Just cos you’re paranoid….

I made mention last week of the wee scandal involving NSA and MI6 snooping on us all, sort of Big Brother is watching you…even when you pop sort of stuff.

Of course both the internet companies and the government have been very quick to deny everything. We’re not spying on you says William Hague, and we don’t allow backdoor access to the NSA say’s Google and Facebook. Could we see some evidence to prove that?well actually no that’s classified! :no: I’m presuming nobody in the NSA has ever read Kafka!

Meanwhile, Edward Snowden, aka the-guy-least-likely-to-qualify-for-life-insurance has been banned from entering the UK. Not officially of course, no the government apparently sent an e-mail out to the airlines not let him board any flights, failing to remember what it was they had a beef with him over (i.e. that e-mails aren’t secure!).

Now, I would be on the fence as to whether or not Edward Snowden was telling the truth or just another in a long line of “conspiracy” hoaxers, but the reaction of governments, much like their reaction to wikileaks a few years back, sort of seems to back up his story.

I mean if he was a dirty low down hoaxer, surely the UK government would want him in the UK (so that they could arrest him). However, it seems they don’t want him here likely for fear he’ll be “terminated with extreme prejudice” (and I ain’t talking the sort of prejudice in the Daily Mail…much worse than that!) by certain fellows from the CIA in Heathrow and that might kind of look bad, much like the death of Gareth Williams (you know, the guy who, if the government is to be believed, wiped his flat clean of finger prints, removed all incriminating or dangerous items from his house, put the heating on full blast in summer and then sealed himself in a duffel bag in his own bath!) a couple of years ago.

And Speaking of Conspiracy Theorists…
Meanwhile, with the Bilderberger group meeting in….Watford (hardly the sort of place you expect world dominating super-villains to hang out, then again, there is a recession on!) drew many conspiracy theorist types to UK shores like moths to a flame, notably Alex Jones. The BBC actually had him on for an interview, during which he basically undermined much of his own argument by going batshit crazy :crazy:

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against Alex Jones, he’s sort of the modern day equivalent of a court Jester, who says the things others at court aren’t willing to say out loud. However he comes with two major character flaws:
1) He’s not as funny as a court jester, if people are laughing, they are generally laughing at him, not with him!
2) He’s nuttier than a Granola bar. I mean he makes the guys on speakers corner look vaguely sane!

But as the saying goes, just cos you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you! This should be the motto these days for large chucks of the Internet!

Photo Time

Just gotten around to going through my photos from my trip to Scotland last week. And I’ve uploaded a couple of photos onto my media page here!

As you can probably tell, the weather was excellent B), almost every day it was sunny. Of course my only regret is that the two days I got the best views, the day I went out to Staffa (Fingal’s cave, of Mendelssohn fame) and Iona plus on the way back when I did the Fairfield horseshoe in the Lakes, I have no photo’s off :**:….only memories!

Anyway, Enjoy!

Do be evil

One story that seems to have broken while I was on me hols is that of Google, Amazon, Facebook and other websites getting embroiled in a controversy regarding internet snooping by the NSA and MI6. While the websites denying doing anything wrong (I’m waiting for Google to get it over and done with and change its slogan from “don’t be evil” to “we’re so evil we have a doctorate from evil medical school“), the evidence does seem to point to the fact that the NSA has been snooping on internet users via its so-called PRISM network. An organization which sounds not too far removed from the Orwellian TSA” system proposed under G. W. Bush, that was supposed to have been killed as even house Republicans immediately after 9/11 felt it went too far.

That the NSA is spying on UK and US citizens should not exactly come as a surprise. I mean what do you think the tens of thousands of people who work for this organisation do all day? What I find surprising is the how the mainstream media are acting with shock horror to this. I think anyone with a brain could have worked out its been going on for years if not decades, for as the security services are concerned the cold war (and WW2 before it) never really ended, and never will end cos that’s them on the dole if it does!

