Monday, March 21, 2011

Tuition fees - the argument continues.

 University principals have been up in arms again over the abolition of university tuition fees.  “It’s a catastrophe for the university sector” said one university head, “how will we improve teaching and infrastructure?”  Industry leaders have warned that graduate standards might deteriorate.   Familiar sentiments.   However,  these are  objections to the abolition of university tuition fees, not in Scotland, but in Germany.   Hamburg has become the latest regional government to abolish tuition fees in Europe’s leading industrial nation, leaving only three out of the 16 German land governments sticking with fees.  The argument has prevailed there that, when times are tough, the tough get learning - and that it is essential to eliminate barriers to entry into higher education. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Where are the university principals on tuition fees?

  The silence has been deafening.  Since the major Scottish political parties all came into line behind the policy of keeping Scotland tuition-fee free two weeks ago, I have not heard one positive comment from any of Scotland's university principals.    Why aren't they celebrating the fact that Scotland has decided to make a decisive break with the creeping privatisation of higher education that is afflicting England?   They have been behaving like a sectional special interest group, truculent in lobbying for their own policies, peevish and negative when they don't get their way.

    They need to remember that they are public institutions and that they are there to serve the Scottish people, not their own balance sheets.

   What have they got to complain about?   The Scottish government has given an unequivocal commitment to financing Scottish universities.  "Any funding gap [with fee paying universities] will be closed" . Where else in the public sector is there such a commitment?  Only the NHS. Universities should count themselves lucky that they are receiving a record of £1.2 billion from the public purse.  That places on them an obligation to accept with good grace the wishes of the Scottish public that higher education should remain free.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

UK Nuclear power programme has just gone up in smoke.

     There is a long established protocol for dealing with accidents at nuclear power plants.   First. the authorities insist there is no possibility of radiation escaping and that the public shouldn't worry.  Then various nuclear experts appear on television saying that this accident shows just how safe nuclear power really is because it can withstand earthquakes and tsunamis.   As the reactors explode one by one we are told that the detonations don't mean much because the nuclear containment vessels cannot be penetrated.   Until they are.  But even then we are told not to worry because any radiation leak will be less than background radiation in the granite city of Aberdeen.  The final act is always the same.  It emerges that nuclear fuel rods have been exposed,  radiation is pouring into the atmosphere, and that there is a potential catastrophe in the making.

   At the striken Fukushima Daiichi plant in northern Japan, selfless power station workers risk their lives to try to put out the nuclear fires.  Last night it emerged that radiation at the nuclear power station had reached at a critical level of  400 millisieverts an hour.  The normal 'safe' dosage of radiation is 100 milliseverts A YEAR, according to the World Health Organisation.  The plant managers were reduced to hosing sea water from fire engines onto superheated reactors cores in a desperate attempt to prevent a meltdown . Then one of the fire engines runs out of fuel.

 And so history repeats itself as tragedy as well as farce.   Windscale, 1957, Three Mile Island, 1978 and Chernobyl, 1986 and now in Fukushima Daiichi. This, though, must be the ultimate nuclear nightmare:  a disaster of epic proportions in the country, Japan, which has led the world in the development of supposedly safe nuclear power generation.    We don't know what is going to be the final fate of Fukushima Daiishi - but one thing we do know for certain:  civil nuclear power is finished. This is the end of the nuclear dream.  It finally died when the third explosion ripped through those innocent-looking concrete blocks on Tuesday 15 March 2011.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sovereign debt crisis: hasn't gone away you know.

   The sharks are circling again. The cost of debt rising inexorably in the Club Med countries.  After a couple months of respite, the spectre of sovereign debt is again casting a shadow over Europe.     I was in Portugal recently, on the eve of the biggest general strike  since that country became a democracy after the ‘Red Rose Revolution’ in 1974.  The  show of strength by the trades unions was impressive though largely futile.  Following Greece and Ireland, Portugal will almost certainly become the latest  victim of the sovereign debt crisis that is rocking the EU to its very foundations. 

   Outside Lisbon, there was an eerie calm. The Algarve is now one long housing estate punctuated by golf courses.  In Albufeira I marvelled at the endless estates of candy coloured holiday homes, all empty.   It’s like being in one of those post-apocalyptic video games where all the people have all been killed by a mystery disease.  You half expected to see a crowd of zombies.  What I did see was a guy in a hat trotting along in a cart drawn by a donkey.  You see rather a lot of blokes on donkeys here, if you hang around long enough.  For, beneath the veneer of prosperity brought by tourism, Portugal is a low-growth, low-tech, essentially agricultural economy.  Nothing wrong with that.  Except that dozy Portugal is harnessed, via the euro, to the the most technologically efficient and productive manufacturing force on the planet: Germany.  And that’s the problem: it’s a donkey yoked to a race horse . 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What do the SNP have to do to stay in office?

At their conference in Glasgow this weekend the Scottish National Party faithful are doing their best to keep their spirits up. Everything to play for.  Polls ambiguous. Alex will see us right.  No one thinks Iain Gray is a leader.  Perhaps not.  But the SNP is up against one of the greatest challenges in modern political history.  How to break the link between Labour and the soul of Scotland.  The Scottish Labour Part my be bereft of ideas, lost for leaders, out of touch and fearful of office.  But almost inspite of themselves, Labour still look like being the favourites to win the Scottish election in May.  The bond of sentiment is just too strong with the Scottish voters.  When the Tories are in office in Westminster, Scotland just votes Labour.