London Met University stripped of its license

A bolt from the blue struck today with the UKBA stripping the London Metropolitan University of its license to sponsor the visa’s of non-EU (so called in the trade “tier 4” students). As a consequence 2,700 of the met’s Tier 4 students are not left high and dry, with their visa’s essentially cancelled they have 60 days to find a new university, or risk being deported. There’s a good Q&A about the situation from “The Guardian’s” education website, should you be affected by this.

As I described in a previous post, since the early days of the Tory government the UKBA has adopted a Daily Mail-esque paranoia about “foreigners” (try not to scream at the mention of that word!), including university students.

Universities across the country have been put under huge pressure from the UKBA, who want us to jump through multiple hoops to keep track of overseas students. I’ve had to give up at least half a day a week over the summer (sometimes an entire day) to filling in forms as part of this. And even this schedule is mild compared to what I’m being told we’ll have to adopt next term, in which we’ll have to have face to face contact with every tier 4 student on a daily basis. Now for the undergrads doing classes during term time that’s not a problem, but for the postgrads or outside of normal term time, or on the days when students don’t have classes (some students may have days with no lectures scheduled) or when some get ill (or like so many students decide to bunk off class!) this would place a huge burden on us. Indeed I calculated that assuming a 40 hour week per lecturer, such a programme would require the department to hire 3-5 new members of staff, just to cope with the time taken up by such face to face meetings.

It is therefore with incredulity that I hear the Head of the UKBA trying to encourage students from overseas to come to the UK ….hint, how about you stop treating foreign students like their criminals and ditch the red tape!

Okay, yes we need some checks, some people do sneak into the UK on student visas, and then don’t ultimately study. But they also usually don’t bother to pay tuition fees, nor do they show up when we ask them to come to a meeting (rendering the UKBA’s policies bunk). Also given that the bulk of UK tier 4 students are paying an average of £12,000 a year to be over here (in fees, accommodation and living costs can add up it all up to £25,000 a year) I doubt it works out as cost effective for them to come here just to flip burgers in a Mac Donald’s. Indeed given that the post-grads usually have degrees already, I suspect they could get a much better paid job at home, or indeed apply for a professional job in the UK and get their employer to sponsor their visa.

And while yes it seems the LMU did screw up royal and a some students in the uni were not bonafide students, but what about the majority who were? This counts as a form of “collective punishment” on them all, which cuts right across any notion for fair play and due process, and is often considered as a breach of human rights.

Also it hardly help matters if the Tory’s sack UK border staff and then expect us lecturers to do their dirty work! I suspect its also hardly cost effective to get the likes of me to do a load of form filling when I could be doing something else (lecturing? research? solving climate change? minor things like that!).

Chilling effect

But it is the arbitrary nature of this stripping of a license without warning that I think will do the most damage. Consider that some students who have been here for maybe a year or two are now sixty days away from having too flush tens of thousands of pounds down the toilet. Put yourself in the shoes of a student from India (read the reaction of the Indian media here) or Brazil (read one such students story here) planning to come to he UK to start first year in a few weeks time, would you come here with this threat hanging over you?

Finding a place in another UK course, for these LMU students, won’t be easy. Clearing is winding down and while due the cock up of exams earlier in the year means there will be slots free in a couple of first year courses, there will still be few if any places available in many universities courses. Transferring to years above the freshers year is always problematic as generally we’ve only as much room as students who dropped out (or failed) the previous year, and while the failure/drop out rate for the end of first year is often high (as much as 50% in some courses) it usually much lower for 2nd year and beyond (around 10% for my department, and we usually bank on the assumption of a smaller third year, so that leaves only a handful of potential places).

Even those who are lucky enough to find another UK university (to sponsor their visa) will face another hurdle. There are often subtle differences between the courses in different universities, even if you’re studying an identical course. A number of these London Met students might find that upon moving they have to repeat a year or semester (thus having to pay fees and living expenses for a further year than planned), just to catch up (if the UKBA had made this announcement at the beginning of summer mind, we could have improvised a solution and organised a “crash” catchup course over the summer, but there’s no way that can be organised in the month to the beginning of term).

Inevitably these students will be texting their friends back home warning them against coming to the UK to study. This will have significant impact on the finances of UK universities. While overseas students make up 11% of the UK student population, they represent 32% of the UK’s universities income stream. They bring an estimated £5 billion into the UK each year. Already even before this announcement overseas student numbers were already down (likely as a result of all the hassle we’ve been forced by the UKBA to enforce on students), costing the UK economy an estimated £940 million, so the economic impact of these events and the chilling effect its likely to have on students should not be underestimated.

British uni’s for British students?

Of course some will probably say, good show! We shouldn’t have all these foreigners over here, UK uni’s should be for the benefit of UK students.

While admittedly I, and I suspect many lecturer’s, have never been entirely happy with the volume of tier 4 students being recruited, unfortunately we are all too aware of why universities have been aggressively chasing the overseas student market for the last few decades. And its largely a natural consequences of the policy started under John Major’s Tory’s but continued under Blair and now Cameron of what I can only describe as a defacto privatisation of UK universities.

Under this policy the UK’s universities have been encouraged to become ever more commercially orientated, both in terms of us charging fees, chasing private capital to pay for research and facilities, as well as how we treat students (as customers more than students). Obviously in such a climate, its inevitable that universities will chase the “customer” whom they can get the highest markup (and thus profit) from, that being these overseas students, who now represent a crucial source of revenue. Its why the car industry prioritizes the sale of SUV’s and luxury cars, even at a time of global recession with climate change and peak oil high on the agenda (again like the universities they can make far more money from the sale of these cars that they can by selling lots of cheap fuel efficient vehicles).

And the higher rates of fees now since approved can only feed this business model all the more. So indeed if we do want a system of UK uni’s for UK citizens, then the government needs to be willing to roll back its previous policies and stump up the cash to pay for that and abolish tuition fees.