Casing point the British media got into a tizzy over the idea that the NSA was spying on UK citizens, then passing on the info to GCHQ, thus bypassing legislation designed to stop the intelligence services doing this (at least without a warrant). In essence its a snoopers charter via the back door. but this has been going on for decades via the joint NSA, MI6 “ECHELON” spy network. This “PRISM” project merely involves doing what ECHELON have been doing for decades (such as evesdropping on telephone conversations, bank details, etc.) and brings it into the 21st century of social media.

Indeed the scary thing is the involvement of private industry in all of this. the principle whistle blower behind this story was not an employee of the CIA or NSA but of a private sub-contractor, Booz Allen & Hamilton. Also, both the CIA and MI6 operate a system where by quite a number of their “expertsare allowed to work for private industry as consultants. Now while officially they are supposed to be “consulting” to help companies enhance their security. But as you can imagine, the suspicion is that they are also helping corporations friendly to certain regimes to spy either on competitors, foreign governments or on special interest groups (e.g. environmental protesters). The idea that these officers or sub contractors will come into work and not use the vast intelligence gathering tools at their finger tips to assist in such highly lucrative corporate (and highly illegal) espionage is laughably naive.

In short governments have been asleep at the wheel on this one since the end of the cold war. Yes there are some nasty evil people whom we want to keep tabs on but that doesn’t mean turning the UK and US into a state the East German Stazi would be proud of. What this incident highlights is that there is an urgent need both sides of the Atlantic to reign in and ultimately cut down to size (we are in recession, which would you rather sack a few pervy spooks or a doctors and nurses?) these intelligence agencies.

Indeed the very fact that Edward Snowden (the whistle blower) is seeking asylum in China (a country not exactly known for a lack of government snooping), should come as a serious wakeup call to us all.

The law abiding citizens have nothing to fear” gambit only works if we can be completely sure that those running these organisations are completely trustworthy and without bias. And as I’ve pointed out, this is highly doubtful. In short who watches the watchers?

Driven to distraction

Of course, to actually get too the Munro’s meant doing quite a bit of driving in the highlands. Which meant more of my favourite pet hate – Caravans and mobile homes. As inevitably if you’re driving on a narrow country road you’ll sooner or later run into a convoy of cars stuck behind one of these guys. While some do pull over (and ta to those who do!), many of their compatriots to the caravaning fraternity do not, forcing motorists to pull insane overtaking manoeuvres around them. I’m convinced that the Caravanning club has a competition each year in which the person how holds hostage the largest number of motorists gets some sort of spot prize.

Many of these caravanner’s also don’t seem to have very good vehicle control skills, which probably explains the slow speed and unwillingness to park up to let people by. I was behind this one for several miles into Fort William the other day. We both went into a supermarket, but she drove around than then drove out again. My guess is she couldn’t find two or three parking spaces next to each other to park up in, even though there were plenty of other similar sized mobile homes parked up in single spaces. Naturally my view would be if you don’t have the driving skills to handle a camper van, don’t drive one. I drive a nice wee small car because I’m comfortable with my ability to handle/park it never mind the benefits of lower fuel costs and better acceleration and maneuverability.

To me the solution would be have a rule that any caravanner caught by the cops with a big queue of cars behind him, who as not made a conscious effort to allow overtaking gets fined a tenner for each car behind him…which for the pair I saw coming into Tyndrum the other week with about twenty cars behind them, could be rather expensive!

I think part of what annoys me about caravan/mobile homes is the fact that it strikes me as a false economy. The parking up fees for these things are around about £15-20 and some caravan parks now charge a supplement per person as well (as I go camping I hear the sort of fees the caravanner’s are being charged), plus when it gets busy you have to book in advance (I say a couple being turned away, even in June up north). Once you factor in the extra fuel costs and washing the spit off you’re windshield ;D (from irate motorists) I’m doubtful it works out cheaper than staying in a B&B (which is about £20-30 per person per night in Scotland right now). In short caravanning seems to involve all the disadvantages of camping with the same costs as staying in hotel, but in a hotel/B&B someone else does all the cooking.


