News roundup

Do panic

A few months back the brexiters complained that they wanted the Royal Mail to celebrate brexit by issuing stamps to mark the occasion. Well RM seem to have met them half way by issuing a set of “Dad’s Army” stamps. Clearly someone at RM is trolling the brexiters.

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Inevitably perhaps, others have been creating their own versions of potential brexit stamps.

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Our Brexit, hallowed be thy name

Meanwhile, back in the mad house, Saint Theresa of Maidenhead May suggested that an extra £20 billion would be available after brexit for the NHS thanks to the “brexit dividend.

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This was met with incredulity by many. At the time of the referendum when they made similar claims, it was pointed out that the UK only really spends about £8 billion on its EU membership, once farm subsidies, rebates, research funding, structural funds and other things Brussels pays for are taken into account. Of course the implication would be that, much as I warned might happen prior to the referendum, this could indicate that the Tories do not plan to pick up the tab for these bills. Farm subsidies will end in March 2019, the fishermen and deprived communities in Wales, Scotland and Cornwall will see their lifeline cut off and universities will see research budgets slashed, with a knock effect to the many high tech start ups who depend on that research funding to get them off the ground.

And there’s the not so small matter that the UK will be stuck, not with a brexit dividend, but a brexit deficit. There’s the exit bill the UK will need to pay, £40-50 billion net (depending on rebates and currency exchange differences, since its calculated in euro’s). And then there’s the economic cost of undertaking brexit (about 3-7% of GDP, best guess £72 billion).

Plus, what do you think the EU does with all of that cash? They spend it on hiring civil servants to administer all the EU regulations, that May is trying to squeeze into UK law. It was improper regulation on the British end that led to the Grenfell tower fire. In China, there’s a controversy over baby formula, leading to shelves being emptied in Australia because some mum’s don’t trust the Chinese stuff anymore. So regulations are something you neglect at your peril. And the three immediate areas that will need tackling are nuclear materials, medicines and food safety…..so no pressure then! And in any event the conditions of any trade deal, be it with the EU or other parties, will need to include a budget to account for paying for the regulation of that deal.

In short, never has a UK Prime Minster said something so inaccurate since Lord North told parliament that the Americans loved being part of the UK so much, they’d happily pay a bit more for tea. But as I’ve said before, brexit is now the state religion of the UK.

While May, perhaps sensing what she was implying, did backtrack and mubble something about a tax rise to pay for the extra money until the (non-existent) dividend kicks in. But even this is worrying. Basically what she said was that the Tory party is abandoning its manifesto and sacrificing it on the altar of brexit. And while more money for the NHS isn’t a bad thing, its almost certain that this new tax burden will fall on the middle and low income earners (this is the Tories after all, which is more likely, they give up smoked salmon once a week to pay for hospitals, or they get the plebs to pick up the tab?).

Brexit is now to the UK what Juche is to North Korea. The excuse upon which anything can be sold. A tax rise? Its for brexit (but don’t worry we’ll pay you back later). An end to farm subsidies? Privatise the NHS? Strip workers of their right to strike? Its all to make sure brexit works!

Of course the problem with this attitude is it means they just can’t understand why for example Rolls Royce or JLR would suddenly want to move thousands of jobs out of the glorious thousand year reich British empire mark II (because they are companies with shareholders perhaps?). Nor can they understand why the EU are being such assholes and threatening to cut the UK off from intelligence data and the European arrest warrant (because they have this thing in Europe called “rights” and “laws” and the UK will join Belarus and Kazakhstan as the only non-signatory to the ECHR). In other words, they are blind to the consequences of their actions. Like the suicide pilots flying their plane into the world trade centre they cannot see the obvious insanity of what they are doing and genuinely think they’ll be going to a better place.

Lock em up….by which we mean the kids

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In between picking fights with China, Trump has been busy locking up kids in cages after tearing them out of their the parents arms (what’s the bet he’ll put Roy Moore in charge!). Conditions at the facility where the kids are detained, referred to as the dog kennel, are described as inhumane and equivalent to a prison. Experts warn of the emotional scaring this will inflict. Parallels have been made to concentration camps and the detention of Japanese Americans during world II.

The day you know you’re living in a fascist state is the day you hear your justice secretary (soon to be named ministry for state security) deny he’s running concentration camps. The irony is one of the justifications of the Alex Jones mob for opposing Obama was that he was black was planning to set up FEMA concentration camps.

Oh, and for good measure the US is quitting the UN human rights council. Because clearly the words “human rights” and “America” should not be sharing the same sentence right now, even Trump can figure that one out.