Furthermore “academic tourism” has been a part of Universities life since the days of Luther and Erasmus. This is how new ideas travel from institution to institution worldwide. How would the UK react if Indian or American universities (its often forgotten by the Daily mail mob that the second largest source of foreign no-EU students in the UK (after China) is from the US-of-A!) suddenly announced they were forbidding UK students from applying any more? Getting drunk in a uni bar with people from the four corners of the globe is sort of one of the whole reasons behind going to university in the first place!

Bottom feeders

Of course I cannot escape the conclusion that the behaviour of the UKBA is no cock up (not even the Tory’s are this stupid!), but perfectly planned. In much the same way as the UK universities have been going for the “low hanging fruit” of foreign students, the UKBA have been deliberately trying to antagonise both universities and foreign students in the hope of pushing down student numbers, thus pushing down the figure for net inward migration helping them to meet their Daily-Mail inspired “shut-the-border-before-the-evil-dark-skinned-foreigners-eat-our-babies” targets.

Of course it is lost on the UKBA the fact that the vast bulk of these students are perfectly innocent of any charges, nor that the vast majority are only here to study and that they contribute massively to the economy and UK society while doing so (a couple of my students told me they volunteered to help out with the Olympics, hardly sounds like to mm like the sort of people we should be deporting!).

But like so many Tory policies, its another case of SAPS (Save Ass Policy Scheme) that cause enormous damage, just so some pencil pusher can get his numbers to add up….of course, I’m not suggested that they’re aren’t people in the country who shouldn’t be here. But you’d think the first port of call for the UKBA would be to round up a few Yardie gang members or indeed the many gangs who ship immigrants into the country illegally and have them work for below minimum wage as virtual slaves (or saudi business men who help fund Al-Queda), but jasus no! Am I crazy! those guys have gun’s (and good lawyers!) don’t you know, while the students have….textbooks!

What happens when a uni goes bankrupt

And the financial costs of this action are already being counted. Its been estimated that LMU could be looking at having to pay tens of millions in compensation to these overseas students for the cancellation of their course, and I suspect that this is on the low side, as this figure only includes the cost of refunding fees. I would argue that these students are fully entitled to claim reimbursement for the costs of maintenance and other spending while in the UK – which would push this figure up to tens of thousands per student. Its for good reason I’m working on an future article titled “what happens when a uni goes bankrupt” as I suspect that we may have to answer that question sooner rather than later.

These events have all the potential to be the UK Higher Education industry’s “Lehman brothers moment”. As like Lehman brothers, everyone will now be looking as to which university is next, staff will be looking over their shoulder and students from overseas (those few who come) will be very picky about whom they choose to invest their time with and universities that overstretched their finances (by building new facilities on the assumption of rising student numbers and revenues from fees) will suddenly find themselves struggling financially as student numbers (home and overseas) start to fall.

I suspect its going to be a case of “interesting times” this semester.

A-level’s and grade deflation

One other story I missed, which has had a direct impact on my working life was the A-level exam results. They have been marked harder this year with lower grades issued. Also, the GCSE English exam seems to have been a stinker of a paper, that was marked harder.

Now on the one hand, I agree with the government here. For far too long we lecturer’s have been seeing the standard of fresher students gradually slipping, even thought their marks have been going up. My suspicion is that this reflects the fact that teachers at second level have got better at teaching students at passing the A-level’s (or similar exams in Scotland and Ireland) not too mention the pressure on exam boards too see education standards rise, with the false belief that rising exam marks means higher education standards – not so.

So while I welcome the government’s plans….but it would have been handy for you too tell us you what you were planning! These low results stuck many of us out of the blue. As a result many students will have failed to get the marks needed to achieve their conditional offers and forced to rely on clearing to get a university place (probably not the one they wanted). Word around the camp fire is that my department is in the clear, as the bulk of our CO student’s seem to have scrapped through, but I suspect there is considerable hair pulling going on other departments in other uni’s for whom those results would have been critical.

So it is rare you find me agreeing with the government, but sadly even now I have to say it represents yet another example of Tory government incompetence, more government by bungling, with the Tory’s coming up with a policy (on this occasion one that actually made sense) but they badly implemented it, largely as a result of their failure to consult with anyone outside of the usual Pimms cocktails set.

Heathrow’ 3rd runway, change the record!

When will the supporters of a Heathrow third runway give it a break? Is Cameron, to quote one Tory “a man or mouse?”……ah….no! He’s just not a spokes-model for British Airways!

The UK, as I’ve previously mentioned does not need more airport capacity in and around London. While other parts of the country, notably the Midlands, might perhaps need such capacity in the future. However, I would argue in favour of high speed rail as an alternative, as this would reduce the need for commuter flights into Heathrow, thus freeing up landing slots.

Even if we were to believe that there is a need for further capacity in the South East, Heathrow is last place you’d build it. Its in the wrong place! And as I mentioned in my prior post a significant portion of Heathrow is given over to air cargo (I don’t think the parcels care where they fly into or out of the UK!). It would make far more sense to rationalise the capacity of the South East’s airports (i.e. move all that cargo as well as commuter flights to other airports, rely on trains rather than commuter flights to get people to the airport). If indeed another runway in the region is needed, it would make far more sense to build it at Gatwick, which is surrounded by green fields rather than Heathrow (surrounded by houses).

Building a new airport in the Thames estuary (on an Island big enough to accommodate Boris Johnson’s ego) as is also proposed, would be crazy idea and a complete waste of public money at a time when the government is supposed to be cutting back (if they can afford to blow £40 billion on an airport, they can afford to spend £20 billion reversing spending cuts to the NHS).

Things I missed while on Holiday

I’ve been on holiday for a few weeks with another wee break coming up. So I thought I’d comment on the stories I’ve missed while away.

Olympics closing ceremony…which I missed, which was probably just as well as it featured the spice girls, not exactly my favourite people!