And speaking of people with poor vehicle control skills, wandering up and down the M6 meant inevitable encounters with some git hogging the middle lane of the motorway. I notice they are considering new powers to the police to tackle this problem.

What’s wrong with hogging the middle lane? Well first of all because the rules of the road do require you to drive as close to the roads edge as possible, after all if you’re in the middle lane and blow a tire, then what are you going to do? In the middle lane you also have traffic approaching from both sides, which means you need to keep a closer look out in you’re mirrors (indeed what infuriates me with most middle lane hoggers is that they don’t seem to look at their mirrors at all, so not only are the breaking the highways code but also driving without due care and attention). Also by occupying the middle lane you make it difficult for people to overtake you on the left (as required by the rules of the road), which effectively serves to cut the capacity of the motorway (by as much as a third according to the RAC) and also increases the temptation for people to undertake (which is illegal, but perhaps understandable when faced with a hogger).

That said, I think giving the cops new powers is going too far. For starters, why do we need new rules when its already against the highway code to drive like this? The cops have a habit of giving them an inch and taking a mile, look at speed cameras. I will admit for example that will I certainly don’t hog the middle lane, I may well “dwell” in it for extended periods if I’m overtaking lots of trucks or passing a busy junction and want to let people merge with the motorway. Of course all the while I’ll have my eye on the mirrors looking for someone trying to come up behind me and be ready to move out of the way. However, my fear is that the cops will simply regard this as another revenue raising mechanism.

To me the solution would be better education, i.e. stop the hoggers and caution them and if it happens again, nevermind fining them, make them attend a driver training course as I suspect 9 times out of 10 it boils down to the fact they don’t understand how motorways are supposed to work.

Barely legal drivers

And on that point I caught a few snipits of that BBC programme “Barely legal drivers” earlier in the year. I found it difficult to believe that learners are not allowed onto motorways or dual-carriage ways. While yes there are risks, they have to learn how to drive properly on motorways and such risks in a controlled environment (i.e. early on a weekend morning with a driving instructor next to them) has to be balanced against the alternative (the first time they end up on a motorway is a few weeks after the test on a wet rush hour evening).

Far from banning newly qualified drivers from Motorways (as the government proposes) I would go the other way and make motorway driving part of the test (not every test, but say one in ten, enough to make sure they do some practice and learn properly the theory part of it). Its precisely because people often have to learn motorway driving by the seat of their pants (being Irish I had to do this too!) that you end up with middle lane hoggers to begin with.

Last Munro

I just got back from holiday and managed to complete my last munro :>> up on Mull on the summit of Ben More! It was a cloudy day, but we still got a few great views. Although my biggest problem was that I’d lent my normal climbing bag to my dad and hadn’t properly cleared out my larger overnight rucksack before setting off (I ended up carrying a cooking pot and noodles to the summit :oops:) nevermind the fact that I decided to bring up a bottle of single malt whiskey and a hip flask of Drambuie (well what do you think I was going to do on the summit? drink water? :D).

So my last munro was sort of like that bit in the Simpson’s were homer drags a stone of triumph up to the summit of the mountain….except I wasn’t naked!

All in all it was a grand day out, the cloud meant it wasn’t that hot (I got scorched to a crisp over the last week doing other hills! Indeed if Rudolph wants to take a break I think my nose is red enough to do his job for him :))) and we all got a nice wee break on the Island of Mull, although my nerves are still shot from driving on all those single track roads trying to avoid being driven off the edge by locals or suicidal sheep.

For those of you who don’t know it the munro’s are a list of 282 mountains first complied by Hugh Munro (who ironically enough never completed all the hills on his own list) back at the turn of the 1900’s. To become a munroist’s (as I now can claim to be) you must climb all of these 282 summits….or is it 289?

