We must do more to help the young

Alexander Pannett 7.30am

In Roman times, Janus, the two-faced god, emphasised change and the development of youth into adulthood.

It must therefore be galling to British school children that modern education in the UK has changed little with its own two-faced approach.

On the one hand, they must forever be taking more exams, more coursework and more responsibilities in order to compete in a globalised world for the jobs and life that their parents assumed was a birthright.

On the other, pupils’ achievements are mocked as poor return in an age of grade inflation, ever-falling exam standards and supposedly parlous work-ethic.

Those that survive the pressure cauldron of school and manage to secure a coveted place at University find, with bitter irony, that their education is transformed into a shadow of its former intensity, in many cases consisting of a mere two to four hours “contact time” a week, in classes of twenty or thirty.  A friend of mine did not even have a single assessment to complete in her first three months of University.

“Student-led” seminars are prevalent, where often a distracted tutor sits in the corner, nursing a particular esoteric brand of instant coffee and wondering whether the etymology of ennui can be traced back to Shakespeare’s cat. Or some such nonsense.

And now you have to pay for such “higher education”.

Even on managing to graduate without bankruptcy or gout, students are required to perform intricate initiation “tests” by graduate recruitment personnel, who, despite twenty odd years of supposedly world class education, will judge students’ suitability for employment on their ability to build towers out of rolled up newspapers.

Or they may get lucky and be sent off to fight in one of the wars that have been fostered on them by middle aged arm chair generals and suffer rejection by an apathetic society for their efforts.

Throw in astonishingly high house prices for first time buyers, un-paid internships and unprecedented youth unemployment (22%) and you start to suspect that today’s youth are getting a particularly raw deal.

It is in this context that, whilst Michael Goves’s plans to request A-Level exam boards work with leading universities to raise standards should be applauded, we should be expecting a lot more action from the Government in addressing the social inequality timebomb that will arise from current youth degradation.

The Government should be much more radical about raising standards in schools by abandoning the discredited A-Level system and switching to the world-leading International Baccalaureate.  University degrees should have a mandatory minimum number of hours of contact time and ambitious students should be allowed to fit more modules into a term and so finish a degree at a quicker pace, to cut down on the regressive debt they will have to accrue.

The Government must also provide better vocational courses for students who do not choose an academic route, with enough resources and training to make these a viable alternative path into the workplace.

To achieve effective reform there must be much more dialogue between businesses, universities and schools about what skills the job market needs.  Businesses should therefore also be consulted on the content of exams for both secondary and higher education.

There should also be much more encouragement for companies to take on work experience students and pay them.  Tax incentives could be made available for companies that employ 16-24 year olds.  The lowest income tax band should be raised for 16-24 year olds to help them meet the costs of finding initial employment.

Benefits must be re-structured to recognise and relieve the youth unemployment epidemic. Jobseekers allowance should be highest for the most vulnerable, which are 16-24 year olds due to their lack of skills and experience. Currently this age bracket gets less than any other.

The Government could also issue a moratorium for every government department on making 16-24 year olds redundant due to spending cuts.  Building on Chris White’s recent Social Value Bill, the Government could ensure that the granting of government contracts is weighted in favour of companies that promote youth apprenticeships.  The Big Society Capital could also be encouraged to invest in social enterprises that directly help youth employment.

As our society grows older, we will be looking to the generosity of younger generations to sustain the prohibitively expensive welfare state that we all will rely on for our remaining years.

Unless we show compassion to the suffering youth of today, we should not be surprised if that compassion is not returned when we find ourselves dependent on them in the future.