Julian Assange gets Asylum – To be perfectly honest, the only asylum this guy should be in is the type that hands out strait-jackets and free drugs :DD . But as the expression goes “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you” has to apply doubly to Assange. Now on the one hand if the Swedes just issued a declaration saying that he would only be charged/interviewed with regard to the rape charge (possibly we could allow the Ecuadorian government to participate as a neutral observer). This would resolve the current crisis, but I get the impression that even this would not sufficient for Julian. On the other hand, it seems odd that such an offer hasn’t been made, which sort of suggests Julian has good reason to fear going back to Sweden as it might turn into a mere pit stop on his way to Gitmo!

Will the British police storm the embassy? I hope not or they’ll be making it open season on every UK diplomatic mission in the world. They will have set a legal precedence that the likes of Assad, Putin or Mugabe will drive a bus thro. Diplomatic immunity is a 4,000 year old tradition going back to the time of Rameses the Great. One possibility is the Ecuadorian government trying to sneak him out in the boot of a car (considered diplomatic territory) and onto a plane…one assumes the cops have a few special branch officers at Heathrow waiting to rugby tackle him as he runs from the car to the plane!

Virgin loses West Coast Train franchise – I’m not surprised by this, I’ve had many bad experiences with Virgin (and I’m still waiting for my refund btw). Branson said he’d run it like an airline. Unfortunately he succeeded. They seemed to have turned the West Coast line into a case of Ryanair service for British Airways prices.

Will First Group do any better? Hardly! As I’ve discussed before the problems with rail travel in the UK are more fundamental, i.e. we have a “fake” private rail system that needs more in subsidies than British Rail pre-privatisation needed. Changing the livery on the side of the train or the coffee cups isn’t going to achieve a thing.

Neil Armstrong Dies – The first man on the moon makes his final “giant leap”. He was the perfect guy for the job. What many people don’t know was that things started to go badly wrong in the last few minutes of the moon landing. The LEM’s computer crashed unexpectedly due to the volume of data coming in and the astronauts realised they were heading for a dangerous boulder field. The manual said in such a scenario they should abort, but Neil switched the LEM into manual mode and with the guidance and help of Aldrin, he got the LEM down on the ground with seconds of fuel left remaining (both have often wondered if anyone goes back to the moon could they check the tanks and see how much fuel was actually left!). He and Aldrin were in essence the right people in the right place at the right time.

That said, Armstrong represented a different era of America. The US space program is caught in the doldrums, with no manned launched capability nor clear mission. It is possible that private space launchers will, as Obama hopes, provide a service. But that to me is a bit of a gamble. In any event I would argue the current world priority in space should be science missions, such as a new generation of space telescopes and long range space probes (notably to Jupiter and its moons). At some future date, the time will come for further manned missions, both to the moon and Mars (to stay perhaps?). But its pure speculation how long it will take for that day to arrive. Neil Armstrong might be remembered more as our “Eric the Red” rather than “Christopher Colombus” in that it might be centuries before anyone goes back to the moon again.

What happens in Vegas….well I’m quite sure the Royals would like to add “…stays in Vegas”. Unfortunately the tabloid press would disagree. The newspapers initially agreed to keep the photos of a naked prince Harry under raps…of course they forgot about this thing called “the internet”. Here’s a link if you’ve missed it. The Sun tried to portray its decision to publish as a moral one regarding press freedom and striking against censorship. Ya right! If that’s so I dare the Sun to publish those cartoons of Mohammed? Or how about pictures of the Tienanmen square massacre? (Murdoch’s been cosying up to the Chinese for years) Or how about those pictures of Bush doing coke? The only reason why the Sun published them is because they were salivating at the cash they could pull in.

I also did see this odd article on the Beeb which tried to suggest it was normal for people to take their clothes off when they were drunk. I’m Irish and therefore I think I can call myself an expert on drunken activity and while it happens to some people it is certainly not “normal” in anyway. Generally if you find yourself starkers you’ve either drunk way too much or have had your drink spiked, or simply can’t handle you’re liquor.

Lance Armstrong gives up fight against drug allegations – Meanwhile another Armstrong appears to be in trouble. Lance Armstrong appears to have decided to stop trying to defend himself against doping allegations. While he’s not admitted to anything, this has quite serious implications.

It essentially means that between 2010 and the last win by Miguel Indurain in 1995 every single tour winner has had either been disqualified or had some cloud of doubt placed over his win. Indeed numerous winners in the pre-Indurain era (its widely believed that Indurain had a natural physical advantage compared to other cyclists and that if he was taking drugs, then he was an idot!) are also under suspicion, right back to Eddy Merchx (Merchx regularly won stages by a margin of ten minutes or more, so again if he was taking drugs, he was an idot!).

Indeed if the authorities do decide to strip Armstrong of his titles they are left with the problem of who to award them too, as a number of the 2nd and 3rd place finishers behind him are also at the centre of various doping controversies.

This to me is the real problem with drug taking in sports, it ruins things. Sure the athlete gets the medals and the sponsorship endorsements, but we’re left speculated over who would have actually won a clean race. Take the example of the women’s 100m final in Sydney, where the top two athletes have since tested positive, as also happened with the men’s 100m in 1988 (while Johnson got caught, allegations have swirled since then regarding Carl Lewis). Then there was all that speculation over a Chinese swimmer during the Olympics, and I’m sure some are even wondering about whether Phelps performance was “enhanced” in some way. Like I said it ruins the sport.

To my mind, the solution is simple – take the money out of sports. Athletes can only participate in major events such as the Olympics or Tour de France if they agree to some sort of wage cap on earnings. An athlete who knows that once their sporting career is over that they’ll have to go out and get a job is less likely to cheat.

Alternatively its a case of throwing in the towel, accepting the fact that athletes are going to dope, but instead trying to manage the problem, i.e. make it legal, if carried out under careful supervision. Naturally, some athletes will choose not to dope, but this could be solved by using a handicap system (doped athletes have to wear a belt of small weights, or have several seconds added to their time).

