25 July 2009

My roller coaster education ride

By Juliette Harkin

Last week's One World Column, on the lack of access to education for bright, working class students, reminded me of my own unpleasant experience as a school leaver in Thatcher's Britain. Like many 16 year olds, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I ended up wasting my potential, when my local careers service sent me on a youth training programme for 'problem' teenagers. I was not really a problem teenager; just undecided and unaware of what possible opportunities there might be out there. Yet, there seemed to be an assumption, based on class, that I should have no aspirations and should train for factory work.

In my twenties, after a series of dead end jobs, I finally went to college, studying Business and Finance, and took up my dad's advice to learn how to type – a skill which later enabled me to get a temporary job at the BBC, where I was able to work my way up through the grades. Whilst at college our lecturer, Sally McCabe, encouraged students to apply for a place at university. This had never occurred to any of us and we had no idea that we might be able to go on with our studies. Sally, a high flier from the City who had burnt out and come into teaching, changed my life.

Even now with the more accessible information about higher education, the important ingredient is encouragement and the belief that you are capable and that you can succeed in your studies. Being the first in my family to go to college and university, I was from one of many homes that do not have the tradition and assumptions of a formal education. My dad was relentless in his attempts to get his four children into proper and secure jobs, but none of us had found our way and the large scale unemployment of the 1980s fuelled insecurity and squashed confidence.

This year I will graduate from Oxford University with a Masters in Modern Middle Eastern Studies. I was double the age of most of my fellow students and rarely, if at all, did I come across someone who was not being generously funded by their parents. I have felt like an Alice in Wonderland, in an academic environment which has its own strange and plentiful rules and quirks. It was a tough course for me, having been away from education for nearly twenty years, but, it was an experience that made me acutely aware of my own background and exposed for me the inequality of our education system. At Oxford I was convinced that entry is and should be based on merit, but this is just the beginning. Progress for bright students is held back by a lack of access to funding and other financial support. This seems unfair and arbitrary. It was a roller coaster ride in which I saw how some very privileged students receive, as young undergraduates, a very high quality education based on one-to-one tuition in which they are pushed to develop their writing and analytical skills. The thing that had the most impact on me though was the supreme confidence of Oxford students – that they can do anything and that they deserve the best. It can be a good thing, if it is harnessed in the right way. But confidence is the hardest quality to instil in a younger and disaffected generation.

18 July 2009

Education, education, education?

By Lee Marsden

This week has been one of the most exciting weeks in the University of East Anglia calendar as thousands of students attended the graduation ceremonies that mark a rite of passage into the world of work, or higher study, where the skills developed and honed over three years can be put to effective use. As I sat applauding the achievements of those students I was also struck by the realisation that those graduating this year may be leaving with record levels of debt and, due to the recession, some of the worst employment prospects for many years but going to university was still the right course of action for them and for those who will follow after them. The critical thinking and analytical skills developed during their time at university will stand them in good stead as they contribute to an economy and society that is dependent on a highly skilled and articulate workforce. In the United States President Obama recognises the importance of higher education pledging to invest one billion dollars in universities and research so that by 2020 the US will have the greatest proportion of graduates of any country in the world. All of which is very different from the approach of our own government.

In 1999 Tony Blair pledged to have fifty percent of school leavers in higher education, which would provide opportunities for the many rather than the few, widening participation and encouraging those who otherwise would not consider university to do so. Rather than university being the preserve of the middle classes it was to become accessible to all. However, such lofty rhetoric has not been matched with results. Today there is little talk of the fifty percent target, indeed the percentages of 18-30 year olds in higher education has only increased from 39.2 to 39.8 percent over the last ten years, an increase of just 0.6 per cent. Students from the poorest twenty five percent of the population still only make up 6.5 per cent of the student population. While the aspiration to go onto university has led to record numbers of applications, the government, despite all the rhetoric of investing in the future, are determined to cut back on the increase in student numbers. Originally committed to increasing the number of new places on offer to 15,000 they have decided to cap the number of new places universities can offer at 10,000. In practical terms this means that universities, including the University of East Anglia, will have fewer places to offer students in 2009/10 than last year.

The reason given for capping student numbers is because too many would be entitled to means tested grants. In other words, the very people the government purported to be encouraging to enter higher education as part of its widening participation agenda are set to lose out again. As many as fifty thousand potential students may be unable to access higher education this coming year. Competition for places will be particularly tough and, in a league table-obsessed culture, will be based on A level grades rather than academic potential. Statistically higher A level grades are achieved by those best able to afford them through private or selective schooling with working class students from comprehensive schools faring less well. No prizes for guessing which students will miss out when the scramble for places occurs in August. In the current economic climate the government must find the money to enable students, who after all pay back most of the cost of their education through fees, to progress into higher education rather than face the prospect of unemployment. This is good for the student, good for social inclusion and good for the country – anything less is a betrayal of those lofty ambitions of ten years ago.

11 July 2009

Confusing religion and politics

By Liam Carroll

The world is full of injustice, tragedy and the horror of war, famine and disease. Much of this sad state of affairs can be placed squarely at the feet of social conflict, both within communities and between communities. Several recent books in Britain and America have held religion up as one of the primary causes of these human ills. Some evolutionists however have recently argued that religion has actually helped human societies bind together and that conflict is in fact a by-product of evolutionary development, of which religion is but a part.

Evolutionary scientists like David Wilson and Pascal Boyer have recently been speculating that religion is a natural phenomenon. Religion, they say, has been so widespread and fundamental to social development that it can only be a product of our natural evolution. We have needed religion, they theorize, to hold societies together; group cohesion and internal ethical structures, as provided by religion, have been necessary for societies to function.