The munro list (current one here) is sometimes criticized for being a bit arbitrary about what is and isn’t a munro. While to qualify as a munro the mountain has to be at least 3,000ft (or exactly 914.4 metres in metric) its not quite clear how “subsidiary tops” i.e. tops connected to the primary summit should be treated. Some, like the 7 summits on the South Glen Shiel ridge are all considered munro’s, while the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan (Glencoe) isn’t considered a munro (despite being well over 1100m and a good km away from slightly higher Bidean Nam Bian).

Also as modern measurement methods improve one or two munro’s have actually been downgraded to the lower “Corbett” status. Indeed there are now about 4 mountains around about 914 metres (i.e. about 2,999 ft Beinn Dearg in Torridon being the most famous perhaps) which despite being just a few feet short of the magic number don’t actually count as munro’s….of course on the off chance someone piles a load of stones on top in the future I’ve made sure to do all of them as well!

Munro himself argued that one should really do all the subsidiary tops as well as munro’s. Now while I’ve not religiously followed this principle (i.e. it depends on what you count as a top or not) I’ve generally tried to do the tops as well.

So all in all I’m I’m pretty confident I’ve done all the munro’s, “high Corbetts” and key subsidiary tops. Indeed just before I did my last munro I went to Skye to go back and do Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh….or as I prefer to call it “Scary Geordie“…..I call all the cullin hills “scaries” anyone wanting to know why, go give a few a try and you’ll find out pretty quickly, particularly if you start with Sgurr Mhic Chonnich (or “scary in my pants” as we’ve dubbed it). I’d been unsure whether I made the summit last time as it was cloudy and I’d done in my GPS on the way up (it and gravity had a bit of a dispute and gravity ended up winning!). Needless to say I was glad to get up there and confirm that I had in fact done it before…..although last time I had missed the slightly lower 2nd summit.

Favourite munro? I won’t want to say, but definitely the ones in the Torridon area would count. Just google pictures of Torridon in winter to find out why!

Hardest munro?
For technical effort and “gibber factor” the Skye ones have to win this one hands down. However for physical effort I’d rate An Sgarsoch & Carn an Fhidhleir in Western Mounth (between Blair Atholl and Braemar) as the toughest. While they were just boring hills, the distance you have to go to be able to climb them is quite considerable, especially as I opted for the option of camping which meant walking in over another munro to get to a spot where I could camp, do them the next day and walk out again (back over the Carn A’Chlamain and out a further 15 km’s back out to Blair Atholl).

Obviously this answers the “lest interesting” munro question. Some are indeed just boring rounded hills that aren’t really worth doing unless you’re purposely doing the munro’s. Although often it can be improved by doing them in difficult conditions (e.g. winter) or by approaching them from a different angle (that’s my excuse when I don’t read the map properly, start walking in the general direction of the summit and run into tough conditions underfoot!).

So what next? Well I’d like to get around to doing all the munro’s under winter conditions, so I might do that. I probably won’t do absolutely all of them (as I mentioned some are really worth doing again), but as many as I can I’ll do. I’ll also have a go at the Corbetts. These are hills between 3,000 ft and 2,500 ft. Some would consider them “lesser” hills than the munros. I’m not one of those people, indeed I’ve been doing quite a few as I went along. some of the Corbetts are actually quite tough. As I mentioned some are only denied munro status via a technicality. Some are actually quite isolated, so the effort involved in getting to them is harder. And it should be remembered that its often technical difficulty (i.e. do you have to climb rather than simply walk to the top) that makes a mountain hard to climb and not height.

Casing point, I went out and did a Corbett, Beinn Dearg Mor back in April (thus in snow) and it involved an overnight stay in a Bothy, two river crossings (fortunately fairly low water levels) followed by a fairly tiring steep climb (with a bit of scrambling in places) up to what I assume was the summit (white out on top, will have to go back some time and make sure! :??:) then back over the rivers and out again.

Indeed while the number of munroists lists in the tens of thousands, there’s probably only a fraction that number who’ve done all the Corbetts as well. So its not as if I’ll be short of things to do!