Wheels Come off Ron Paul’s “delegate strategy” – One story I covered a while ago was the “undemocratic” tactics of Ron Paul’s Tea Party supporters (often referred to as “Paulestinians” within the Republican party). They had been planning to rig the delegates who went to the up coming Republican National Convention. They would then vote for Ron Paul, even though the state they represented may well have voted for Romney (oddly enough internal rules of the Republican party allowed this). Unsurprisingly, the GOP leadership has now closed this absurd loophole and the “Paulestinians” are going nuts about it.

Now while I’m no fan of Romney nor the Republican party, what Ron Paul and his cult of personality were up too was an attempt to circumvent the democratic process. This I would argue disqualifies him and his Tea Party supporters from holding high office, as like the nazi’s or many religious fundamentalist parties, they clearly see the democratic process as merely a means to an end. How ironic that Ron Paul is constantly going on about liberty when he and his supporters seem to be dead set at denying millions of their fellow conservatives their liberty.

Micheal D Higgins take down of Tea Party goes viral – Speaking of the Tea party, about a year or two ago, Micheal D. Higgins, Ireland’s new president, had a debate with a Tea Party loon and basically knocked chucks out of him. It has recently gone viral over the internet.

I think what this demonstrates is the vast gulf between politicians in Europe and those in the US. Can anyone see a politician like Higgins, a heavy weight intellectual, a poet laureate and a writer winning an election in the US? No chance!America, and increasingly the UK, is run by handsome millionaire politicians whose main election strength is their ability to pose in front of a camera. Party conferences are increasingly not about meeting and discussing policies but presentation and spin. Is it any wonder that the world is in the mess its in when photogenic politicians get elected in place of people with something resembling “intelligence”.

The Euro crisis….rumbles on, nuff said! The problem is as more political than economic and until the politicians, notably Merkel, get their finger out of their ass, nothing will get done and it will just keep going from bad to worse. At some point soon its likely the euro will be beyond saving, I’m sort of hoping an election in Germany or an asteroid hit (in Athens or Berlin) or something else (revolution or a military coup in a eurozone country?) comes along to save the continent in time.

ENRON, The Smartest Psycho’s in the Room

I got bored yesterday and watched again the excellent documentary – ENRON, the smartest guys in the Room. While several years out of date, its still worth a watch. Not least because it illustrates that the global banking system were a critical part of the ENRON story. Quite simply put, ENRON would never have got away with what it did for so long without the explicit help and complicity of many major US banks, not to mention the political assistance of the republican party and president George Bush and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.

The involvement of the banks in not just ENRON but also the many other accounting scandals of the time, should have set off alarm bells in the US government. Recall that the ENRON scandal hit 6 years before the financial crisis of 2007. Clearly it should have been obvious to anyone in the US Treasury that something was rotten at the core of US banks. If they were prepared to go along with the ENRON ponzi scheme, what else were they up to?

Clearly the all important “moral hazard” condition was no longer in effect and the banks were in the grip of a feeding frenzy, such that they would do anything to make a quick buck, even if it ultimately killed them in the long term. At the very least you would have expected someone in the Bush administration to go around and have a quite word with a few leading bankers, pointing out to them, that if another crisis hit, the administration would hang them out to dry and not bail them out. Clearly this either didn’t occur (Bush was asleep at the wheel) or that such warnings were ignored, as the banks correctly guessed that they were “too big to fail”.

The psycho in the cubicle next door

On that point, this is another key factor the ENRON scandal exposed, what I regard as the fatal flaw of neo-liberal capitalism. That this extreme brand of capitalism runs the risk, as seen at Enron, of setting in motion an almost Darwinian process, in which the greediest, most corrupt and least ethical people crawl to the top of the corporate pyramid. While psychopaths make up only 1 in 200 of the general population, its estimated that between 1 in 10 or 1 in 25 of top executives are psychopaths.

Indeed we could go further an look at the corporation itself, as covered in another excellent documentary “The Corporation“. Here they point out that as a legal entity a corporation is considered a person and has all of the rights an individual would. But what sort of person is a corporation? Inevitably they apply the well known psychopath test and conclude that most corporations meet the legal definition of “psychopath. So in some respects, if the corporations themselves are “psychopaths”, then its hardly surprising that psychopaths end up running most of them (I couldn’t see Mother Teresa running a NY Mafia family, nor “Fat Tony” running a homeless charity in Calcutta).

However, this creates a problem. These office psycho’s will always place their own greedy short term needs (i.e. get rich quick then jump ship), ahead of the long term profitability of the company (or indeed the firms long term survival), or the welfare of rank and file employees, or the environment, or indeed the long term needs of the nation. They also short circuit what is a key check and balance of evolution when it occurs in nature – the survival instinct.

All animals are pre-programmed to generally avoid bringing about their own destruction. A Hyena will not chase after an antelope if it sees that its about to run off a cliff. However, pack a couple of hundred of these office psycho’s together and there instincts to compete against one another, will overwhelm their company’s institutional survival instincts.

Consequently market capitalism, cannot function without strict regulation. ENRON laid bare this fact and showed that the 2007 financial crisis was no bolt from the blue. Nor will the next financial crisis “just happen”. And quite honestly in the absence of proper regulation, some sort of future crisis is inevitable. Indeed we could well be seeing just that crisis brewing, be it via the fallout from LIBOR, the money laundering scandals or through the collapse of the Euro zone (which will see hundreds of billions worth of EU public and private debts being defaulted on, triggering a major credit crisis in the US and UK), or due to the fact the Euro is in the end saved (ironically enough! as all those “bets” the markets have made on the assumption of a Euro collapse will turn sour).

