an up-front cost that the poorer student cannot afford to pay. This is where a richer student might have their living costs paid for by family. We should not lose sight, however, of the fact that this is an option for fewer and fewer people these days. There are many people in the forgotten middle who will be unable to raise all the money from home, and who are deemed too well-off for bursaries and will therefore have to augment their post-graduate debt with loans, credit cards, overdrafts and the like.

As is obvious this is a delicate situation - to whom should we give bursaries? How much should these bursaries be? Should we expect even the poorest to take out some form of loan as their classmates from the squeezed middle will, or do we cover 100% of their costs? To whom can we afford to give bursaries? There will always be winners and losers. Ultimately I feel with this system there are likely to be many losers, and you will find them in the persecuted middle; the part of Britain most of us inhabit where you're too rich to qualify for help, but not rich enough not to need it. Ultimately it all boils down to lack of money. The way out of all of this would be, as I have said before, to examine who we should be putting through higher education, as that would free up the money to help not just the poorest but the equally-deserving not-the-richest too.

But some good news on which to end. Whilst there will always be losers from this system, there are some who will definitely be winners. Who are they? Simple, those who did not as dear Cecil Rhodes said "win the lottery of life"; that is, those who were not "born an Englishman". Scots will still pay nothing at English universities whilst English students pay vast amounts even at otherwise free universities in Scotland. Welsh students have their fees capped at £4,000. Where does the money come for the Celtic largesses? UK taxpayers. Same as prescriptions and hospital parking, but that's for another day.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Talking Balls

Just a quick one on talking Balls. Driving to work this morning I happened across the Evan Davis Today show on Radio 4. He was interviewing what appeared to be an ill-informed member of the public. I missed the start of the show so I hadn't realised that I was in fact listening to the Shadow Chancellor.

He totally refused to answer basic economic questions. For once, a BBC broadcaster attempted a vague defence of Government policy, and Balls had no answer. It was a laughable display from apparently a prominent front bencher and from someone who made the point several times that he was an economist. Personally, if I had been a principle adviser to a treasury that wizzed quite literally all of the money up the wall to no effect whilst an international boom occurred to win votes, only to find the cupboard bare when the inevitable bust (an economic cycle which they ended ... oh no) came, I would keep that one quiet and plead ignorance.

All he did was return to the mantra of the Labour party that (when pressed) they would have cut, but they would not have cut so "unfairly". When asked what his alternatives were, he yielded none. Just like the man he is planning to usurp, Ed Miliwho, often does. When asked if all they were really planning on doing was delay the pain, he eventually agreed. When asked what this extra "growth" that they would "invest in" would bring for each pound added to the vast deficit, he had no answer. Simply the childish, "Tories are cutting jobs and growth, we wouldn't, we'd invest". Ok, what about the deferred payments on the interests? What about the much higher interest payments, let alone interest rate hikes if the market devalued our debt repayment ability? Doesn't putting off paying off the debt mean ultimately when they come your cuts will actually be more painful? And Ed ignores and reverts to, "it's all about fairness".

It is genuinely astounding anyone can listen to Labour's economic "argument", and I use the word in the loosest sense, and not ask what they're on. There is certainly pain in cuts - nobody likes losing money, even if they only got given it the year before in a bumper increase. We still hear people cry about returns to 1960s-esque cuts when most budgets are going back to levels of only a handful of years ago. The point is, the cuts are necessary, even Labour will eventually admit it quietly. It may be that the Coalition don' have the exact right mix - in fact, it is likely, so broad is the problem; there will be people who could have afforded to lose more, and some who lose more than they can afford. However, that is Government. That is the principle that you try to do the best for the most, and you simply do not have the time or resources to make everything perfect.

What the Opposition need to do to be taken even vaguely seriously is to actually propose an alternative and spell it out, cut by cut. Until then, they are just piss and wind, quite an apt description for Balls I might say.

Whilst we're on the "fairness" one and Radio 4, the next person on was Danny Alexander during whose interview the Beeb returned to good old leftyism. The National Insurance and Income Tax changes of this week have altered everyone's financial positions. The Beeb insisted on getting Mr Alexander so admit that the cuts mean "on average, households would be £200 worse off". He was naturally flabbergasted. The social media, the left, well just about everyone harp on about progressive cuts. They insist the rich pay "their fair share" - an amount yet unquantified, but I assume from general sentiment it should be somewhere near 90% of their earnings, feel ashamed for earning so much and paying for all the public services they barely use and stop trying to do the best for their children, those 'sharp elbowed internship-setting up bastard' fathers and pushy 'do your homework so you can get a good education' mothers.

What he tried to point out again and again was that the lowest earning 80%. Yes, 80%. I said it again, because that's most people, and definitely most of the squeezed middle and lower economic classes, will be better off. The average, because that's what a sodding average is, is down £200 because of the vastly disproportionate hit 20% of people have to take to counter 80% of people doing better and still end up with a net loss. Yes, that's a progressive tax change. So, for the love of what is left of the credibility of statistics and publicly-owned media, could someone please exercise some restraint at Broadcasting House. They may not like the Tories, but abusing statistics on a policy which is actually at the heart of the left to make the right look bad actually only makes the BBC look stupid. It appears when it comes to reporting Government policy on the national broadcaster, there are lies, damn lies, statistics and public sector employees who can't do GCSE maths.

Oh, and I really dislike Ed Balls, who without a shadow of a doubt will be an even worse Shadow Leader than he is Shadow Chancellor. I wanted to end on that, because I thought the last couple of paragraphs may have distracted you there...