Shameful and disgraceful: the St Andrews Tories

Craig Barrett 6.00am

I never wanted to be one of those people who said things like “it would never have happened in my day”. There is too much of the Werther’s Original Grandfather or the Four Yorkshiremen (watch here) about that saying.
But it’s what came to mind when I read that my old university Conservative association had burned an effigy of President Obama wrapped in an EU flag. There were more reports yesterday that the students had also in the past burned an effigy of Nelson Mandela and toasted Apartheid.
I have a confession to make. I happily tell people that I have been a Conservative party member for twenty years; but it’s not strictly true.
Between the summer of 1995 and the summer of 1996, I was not a party member. The reason for this is simple - while a seminal part of any Freshers’ Week is the joining of as many societies as possible, one look at the St Andrews Tories was enough to put me off immediately.  Sorry chaps - I know we became friends in the end, but I didn’t then (and don’t now) own a tweed jacket nor has the consumption of heroic quantities of port ever appealed to me.
St Andrews at that time was a curious place, politically.  Despite its image problems, the biggest student political society was the Tories, far outstripping Labour and the Lib Dems.  There wasn’t any kind of SNP student presence, perhaps unsurprising in an institution often described as an English university in Scotland.
In the end, I relented and signed up in 1996. I remained a member and serving on the committee right up until I graduated.  As the second biggest Tory student brigade in the UK, we were fortunate to have a good selection of prominent Ministers and MPs visit us. With remarkable good fortune, I was able to sell two used cars with celebrity political connections: one having transported Ann Widdecombe while prisons minister and one having transported Norman Lamont in his post-power period.
Throughout this period, our biggest financial supporter was Mr Abdur Rouf, proprietor of the fine New Balaka restaurant.  I can’t imagine that he would have had anything to do with us if we were behaving in a racist or controversial way nor do I recall attending any event where something as tasteless as burning an effigy would have been contemplated.  Yes, there was an incident at the “Back to the 1980s” disco where a lavatory was seriously damaged, wiping out the profit from the event, but that is not atypical of general student behaviour and certainly not unique to our party.
(Incidentally, the surname of the vandal in question is an anagram of “trouble” - I guess I should have known.)
During my time at St Andrews, we had a general election, the devolution referendum and the first elections to the Scottish Parliament (coinciding with my candidacy in the county council elections).
We received a lot of valuable support because we were a dedicated band of activists.  Yes, we had views and yes, they may have been unpalatable to some but we had the brains to understand that sometimes it is better to remain quiet.  This approach meant that St Andrews Conservatives’ membership continued to grow even after 1997.
University is where young adults are at their most impressionable.  Given that our future as a party depends entirely on growing our membership, attracting people at this point in their lives is important.  What many university Conservative Associations at seem to be forgetting is that controversial behaviour like this casts an appalling image but also reinforces their cliquey nature.
People may burn effigies if they so wish (remember, remember the 5th of November) but thought needs to be given to its potential reception. Even more so, given the desire for the left-wing media to seize upon anything that can be seen to be offensive.
The BBC seems to have no issue with guests calling for the death of Lady Thatcher (see here and here) and it seems to be fine for Ken Livingstone to hope that Hammersmith & Fulham councillors "burn in hell".
But a figure like Barrack Obama, darling of the left-wing media, is always going to be inflammatory (do excuse the expression).
Matthew Marshall, currently Chairman of St Andrews University Conservatives, has said that he felt that not burning an effigy of President Obama would have been racist itself, as the motion had been voted on by members.
I cannot fault that logic but they should not have been contemplating effigy burning in the first place. Not as an allegedly serious political organisation.
These stunts mean that their ability to attract speakers and sponsorship will be limited and thus their appeal to new members diminished.  These were not problems that I experienced in the late nineties.
Tory students everywhere must reflect on how they present themselves to the outside world if they want to ensure the success of the party they claim to believe in.
Far too many of them are merely concerned with getting drunk and egging each other on to higher and higher levels of extremism. Any student can do that.
Wrapping themselves in a Conservative banner brings unnecessary shame and disgrace on a party genuinely striving to fix our broken country and distracts from and diminshes the hard work that many other activists are doing. It would never have happened in my day.
Craig Barrett is a former Treasurer and Vice-Chairman of St Andrews Conservative and Unionist Association. Follow him on Twitter @MrSteedUK

This incoherent collective tantrum has nothing to do with tuition fees

Nik Darlington 9.37am

The economic crisis, financial crisis, eurozone crisis, bank crash, credit crunch…call it what you will, it has nothing to do with an increase in tuition fees. The balance of funding for universities would have had to move away from the state towards the direct beneficiary irrespective of the state of the economy or even the political party in office.

The Labour party commissioned the Browne Review as a way to delay the inevitable. All of the leaders of the political parties colluded in this pre-election smokescreen. Including Nick Clegg, even if his party then insisted on popularism over pragmatism, an act that pledge brandishing Lib Dems have come bitterly to regret.

No, today’s series of either disparate or connected (I really couldn’t discern, or care, which) protests in London’s literary and financial districts are merely another grunt of bewildered dissatisfaction for dissatisfaction’s sake.

These idealistic children and nihilistic adults know that there is something very wrong with the world. That much they share in common with everyone else. Something is, frankly, seriously wrong.

And like everyone else, they aren’t quite sure exactly what it is. There is an existential collapse of confidence in the West that is currently beyond our individual or collective comprehensions.