In short, world governments need to shut down the casino that we call “the markets” and impose the sort of strict regulations backed by heavy punishments needed to make sure such rules are obeyed. Perhaps a new charge of “grand corporate theft”, which would see anyone convicted (even as an accessory) getting an automatic life sentence and a fine equal to several times the economic damage they inflicted (enough to guarantee destitution for anyone convicted). Or possibly we could introduce some like the exams and regulations that control other professions (e.g. a trader or a CEO needs to pass certain tests on a regular basis to operate, if they fail or get caught on a serious charge they get struck off the register and cannot run any company again, not even a a hot dog stall!).

Many of these psychopath led companies simply lack the survival instincts to save themselves in a time of crisis, so this is as much in they’re best interest as it is the global economy’s.

And if you’re banker or fund manager invites you around “for dinner” and mentions something about liver, fava beans and Chianti….don’t go!

Chick Lit author bows out

Further to my last post, chick lit writer Louise Mensch has announced that she was stepping down from office, provoking a by-election in a marginal constituency, which will hopefully lead to a labour win (one Tory down…. 212 more to go!). It struck a number of political commentators as a bit odd that she would choose to leave at this time. After all a cabinet reshuffle is due and many rumours suggested that she was going to be appointed a junior minster. As I believe I’ve commented before she is one of the few remotely honest Tory’s (or vaguely sane ones!). But why would someone leave parliament when on the cusp of becoming a minster?

Two reasons. Firstly, while conservatives will often claim that they are modern party that has no connection with corruption, snobbery or chauvinism of the past. The reality is a little different. The view is still taken by many conservatives (both in the UK and the US) that a woman’s career should take second place to her husbands. If one of the two needs to give up their job, its the wife not the husband (even if she’s an MP or a minster and he’s….manager of a band!) who needs to chain herself the kitchen sink, lie back and think of England, and get busy baking apple pies. (just to be clear I’m not saying this is my opinion, I’m merely pointing out that its still the view among many social conservatives).

The second reason is more Machiavellian. To be blunt, is now a good time to be made a Minster? The situation for the Tory’s is not good right now. As I’ve pointed out before, the country is in a double dip recession, borrowing costs are rising (making a mockery of the Tory austerity measures), the government is in the process of hopping from one crisis to another (often self inflicted ones), operation liberal shield is about too fail. In short the coalition government has either jumped the shark, or its about to do so. Consequently, Mrs Mensch would probably be aware that if she did become a minster, she’d be a risk of loosing her job in a few years time (or months!), indeed she might even suffer the humiliation of a “Portillo moment” come next election (marginal seat and all), ending her career.

So the thought must be going the heads of many Tory’s with ambitions of high office, that the last thing they want to do is pick up the label of “former Tory Minster under David Cameron”. No, the best thing for them to do, is stay well clear of the inevitable coming train wreck, stay on the back benches (or in some other job in Europe….or Mayor of London!)….or run off to the US and rake in the cash from the US conservative lecturing circuit (they love British Conservatives…notably Tony Blair…wait!….did I just say what I thought I did!).

Operation Liberal Shield at an end?

Meanwhile….back in Westminster, behind the Beach Volleyball court (odd that the government agreed to that! I hope the sight of pretty ladies in bikini’s out the back window isn’t detracting any civil servants too much), the UK coalition government is under serious threat. The planned reforms of the house of Lords has been dropped, largely as a result of Pimms swilling Tories who baulked at the prospect of an elected 2nd chamber, which would inevitably see commoners (too them the great unwashed) floating around. As a consequence, Nick Clegg has accused the Tory’s of breaking the coalition contract. It would seem the Lib Dems are about to go rogue (or finally growing a spine!), with suggestions that they will vote against efforts to change electoral boundaries.

This is a bit more serious that it would seem at first glance. We have coalition governments all the time in Ireland, and based on my experience of such coalitions, I’d say, unless the Tory’s can very quickly charm the lib dems back to the table, we’re now a year or less away from an election. Once these sorts of tit for tat bouts between ruling parties starts, it generally grows (as politicians on both sides build up resentment and mistrust), until eventually the government looses a vote of no confidence and an election is called.

Up until now, the Tories have been operating according to a plan, critics call, Operation Liberal Shield, where their buddies in the right wing media blame everything that goes wrong (even if its ultimately a Tory policy that’s at fault) on Nick Clegg and the lib dems. This has meant, as local elections have shown, that the lib dems have been the biggest losers in terms of public support and are likely facing annihilation come next election.

However there is an important dynamic at work which the Tories are neglecting. It means the lib dems know they now have nothing to loose. If there’s is an election, while yes they know they’ll likely get wiped out, that will probably happen regardless of the timing of the election, so they’ve every incentive to grab the Troy’s by the ankles and dragging them down with them. This is not an unusual occurrence in a coalition in other countries, when the junior party realizes they’ve little to gain any more from cooperation (indeed that’s the problem, there is no cooperation anymore!), ultimately then bringing about the downfall of the larger ruling party and an election where both parties are generally punished at the polls.

Consequently, the Tories now have three choices. Firstly, go to the country now while post-Olympic euphoria is at a high. Of course the risk with an election now (current opinion poll status of the party’s here), is they will loose seats, lead to a hung parliament with the Tories lacking a majority, nor any party willing to go into coalition with them, thus a rainbow coalition led by labour is the likely outcome.

So option two is, in order to keep the lib dems sweet, they drop one or two policy’s and let the lib dems have their way on a few things (gay marriage seems like a likely option, reimposing the 50p tax or a similar “rich tax”, ditching nuclear power another). Of course the problem with this strategy is that David Cameron’s control over his own back bencher’s (as revealed by their rebellion over lords reform, or any matter relating to Europe) is tenuous at best. Cameron could risk splitting his own party with such a strategy.

Which brings us to option number three, the default option I suspect that will be taken. The Tory’s continue with “operation liberal shield” in the face of a lib dem party that is increasingly willing to vote down Tory policy’s (the Mail’s nickname for Clegg could soon be Dr No) which will enviably mean institutional paralysis, until sooner or later it gets put out of its misery by labour (or Vince Cable!).