The Fine City of Singapore

I’ve heard a few times libertarian types singing the praises of Singapore. I heard another on RT the other night (which probably indicates I need to stop listening to RT!). One of the arguments they put forward is that if the West keeps up with the whole “central planning” and “regulation” and the high taxes, the rich will leave and they’ll head for places like Singapore.

Now while I happen to agree that this is a risk of a movement of capital in future from the US and Europe to places like Singapore and Middle East business hubs such as Dubai or Qatar, I think the reasons for this are not what the libertarians think it is.

There are many reasons why anyone chooses to live in one country or another. The weather (some like hot weather, others don’t), the people (e.g. you’ve married someone from Thailand and decided to move there, or they’ve moved to Britain), factors related to a specific industry (I don’t think manufacturers of winter jackets get much trade in Singapore!), ease of travel and yes then issues related to tax and government policy.

As I’ve mentioned before (see here and here) one of the reasons why many foreign billionaires are seeking to keep a foothold in the UK (or Europe or America) is that they see these Western countries as their bolt hole in the event of a crisis back home, plus the fact that presently the bulk of global trade is conducted in Europe and in the US.

Indeed I was watching an online film today which showed the enormous influence of the the Chicago Board of trade and similar trade bodies on grain and cereal prices. Similarly markets in places like NY, Rotterdam, London, Zurich and Frankfurt have a huge influence on global capitalism and its hardly a surprise that many of the rich want to keep a shoe in.

Asking them to pay a little more in tax or imposing some reasonable regulations on these markets to prevent the sort of abuses thrown up by the LIBOR scandal or the crash of 2007 isn’t going to send the rich rushing for the exit doors (at least those trying to make an honest wage anyway, and I’d argue we’re better off driving the dishonest one’s out of town :wave: ).

A fine city
Indeed part of the problem here is that Libertarians have something of a warped view of Singapore as some sort of libertarian ideal. Clearly they’ve never actually been to the place. Tourists and locals often joke that Singapore is “a fine city“. A double entrée, as it is indeed a fine city, but its also run by a very authoritarian regime and the cops will arrest and fine you for the slightest transgression.

For example, crossing the street anywhere but a designating crossing point is considered jaywalking in Singapore (even small side streets with no traffic!), as is swearing (a law no doubt dreamt up to run us Irish off the Island! :))) running on side-walks, dancing in public, chewing gum, urinating in a lift (this one’s not really a surprise, other than the fact they’ve actually gone to the trouble of passing such a law!), talking politics with a taxi driver (imagine trying to impose this one in London! |-|), carrying a knife of any kind (I almost got done for this at the airport as I had a small…and I mean less than inch long blade… pen knife buried in my bag! :no:), feeding the birds (not tuppence a bag!) or eating food on public transport are all among the all examples of petty by-laws in Singapore too numerous to mention.

And as far as drugs are concerned (a number of libertarians are very keen on Cannabis legalisation), Singapore has extremely harsh drug laws, including the death penalty for being caught with amounts that won’t necessarily earn you a prison sentence in the UK. And gay rights? Ah? no such thing!

While Singapore is nominally democratic, the same party has been in power since 1959, longer than many dictatorships. Furthermore, public speaking is not allowed without a permit, although they do have the equivalent of a “speakers corner“. However, the libel laws in the country are such that politicians often take people who speak out against them to court and sue them, which sort of means you need to watch what you say. Needless to say Amnesty International are not impressed with Singapore. The 2006 Freedom in the world index put Singapore 5 out of a 7 point scale (7 being North Korea!) and they’ve never rated below 4.

And if you want to talk about that bugbear of libertarians “central planning” (don’t scream!) well a quick walk around Singapore’s harbour area (where when I was there they were working on a number of massive building projects) will show the sort of government central planning that Beijing or Pyongyang would be proud of. Oh, and they have compulsory national service for all men….those overweight have to do an extra few months to help loose a few pounds (work that ass Private Pile! 😥 ).