Monday, 4 April 2011

Sporty Language

If you are a regular follower of this blog you will have noticed a general political slant to most of the posts. There are of course days when I make the occasional foray into the world of sports. Today is one such day. I caught a little bit of sport on the box at the weekend, as I am wont to do (bless my long-suffering partner), and a few seconds of a round ball match and a few seconds of an egg ball match caught my eye.

It was not some moment of sporting excellence in either; no overhead kick finish with triple salko and extra panache on top, no last minute 70 yard, match-winning, wonder dropped-goal. Both were short close-ups of a man's face, long enough to catch a glimpse of his speech, and therein rather made my case in point about disciplinary and behavioural trends in the two football codes.

The first, as I am sure you are aware, was Wayne "Impeccable Manners and Judgement" Rooney swearing live at over 200 countries tuned in to watch Man U play West Ham. Naturally he has been defended today with the same old mantras of "passionate game" and "heat of the moment". Naturally we should ignore this tired old crap, or "f**king" old crap as Wayne might say. What tosh. So I am pleased to see the FA have decided to do something about the foul-mouthed little oik, and have charged him. It appears someone has found their book of regulations (presumably mislaid in an office spring clean many years ago) and remembered it says this…

"a participant shall at all times act in the best interests of the game and shall not act in any manner which is improper or brings the game into disrepute or use any one, or a combination of, violent conduct, serious foul play, threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting words or behaviour"

I shouldn't complain at the fact that this is the first time in living memory any of the shameful behaviour from mugging the ref every time he gives a decision to calling him names that would make a sailor blush to his face (and easily visible on internationally broadcast matches) has been punished. Progress is progress. Let's just hope they don't stop there and decide they've now fixed the problem. The behaviour (on and off the pitch) of these multi-millionaire hooligans (not of all of them, but let's be honest and say most) is at best a stain on the game of football, but at worst a pernicious and malevolent cancer infecting the malleable minds of millions of young fans. I have already blogged about football here and this topic in particular here, but if it's worth saying once…

These people must understand the responsibility of being a role model that comes with stardom and the concomitant wheelbarrow loads of cash. Children see referees abused, they see tantrums and tiaras, Kevin and Perry-esque infantilism, bullying and threatening behaviour. And it all goes not just unpunished but handsomely rewarded.

If you think that passion is a good enough justification for all of the above, did you happen to see the excellent Harlequins/Leicester game on Saturday? A 17-14 thriller that went to the wire. Leicester needing a win to stay on top of the Premiership and Quins needing to win to keep their challenge for the top 4 and all the kudos and TV money of European rugby alive. There were some pretty fired up players, but they showed respect for the referee throughout as ever, submitting to his authority and accepting his decisions, even red cards. With a minute or two to go, a decision went against Quins in a vital part of the pitch. The camera cut to a middle aged man watching intently with presumably his young son on his lap mimicking his concern as Quins approached a narrow loss. There were no microphones near him but you could easily make out his dismay at the crucial decision not going the way of his team. That too was beamed into households across the country well before the watershed. What did he say?

"Oh, for pity's sake."

Friday, 1 April 2011

Golden (Plated) Oldies

Another little economic rant today; very much along the lines of my last carp. It appears that the concept of basic budgeting is not the only thing beyond the grasp of the Opposition, almost anyone in the Question Time audience and most of the panel, and much of our innumerate population (so much for "education education education"). No, it also seems that we are soon to break into civil war (my favourite ancient Greek verb ever, incidentally - fancy having a single word for it) over pensions.

On a side note, is it just me or is Question Time a test? See how long you can watch the neutral BBC debate programme (filled with 95% Labour supporters, 95% of the time situated in Labour heartlands and with almost all of the panel being slightly further left politically than Lev Davidovitch Bronstein) before hurling something at the screen in disgust at its horrific bias and catering for dull-witted morons to read out the latest meaningless soundbites from Labour. Just a thought.

The unwashed masses (that's us) are all (well, enough to make a lot of noise) up in arms over proposals being bandied about over the last month or two (going a way back into my clippings now - must endeavour to stay more current) to contribute a little more to our pensions. Yes folks, it seems we are somehow bemused that we might need a little more money in the pot. We are talking about pensions designed to take people from retirement to their graves in non-extravagant comfort when that period was on average a matter of a handful of years. Just 50 years ago, an average male life expectancy was about 68. Next year the ONS will publish the next decennial report and will show that statistic to have risen to about 78.

10 years - not much you might think. Well, actually if you're working on funding only 3 years (65-68) on average, paying for 13 years (65-78) is an increase of over 300%. So, to be clear, we would want somewhere around 3 times the money to pay for it, and the complaints are coming over just a 3% increase in contributions.

I would go back to my slightly patronising bit I like doing about either paying more for something expensive or getting a cheaper version but it was in my last post and I don't want to hammer that point. Oh no, actually it turns out I do… Who wants a smaller pension? No-one? Didn't think so. So, you'll all be happy with paying a bit more for it? No? Oh, you must want general taxation to rise to pay for it? No? Oh, you must want the money to come from the alternative that Ed Miniband cracks on about; let's ask him exactly where that is. Sorry, he seems to have slipped out. I guess we could all just vote Labour and get Ed Balls to pull it out of a hat. A smug hat. With nothing to be smug about. Yes Dave, he is indeed the most annoying person in politics.

So there we go, just another little post pointing out what you hopefully already know. There isn't enough money to pay for the same standard of living for an ever-increasing amount of time. This problem will only get worse. The only options are more money into the fund or less money out, yet they ignore the obvious and complain in their droves that they want more for less - and I don't think that's what the Tories meant by that pre-election mantra. Look left and right of you on the tube, the bus, the street, in the shop; there's a good chance that you are looking at someone who complained about this and therefore who can't do maths. And their vote still counts as much as yours.