New Olympic Sports?

One thing I was surprised by was the lack of any new sports introduced during these Olympics, again I wonder if this is more thrifty government penny pinching at work.

Now, its not my cup of tea, but it beggars belief that the brit’s won’t introduce a sport like Cricket (I mean its not as if the country is short of cricket grounds to host the tournament!) While it mightn’t be as popular in the UK as it used to be, its practically the national sport in India, Pakistan and the West Indies. It clearly meets the criteria of being played on all five continents, and would be very popular in many countries (again, like India) who normally don’t pay attention to the Olympics.

Okay, again, not my cup of tea, as I never went to a public school (thank fuck for that!). But again, a very popular sport with many, a sport with a large worldwide audience and one where the Brit’s stand a good chance of getting a medal (and Ireland too!).

Rock climbing, Bouldering & Fell running
my own particular sport is mountaineering, arguably a winter sport when its snowing…or a water sport when its raining! Now while its not the sort of sport you give out medals for (surviving and getting to the pub okay is the reward, so the medal would likely have to be a pint of Larger or wheat beer for the winner, pint of white lighting for 2nd place and a pint of bitter for 3rd).

But there are one or two sub sets of mountaineering that easily translate into an Olympics friendly sport. Sports climbing (indoors on a climbing wall), speed climbing (two climbers set off and race each other up a climbing route) or bouldering (short distance climbing without a rope, you never get more than a few feet off the ground, but the moves are often harder… in you’re hanging upside down by your arms sometimes!). In all cases its a combination of dexterity, strength and intelligence. While its a relatively niche sport, it does have a worldwide following and its a great spectator sport, so it meets all the relevant criteria. Again, fell running (essentially running up a mountain and back down again), while not exactly my cup of tea either, but its a good spectator sport.

One of the things I’ve never understood about the Olympics is having Dressage and Show Jumping, but not motor-sports? I mean all the rider does is sit on the horse, surely the horse should get the medal? Now you might well argue that all a guy on, say, a superbike, just sits there, but actually motorsports is a fairly physical sport, both from the high G forces experienced, but also with sports like bike racing the need to maintain balance. So I would argue that if the horses stay, then equally we need to introduce some motorsports.

Admittedly, there is the issue of technology, who wins at formula one is as much about the car as it is the driver (a bad driver can’t win, even with the best car possible, but the best driver in the world would still struggle to win in a bad car). So you’d need to correct that by giving all drivers a standard car of some sorts. It would also make sense to stick to things like Superbikes or Rally cars, as they are relatively cheap (compared to Formula one!) and can take place on an open country circuit.

Which sports should be dropped?
Of course, talking about new sports, brings up the topic of what sports to get rid of. Softball and baseball were dropped some time ago. Is it perhaps time to get rid of Handball? I mean what’s the point of it? (I caught a game awhile ago, Argentina were playing, and I was surprised to see Maradona not on the team!). As I mentioned already, if motorsports are seen as beyond the Pale, then Dressage and all the Horsing around should go also. Then there’s diving, I mean either ditch this or introduce a new category for bombing! And how about indoor Volleyball? There’s already Beach Volleyball, why two types? (mind you, beach volleyball’s only being in the schedule because soft porn isn’t an actual sport!).

Olympic Coverage
And while we’re talking about it, then there’s the Beeb’s coverage of the Olympics. As a neutral I’m more interested in the actual sports, whereas the Beeb seem to be more interested in running montages and tributes to British athletes. I mean, they’ll spending 30 minutes talking about Jessica Ennis, then ideally mention that someone else just broke a world record, won a gold medal, all time best ever, etc., now lets get back to that action replay of Ennis sneezing.

Now, okay, the Irish do tend to go on a lot about our athletes, but in between they do sort of see the point in showing some sports action. They’ll even show medal ceremonies in which no Irish athletes get a medal at (gasp!). The Beeb just don’t seem to have their priorities straight.

The Olympic Hydrogen SAPS

In a previous comment I mentioned how the government had closed down the filling station, near the Olympic park that was refueling the Olympic fleet of hydrogen powered taxi’s, due to “security concerns”. Instead they’d taken to sending the taxi’s on a 150 mile round trip (on the back of a lorry!) to Swindon to be filled up. Now I’m all one for the environment, but it would be cheaper and produce less carbon emissions if they just switched to standard taxis.

However, it gets worse. I was moving cylinders of hydrogen over the week and it was pointed out to me that the safest place for the hydrogen is within the fuel tanks of the cars. Why? Because they are ballistic tanks made from Kevlar. Consequently if any wannabe Jihadi did decide to try shooting up the hydrogen tanks, in all probability the major safety risk would be the risk of him being hit by the bullets ricocheting off the tanks!

Also, as I’ve pointed out before, hydrogen isn’t as dangerous as you’d think, as it tends to burn upwards (while petrol is a liquid and can stick to surfaces when it burns). Indeed tests comparisons have generally concluded that these kevlar reinforced hydrogen tanks are safer than gasoline tanks.

The bulk of the casualties from the Hindenburg were probably the result of falls and the fire spreading to the diesel tanks, or crew high up in the ship at their landing posts. Its likely the crew of Challenger survived the explosion of the shuttle’s hydrogen tanks, only to expire as a result of the sudden drop in air pressure (inexplicably in these early shuttle missions, they didn’t wear space suits!) or the impact with the ocean several minutes later. Consequently if this hydrogen garage is too dangerous, then every garage within 5 miles of an Olympic venue should also now be shut for the duration of the games (hint, that would close most of the ones in London!).

So in short, what happened here was some ill informed, inept, safe-ass, who’d watched one too many James bond films (and thinks that hydrogen tanks blow up in a massive spectacular fireball) decided that the hydrogen fuel station was dangerous and closed it all down. He/they clearly did not consult with anyone who actually knew anything about hydrogen, they just made an arbitrary heavy handed decision and not wanting to loose face tacked on this ridiculous policy of shipping the taxi’s around by truck. Again, it is a classic case of SAPS (Save Ass Policy Scheme) in action.