The real reasons why some of the world’s wealthy are flocking to Singapore are in fact entirely the opposite reasons that Libertarians suppose. Quite a number of the rich want an authoritarian regime. For if you’re rich enough and can afford to buy political influence, then this is the sort of place you can do business without a load of pleb’s bringing up their “rights” and stuff. The low tax regime and the increasing importance of trade via Singapore (which sits about midway between resource rich Australia, Africa and the Middle East and manufacturing hubs in China, India and Malaysia) are indeed yet other reasons, but not the decisive ones.

Of course, as always when dealing with authoritarian regime’s I suspect a number of these non-dom’s are also keeping a house in the West to serve as the bolt hole in case things don’t quite work out.

Furthermore, one of the key mantra’s of libertarianism is that economic freedom goes hand in hand with political freedom. However, Singapore, Dubai and other such business hub’s suggest the opposite is true. And even then only for the privileged and the wealthy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to slag off Singapore. Despite the loss of my pen knife, I actually enjoyed my time there (word of advice, do try a Singapore Sling, but not in the Raffles Hotel, overpriced and not as good as you’ll get in many other bars). Although personally its not the sort of place I’d want to live…. notably due to the heat! Plus I might feel the urge one day to go for a jog, across the middle of a street, while chewing gum & smoking and talking about politics to a taxi driver caught in traffic :)).

Managing money

One of the coalition’s flagship policies has been to give professionals, such as head teachers or doctors more direct control over the funding and running of their respective public services. They thus should have the freedom to decide how individual health care trust budgets (for example) are spent. What could be wrong with that? Well plenty!

Of course the Tories are cutting the NHS budget in real terms (rising population and an ageing society plus inflation means the amount of money to maintain present services is rising much faster than the increases the Tories are putting, so it’s a cut in real terms). So the only “freedom” that doctors (or head teachers) will enjoy is which of their colleagues to sack and what medicinal services they’re going to stop providing. Not quite what the Tory propaganda would have you believe.

But I’m worried about a more fundamental problem that this. The truth is that many professionals aren’t exactly good with handling money. That’s sort of what we have bean counters and accountants for! For example, I remember reading somewhere that banks consider doctors and nurses to be a mild credit risk compared to other professions (something to do with the ability to proscribe themselves drugs and the keys the medical cabinet) and usually tweak their mortgage rates up a notch or two to compensate.

I used to work for a building services company and it gave me quite a bit of insight into many different professions. There were for example, one or two chef’s (our area’s “celebrity” chef types) who were forever calling us in to do work for them. They would spend a fortune on renovating a property (often ignoring our engineering advice about how expensive and time consuming it would be) then change their mind and ask for us to renovate again, e.g.

“See that pillar” “you mean the one that since you wanted everything open plan is now holding up the roof and the 3 stories above us” “yes, it’s in the way, can you move it a few feet to the left” “do you have any idea how much that will cost?” “No, and can you get it done by Thursday, I’ve a wedding booked”

Inevitably these guys would run a cracking restaurant, brilliant food, rave reviews, only for him to go bust after a year or two as he’d either overspend on renovations and repairs, or he simply hadn’t priced his food appropriately (and hence was losing money on every dish served) or set the prices too high and didn’t get enough bums on seats. A couple months later, he’s back up and running with a new restaurant and new backers….

And lest anyone accuse me of picking on chef’s (or doctors!) I’d say their about average compared to other professions. One of the reasons banks are so reluctant to lend money to small businesses these days is that they realise that a very high proportion of business ventures tend to fail, often within their first year of operation. Such failures are often for fairly simple reasons (a good infographic from the US on this here)…such as forgetting to pay their taxes!

And that’s in good economic circumstances. In a recession with a budget axe wielding manic in number 11 Downing street, the banks know that the vast majority of businesses they loan money too will get into financial difficulty in some form or another.