There is good evidence to suggest that forms of belief in the supernatural have evolved over the last few millennia; starting with a mass of supernatural beings (animism), changing to a few supernatural beings (pantheism), before winding up as a single supernatural being (monotheism). The pattern coincides, roughly speaking, with the growth of the size of communities. Large communities require greater cohesion, and therefore they need a more simplified religion with a clearer ethical structure.

The ancient Egyptians were obsessed with religion, possibly way beyond any other. They indulged in a huge amount of ritual and diverted vast resources to the building of temples, pyramids and preserving dead bodies. Despite such seemingly irrational behavior, they had an empire that survived over two and half thousand years, dwarfing the longevity of every other empire since. Interestingly, toward the later years of the empire the Pharaoh Akhnaten tried to introduce a monotheistic religion around a new single all encompassing god, Aten.

The Romans had to adopt Christianity, it can be reasonably argued, to help keep the Empire together, as Christianity had become so popular. The need for religious coherence required the Emperor Constantine to enact a sweeping change from pantheism to monotheism almost overnight, in his pursuit of a more unified Empire.

The Arab world too, propelled itself into a new age of political and scientific success under Islam, a monotheistic religion. Under a diverse pantheon of gods, they had not been so successful.

Religion, in other words, has developed hand in hand with political authority over the years, and thus its many diverse and conflicting forms can be seen to parallel many of the varied political developments over the course of history.

In the The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, the author, bemoans the irrational faith placed in supernatural beings and argues that such faith has been deeply harmful to men's development. Well, maybe, but does he believe that history would have developed along purely rational lines in the absence of religious institutions? What about the non-religious governments of Mao, Stalin or Hitler, were they superior forms of authority?

In God is not Great, the author, Christopher Hitchens mimics the argument of Professor Dawkins, only he tries to lump the secular tyrants, just mentioned, in with religion, on the basis that they involved 'faith'.

To categorize political tyrannies as religions exposes the fact that the two systems share much of the same ground; they are about organizing society around certain principles, principles in which people must have some faith, at least initially. What can seem liberating, however, can of course soon turn to tyranny and in this respect religion and politics have much in common. To deny, though, that religion should play no part in our evolution, as Darwinists like Professor Dawkins do, could in fact, ironically, be to deny the working of evolution itself.

4 July 2009

Hope casts a nuclear shadow

By Marguerite Finn

Yesterday, I found the perfect quotation for the anxious and disillusioned times we live in.

"Hope is the only good god remaining among mankind; the others have left and gone to Olympus. Trust, a mighty god has gone, Restraint has gone from men, and the Graces, my friend, have abandoned the earth. Men's judicial oaths are no longer to be trusted, nor does anyone revere the immortal gods; the race of pious men has perished and men no longer recognise the rules of conduct or acts of piety."

(Theognis of Megara, Greek Poet, 6th Century BC)

According to Greek legend, Hope was the last 'gift' to be let out of Pandora's Box. We consider ourselves lucky that Hope decided to remain with us. Today, she can be seen working indiscriminately in many different guises.

Hope has helped one nation feed itself and break away from a culture of dependency. Malawi is a landlocked, crowded country in southern Africa. Agriculture is the foundation of Malawi's economy, employing 80% of the country's workforce and responsible for 85% of export earnings. Malawi's main exports are tobacco, tea, sugar and cotton. The average size of smallholder farms is less than one hectare, which must be continuously cropped to feed the farmer's family.

In 2004-5, a prolonged drought brought about famine, which left half the population dependent on food aid. This drought was a watershed. It changed Malawi forever. Malawi's far-sighted President Bingu wa Mutharika decided that the country had had enough negative interference from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank and that the Malawians understood their own problems better than others and were best placed to find solutions. For decades, in the guise of economic assistance, the IMF's prescription for economic growth was full 'liberalisation' (privatisation) of the markets, cuts to social services, high interest rates and the removal of all agricultural subsidies.

President Mutharika, an economist by profession and an optimist by nature, was well aware that government subsidies to the agricultural sector were commonplace in Europe and the United States and decided to do what developed nations practiced – rather than what they preached. Facing down foreign criticism, his government initiated a subsidy system under which farmers received coupons to buy subsidised fertilisers and seeds. All farmers were eligible to receive the subsidy and, despite the rough nature of rural roads, the Government undertook the Herculean task of the transportation and distribution of the coupons down to village chief level. It worked. Maize production soared and as the success of the changed agricultural strategies became evident, foreign opposition withered. Malawi needs 2.2 million tonnes of maize annually to be self-sufficient but in 2005 only managed to produce 1.2 million tonnes. By 2007, production was 3.2 million tonnes, enabling exports to neighbouring countries – particularly Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Child hunger declined to such an extent that the UN Children's Fund diverted three tonnes of powdered milk (used for seriously malnourished children) to Uganda, after its representative in Malawi declared: "We won't need to use it". Malawi's National Food Reserve felt able to export 286,589 tonnes of maize to Zimbabwe in 2007 and the UN World Food Programme trucked another 32,363 tonnes of Malawian maize to Zimbabwe later that year. Subsidising fertilisers turned Malawi from supplicant to exporter. The subsidy system is not perfect – there are instances of coupons being stolen or forged - but on the whole, it works and enabled a miraculous turnaround in the fortunes of Malawi.

There's one blot on this hopeful horizon – the development of a uranium mine in Malawi, threatening havoc including the radioactive pollution of Lake Malawi, Africa's third largest source of fresh water.

Will the nuclear industry's greed bequeath another ambiguous 'gift' from Pandora's Box?