How the Corporate food production system has Milked us dry

This is a reprint of an article I put up last week on my other blog

Farmers in the UK have protesting for several weeks about the prices they are paid for milk. The has led them to blockade Dairy’s and some have even threatened to pour away their milk rather than sell it. Now before we start making jokes about “no use crying over split milk” there is a serious point here about the consequences of the enormous monopolistic powers of the supermarkets and global food corporations. Their buying power is such that they can essentially set the price for a commodities, both in terms of what the producer gets and what we pay at the check out (with a fairly substantial gap between for them to make a hefty profit!).

Often the supermarket chains will take a “wasn’t us guv’nor” attitude to such accusations, indeed in this situation they’ve’ been pointing the finger at the milk processing companies. That is a bit like the Republicans trying to blame Obama for the economic crisis (oh! wait, they are trying to do that!). Consolidation in the food industry has led it to be dominated by a handful of large dairy companies. And its not just milk but also meats, cereals and a host of other products (Nestle being a good example of what can go wrong when such consolidation is allowed). These “middlemen” in the food industry are largely a consequence of the supermarkets desire to only do business with only a handful of suppliers and their efforts to constantly drive the price as low as possible, such that its all but impossible for anyone, but these very large companies to do business with the major chains. Thus, when the supermarkets either lower the price, or refuse to let the price go up (as it must due to inflation) the “middleman” is left with the choice of cutting his profit margin (fat chance of that!) or passing on the “saving” to the producer – i.e. the farmer takes it up the ass!

Also both the food processing companies and supermarkets will try to tie smaller companies and farmers into contracts which it is very hard to back out of. Often a producer will have to pay “hello money” to get their product onto the supermarket’s shelves. They’ll also impose all sort of conditions on the company, often requiring them to reconfigure how they produce the food/product to suit the supermarket’s needs. This is obviously costly and likely leaves the supplier with large debts owed to the bank. For a small firm making, say, jam, this puts them in a bit of a sticky spot (if you’ll pardon the pun!). Having paid so much to get onto the shelves they have to keep the product there, even if the supermarket (or food processor or wholesaler in the middle) unilaterally cuts the price they pay for the product (to the point where they’d have made more money selling it by the side of the road!).

Corporate Serfdom

It is a tough life being a farmer right now. As I pointed out in a prior post many small farmers aren’t getting the subsidies they need due to larger farmers buying up their land or the certificates that allow them to claim farming subsidies. Indeed some of the most prolific buyers of these aren’t even farmers at all, they are so called “slipper farmers” who just buy land, claim their subsidy and don’t actually do any farming.

Consequently in part what is driving farmers to protest here is the not unrealistic possibility of being driven out of business. Or worse, winding up like so many farmers in America – that of being little more that serf’s of a major corporate conglomerate (report on this topic here).

As detailed in Eric Schlosser “Fast Food Nation”, or the documentary film “Food Inc.” Any images you have of pastoral farming or Daisy the cow chewing on grass in a big green field could not be further from the truth.

No instead imagine an area of semi-desert steppe, the size of London covered in cattle as part of a vast “collective” farm (so called “factory farms”. The cattle are feed on grain, notably corn, brought in from the corn belt states, often with the benefit of vast US government subsidies.

Also as you can imagine that many cattle produce a considerable amount of, well cowshit (and one assumes bullshit!). Which ultimately needs to be disposed of. But getting rid of that much cattle dung in a sustainable way, isn’t easy, as this film “A river of waste” points out.

The bulk of the farm hands earn relatively little money, indeed many are Mexican migrants driven out of business as they couldn’t compete with the US farms thanks to the generous subsides the US gives its farmers.

Mexicans, many of them illegal immigrants also make up a disproportionately high number of workers within America’s abattoirs and slaughter houses, which are again largely controlled by a handful of large corporations. In the 1970’s the big five meat packing corporations in America controlled only 25% of the market, Today through mergers and acquisitions the top four in the US meat industry control 80% of the market.

That grain that’s fed to those cattle incidentally comes from corn belt farms which increasingly utilize GM crops. Now I’m not necessarily against GM foods, if it leads to higher food yields, reduced pollution of the environment and creates food that is healthier or drought resistant, etc. But currently few if any of the GM crops in use, particularly in America, tick any of these boxes. Most require the use of more fertilisers and pesticides (they’ve been GM’d such that the farmer can pile it on without killing the crop). To me this is practically science abuse and not in the best interest of society or the environment. The corporations (who makes both the seed and pesticides) is essentially the only beneficiary and we the public are required to take all the risks for no concrete gain, while we know that this increased use of chemicals is having a deleterious effect on the environment. A report here from MIT summarizes a number of different sources on this topic.

Indeed it gets worse, as many of these farmers are forced to sign an agreement with the GM company stating that they will not save seeds, destroy their original stock of seeds and continue to buy seeds and pesticides off of the pharmaceutical companies in question. This breaks the link between the farmer and his land and leaves him beholden to the corporation. Armies of investigators hired by the corporations enforce these edicts, turning some US corn belt regions into something resembling East Germany under the Stazi.

Indeed in a few cases, where seeds from GM’d fields have blown onto the land of a farmer who didn’t have a contract with the corporation, the farmer is subsequently sued by the company and in effect forced into signing his life away as well. Thus many farmers who, truth be told, don’t want to sow such crops have effectively been forced into it. A US Canola farmer, Percy Schmeiser fought a bitter 11 year campaign with Monsanto over just such an issue. Indeed he is one of the few who have taken on the GM companies and won. Operators of seed cleaning equipment have been specifically targeted by investigators on the off chance they are helping farmers save seed (what happened to innocent until proven guilty?).