And am I suggesting than engineers like me are any better? Far from it, we’re the sort who’d buy magic beans off strangers in the street! I often find that the most successful engineering firms are those run by engineers, and thus people who understand how things work and prioritise good engineering (I’m thinking of a number of German firms) over gimmicky marketing fads (that would be the Italian car companies!). However crucially those successful firms will have some bean counter on the board of directors whose job is essentially to hold onto the companies purse strings and stop us dopey engineers spending it recklessly.

By contrast without someone in the loop to control spending, engineers left to their own devices will often spend millions on financially impractical products. Probably the best example I can think of is Concorde, a technical success as an aircraft yes, but a commercial failure. Or there’s the old joke (entirely true I might add) where NASA in support of the Apollo program spent millions developing a pen that would work in zero gravity….the Russians just used pencils!

Winter is coming
And in my sector, higher education, we’ve seen this all too familiar pattern repeated. You would think the response of Vice Chancellors to tuition fees would be to take the money and save it up for a rainy day. However, when labour introduced fees instead they took the money and ran and went on a massive spending spree and campus building boom, some of these overseas. As one associate Dean put it to me his VC was “spending money like a sailor on shore leave”. Some uni’s have been entering into education partnerships with entrepreneur’s to fund new education initiatives (often focusing on private tuition for companies or bringing in foreign students onto specialised courses) on a commercial basis.

When the coalition naively put up fees, they probably thought that only a handful of the Russell group uni’s would whack it up to the maximum of £9,000. Instead, practically every uni in the country put them up to that level or not far off it (I understand the average fee is around about £8,500). Did the uni’s take this money and save it in anticipation of the inevitable drop in student numbers? No they went on another spending spree! And like my friend the chef, I’m seeing many of the same mistakes and schoolboy errors you see in the small business sector being repeated across the HEI sector…only on a much larger scale!

For some time it’s been predicted that fees would produce a drop in student numbers (something not helped by the Tories clamping down on overseas students with their immigration targets).

In the last few months many universities in the UK are starting to feel the pinch, staff are being laid off, and we’re not talking about the liberal arts department but even well-funded departments with a good reputation and high student numbers (such as engineering departments) are being forced to make cut backs. It is for good reason that I’m predicting it a mere matter of time before a major university in the UK goes bankrupt.

And the government’s so-called “free schools” and “academies” shows all the signs that these same policy mistakes are being repeated. With the heads embarking on a heavy and expensive school building and renovations program, or like the uni’s, engaging in private ventures. Now for sure, many of the UK’s schools are badly in need of renovation. But as they guy’s on Dragon’s Den would say, can you afford it? Who is going to pay for that and how do you intend to finance this?

One of the problems which I don’t think University VC’s or schools heads understand is that some of the things they are doing are extremely risky from a financial point of view. If a business deal goes badly wrong it is easily possible to lose many times more than the capital you initially invested (once you factor in maintenance costs, close out costs, staffing costs, redundancy payments, legal fees, fines, etc.). Consequently I don’t think many realise the scale of the hit they are likely to take if the deals they are striking go rotten, which they almost certainly will if student numbers take a hit.

Similarly an expensive building tends to be expensive to maintain. We just moved in this year to such a place and suffice to say one academic year has knocked the stuffing out of the building, many things no longer work and need repair. Again those are fixed costs that will sit like millstone around the VC’s neck for sometime to come.

If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it

The truth is that we all may grumble and whine about it, but we do need people who are prudent with money holding the purse strings. And while we might complain about “big government” with dictates and spending plans coming out of head office in London, but it’s for good reason. As the truth is that successive governments have relied on this approach because it works. The finances of the NHS are best handled by people who understand how money works and how to spend it wisely, doctors are the worst people to put in charge! Equally universities should have their budgets much more tightly controlled, both by the beancounters in accounting but also by government.

While yes I see some room to distribute spending decisions to a more local level, and thus cut red tape, but only under careful control and auditing of some form. And ultimately in a democracy it should be the people (be they via local politics or national politics) who decide how public money is spent, not government mandarins, doctors or politicians (their job is to implement the public’s wishes).