Last week, on the day that the City of London withdrew its threat of legal action, I visited the Occupy London encampment in St Paul’s Churchyard. It was filled chiefly by bemused tourists and City workers happy to have a sandwich in the sunshine al fresco rather than al desko. Discount the camera crews and other reporters and maybe only one-quarter of people there were bona fide ‘protestors’.

Those I could find were pleasant, well-mannered, well-spoken and harmless. They stank of wet rugby socks but then Churchill had chronic halitosis and did okay in life. There is actually nothing wrong with them being there. In fact, Occupy London is, in its own sweet way, quite inspirational.

But what are they occupying London for? There were some who wanted to tax banking and finance, some who were against wars, against climate change, against oil companies, against politicians…in fact, dig deeply enough among those tents (take clothes pegs) and you could probably find someone protesting against Jimmy Saville’s golden casket.

Occupy London is utterly incoherent, a trait it shares with the protests taking place in London today and, incidentally, the Eurozone leaders’ attempts to deal with continental sovereign debt.

In this case there is nothing precisely wrong with incoherence. Actually, incoherence is quite natural. Everyone agreeing all the time about something would be boring. Like a Chinese Communist party coffee morning. And, I repeat, the problems we face are bewildering and nebulous.

The problem is if incoherence becomes perceived as the answer. Take to the streets and shout down the walls of this or that institution, who cares which, it’s all just part of the “machine”, as a charming South African chappie in well-buffed mocassins told me outside his tent last week.

Except incoherent and unrestrained rage against nothing in particular is not the answer, it’s an almighty collective tantrum. A massive exercise in recondite flatulence.

And it has nothing to do with tuition fees.

Muslim students cry usury to avoid interest on student loans - is this fair?

Nik Darlington 6.00am

The Independent reports that an organisation representing Muslim students in Britain is protesting against the coalition government’s reforms to university finance.

The Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSI) warns that young Muslims could be forced to sacrifice higher education as a result of the higher rates of interest under a new university loans system. The Indy's Poppy McPherson writes:

Under some interpretations of Islamic law, the acquisition of loans - particularly those which accrue interest - is forbidden. The new system requires graduates who earn above £21,000 to pay interest levels of up to 3 per cent above inflation. The National Union of Students (NUS) has warned it could be two years before a suitable system is arranged [to accommodate Muslim students].

A FOSI spokesman said:

Under Islamic law interest is seen as something that is prohibited. Previously, the interest rate was at the market rate of inflation. The problem now is that the interest is above the market rate. Because the rate of interest is above the rate of inflation, it is quite blatant usury.

The first point here is also blatant: in Britain, we do not operate under Islamic law. The student finance system has to be devised according to British laws, not those of a religion observed by 3 per cent of the UK population.

Second - and less comforting, but historically apt - thoughout the ages, the spiritual has had to adapt to the temporal (and of course vice-versa). Usury, or the charging of interest of any kind (not necessarily excessive) on a loan, was outlawed by Christian churches for hundreds of years. The first instance of secular law overriding the church was when Henry VIII’s parliament passed ‘An Acte Agaynst Usurie’ in 1545. Islamic banks have already devised a number of methods of rewarding savers, such as entrance into Premium Bonds-style lotteries; or direct investment is encouraged instead of loans.

The third point is most pressing to the present situation of universtiy finances. The Government takes a sizeable hit on the currently interest-free student loan book. The Browne Review identified student loans as a straightforward and fair way of reforming university financing and shifting the burden from the taxpayer to graduates. Removing what was effectively a middle-class subsidy was the right thing to do. The state should not be handing out cash that in some cases will be invested in ISAs or unit trusts, so providing an easy return for students who don’t truly need their loans.

The money to finance universities needs to come from somewhere. The nervous fees and funding fudge contrived by coalition ministers means that not enough is going to come from students. HE institutions will still rely for some years to come on direct grants from the state. For the state to afford this, there has to be more of a contribution from those who can afford it most - the graduates earning enough money to pay off their loans, with interest.

One could just charge Muslim students more for their higher education in the first place, and allow them to forego the payment of interest at a later date. The tuition fees policy of the Scottish Government is an example of how the authorities can get away with discriminating against students within the same state without blinking an eyelid.

If Muslim students do not want to pay interest on their student loans because doing so would contravene their faith, then I have some sympathy for them. However, we cannot have a situation in which some graduates end up paying less because they happen to observe a different religion to their peers.

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