However most agree, it is the American chicken farmers who have it worst. Most are stuck with fixed contracts from the big chicken producer companies in which the birds in their chicken houses are owned by the company (again they’ve practically engineered the US chicken into something that nature never intended, it takes a modern chicken half the time to mature than it did in the 70’s and the chickens yield twice the meat). The farmers, who again have had to pay “hello money” and pay the cost of very expensive upgrades and modifications to their chicken houses, often find themselves with huge debts to the bank and thus beholden to the corporations. Many are little more than corporate serf’s living in constant fear of being cut off from their only source of income and left insolvent should they somehow offend the company with “uncorporate thoughts”.

Conditions within these chicken houses are supposed to be pretty horrendous (lots of loose dust and feed going around, workers complain of illness and allergies due to the cocktail of antibiotics fed to the chickens and the chickens themselves have a high mortality rate, which the workers need to pick up as chickens in such an enclosed environment can be prone to cannibalism).

It should be no surprise to learn that suicide rates among US farmers are at alarmingly high rate (so ditch any notions you have of a quite stress free life on the farm!).

The Union of Corporate Capitalist Republics

In essence you can see why we don’t want the UK farm’s to adopt the US style farming system. The corporate farming system in America puts profits first, with workers/farmers rights, food safety, animal welfare and the environment towards the bottom of a long list.

One could draw direct parallels with what we see in American farms today and the agricultural policies of the Soviet Union (oh the irony!). Of course that’s not good news for the US, as it was in part failures in its agricultural policy that brought the soviet empire down (that’s why there were all those food queues in Moscow around the time of the Soviet empire’s collapse). You’ll find a couple of opinion pieces which address this, and other reasons behind the soviet union’s collapse here and here.

While these Soviet policies of collectivisation did increase yields, and lower costs, it was an unsustainable bubble. The soviets very quickly exceeded the ecological limits of the land they were farming by simply sucking the nutrients out, draining water supplies (anyone doubting me, go look at the Aral sea sometime) and poisoning the environment with excessive use of pesticides. They also learnt (the hard way!) that such food production systems are also hugely sensitive to any sudden change in conditions. For example the outbreak of a new disease or a drought. Inevitably this resulted in the USSR going from being a net food exporting country in the 1960’s to being a net food importer in the 1980’s, which became an ever bigger drain on the public purse, particularly once revenues from oil production (which had also suffered under soviet mismanagement) began to decline.

We could well see history repeat itself in the US. An outbreak of foot and mouth, e.coli, mad cow, bird flu or salmonella in the US would make the food scares we’ve seen in the UK or Europe pale in comparison. As I’ve pointed out in a prior post, many of America’s most productive farming areas also happen to be the very area’s most at risk from climate change. Indeed the recent heat wave and drought in America is already having an impact on the country’s agriculture.

Worse still US agriculture is very heavily dependant on energy, the picture above shows a cow next the amount of energy (in oil) expended during its upbringing. Indeed some critics claim that by the time you eat a meal in the US many times more energy has been expended on fertilizers and pesticides, transporting that grain and cows across the country, processing the food and trucking it backwards and forwards across the country before it lands on you’re plate. In effect you’re eating oil. Which isn’t a good place to be if we’re in the last few years of the cheap oil era. Thus it is quite possible we could well find history repeating itself for a second empire in less than a century.

Becoming a locavore

Ultimately, as was shown in the banking crisis one of the biggest flaws of uncontrolled free market capitalism is that it often lacks basic survival instincts. They will engage in policies that in the short term might be very profitable, but in the long term turn out to be little more than elaborate form of suicide. Or as Jared Diamond puts it in his book Collapse “…one could characterize the collapse of many large civilisations to a series of entirely rational short term decisions, which turned out to be effectively irrational when combined over the long term…”.

This is why what is needed is a farming policy that balances the short term needs with long term sustainability. And driving the UK’s farmers into bankruptcy isn’t part of such a policy.

So what can an individual do in the UK to stop all this? Well firstly don’t vote for party’s that will knell before their corporate overlords (hint, four letter word starts with “T” and rimes with “Gory”). Secondly cut out the middleman, go directly to the farmer by buying food at a farmers market. Now admittedly, food here can be a bit pricey, but you’re getting a better quality product, so you’d expect to pay a bit more. And in any event, I often find its just a case of being choosy (i.e. like supermarkets the farmers have a financial incentive to push the more pricey high end stuff, nobody will begrudge them for that, they are after all just running a business!) by going for the cheaper alternatives (e.g. simple stuff) and being inventive with you’re cooking I usually find its not that more expensive.

I would note that one downside of farmers markets is that they often don’t provide the essentials. Ironically enough for example, I’ve never seen milk on sale at any of them. Also if you’re a vegan or a veggie finding such stuff at a British farmers market can be difficult (although given that the bulk of British farms are dairy farmers that’s hardly surprising), although certainly not impossible (used to be a very good stall in one of my old haunts who sold a wide variety of potato’s, which as an Irishman made me very happy!).

A local shop for local people

If you’re shopping in stores, try and buy from local shops and buying stuff produced regionally (I’m a pretty big fan of local British ales myself! and increasingly cider and English/Scottish berry wines, hic!). Admittedly, its going to be next to impossible for most people to not use the supermarkets from time to time. So if you do, try and go for products from smaller producers and of course organic stuff.

The plutocrats who run the supermarkets might be greedy and corrupt, but they are not stupid. They are hugely sensitive to public demand, as witnessed by the fact that some of them seem to be caving in (this time anyway) to the negative publicity surrounding these milk depot blockades. This is, as it were, the ultimate achilles heel of the corporate food production system – that they fear the consequences of we the people rebelling and vote with our feet. Indeed, we’ve already seen it happen with the rejection of GM crops in the UK, because (rightly or wrongly) the British public simply rejected them on grounds of safety.

In short to paraphrase a common rallying cry from the 1900’s socialists “they have the plant, but we have the dinner plates”