Let’s be clear if you voted for Trump (or voted for a third party in a swing state, which is basically the same thing under the US system) then this is what you voted for. And frankly it shouldn’t surprise anybody, its exactly what was warned would happen if Trump was elected. At least now when reading the history books and you wonder, how could the Germans vote for Hitler, well now you know how and why. And part of the reason why international pressure failed to contain him, wasn’t because Neville Chamberlain was a weak and naïve leader. It was because he was leading a divided Britain, which had more than a few (Daily Mail reading) fascists of its own, who couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

Trump, upon realising that this might not look so well, immediately tried to dodge responsibility, blaming the democrats, the immigrants themselves and pretty much anyone else he could think of. Its worth noting that something similar played out during the holocaust, the Yugoslav civil war and the Rwandan genocide, in which often those in senior roles were separated from the actual atrocities and generally tried to avoid taking responsibility for such things, leaving it to a handful of fanatical racist nut cases to do the dirty deeds. This of course made it so much easier to order more of the same and treat as mere bureaucratic exercise. Forget the lessons of history and they will repeat themselves.

The really big short

Trump’s tariff policy has sent stock markets crashing to the point where all of this years gains have been wiped out. And the main losers won’t be in Wall street, they’ll be ma and pa firms across the US, as well as many ordinary Americans who are about to see their living costs rise in response to these tariffs (you’ll be paying them, not the Chinese). It sounds like typical Trump. He’s not doing it because he thinks its a good idea, its an action driven purely by ego…..

Or is it? Given that Trump has not actually fully separated himself from his businesses (which is illegal btw), we need to consider the possibility that he’s colluding with others, and doing a little bit of insider trading. Its possible to profit from a falling market by shorting the market. If you can correctly guess that the stock of a particular company is going to fall, you can bet on the share price declining (by borrowing shares, selling them at a high price and then buying them back later after the price has fallen).

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However, shorting is a risky business. Its the equivalent of betting that Brazil or Germany were going to lose their opening matches. Now while this will happen occasionally (as indeed happened to Germany….guess they won’t be eating Taco’s for a while!), but the odds are you’ll be wrong more often than you are right. And to make matters worse its possible with short selling to lose more than your original investment if the market moves against you. Hence most traders will often hedge their bets (basically bet both ways, but slightly bet higher one particular way). This reduces the risk, but also the profit margin.

Of course if you have access to insider information, e.g. you are the president and you know there’s a big tax cut coming, or you’re going to impose tariff’s on the EU, then change your mind and then impose them anyway. A trader with advanced knowledge of this could easily adopt short positions and profit considerably from this.

But, not only is it illegal for a president to be in any way linked to these sorts of deals, but insider trading is also illegal and for good reason. Because if you get it wrong (and markets can be difficult to predict, even if you have access to insider information) things can go from bad to catastrophic pretty quickly. Consider how rogue trader Nick Leeson managed to lose over £800 million, wiping out Barings bank.

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Indeed one has to look at Trump’s real estate losses in a new light. People laugh and say oh Trump is such a loser he can lose money running a casino. How can you do that? I mean people literally walk into a casino and hand over their money!

Well, not if your running a casino skim operation. Its possibly that Trump, under pressure from his mob connections, was deliberately running the joint into the ground. Its just they miscalculated. Normally you skim just a little off the top, but not enough anyone will notice, nor that might risk bringing down the racket. But Trump was such a balloon head, or he and his co-conspirators just got too greedy, they managed to bleed the place dry. Which doesn’t bode well if this same lot are at the helm of the US economy.

Enabling fascism

Speaking of fascists, in Italy the populist horseshoe government is split because one of their leaders, looking to emulate Trump, wants to build his own concentration camps….sorry I mean happy camps (I’m sure they’ll come up with a more PC name!). He also wants to count Roma gypsies and presumably make them go around with little stars on them, I mean nothing bad ever happened from doing that. He’s also suggested that an anti-mafia journalist, who criticised him should have his police protection removed.

This has all come as a bit of a shock to a number of 5S voters. But what should it? You enabled a bunch of fascists and helped them into power, now they are enacting fascist policies. What did you think was going to happen? They were going to go door to door handing out milk and cookies?

Its possible that this might bring down the horseshoe government a little earlier than was expected. Which I’d consider a good thing…..if it weren’t for opinion polls suggesting a likely win for the Northern League and Forza Italia (Mr Bunga Bunga’s outfit).

The Glasgow school of art fire

In Scotland the Glasgow School of art burnt down. Designed by Rennie Mackintosh, the Mac, is to Glasgow what the Casa Mila is to Barcelona. This fire occurred just four years after another fire, which destroyed the college library, which was in the process of being rebuilt. Incidentally, lost in the story about the art school fire, was the fact that another important building, the neighbouring ABC theatre, had also burnt down after the fire spread to it.

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Two fires in the space of four years is more than bad luck. Clearly there’s something up with the building in terms of fire safety. My understanding is the contractors for the restoration after the previous fire were on site, so they’ll have some questions to answer.

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The library of the Glasgow school of art, prior to the fire in 2014

But clearly there’s some issues with fire safety that needs to be addressed. And this is not just a problem for the school of art. There’s been several large fires in older buildings in Glasgow and the basic problem is, they ain’t up to current fire codes and need to be modified accordingly. This article discusses some of the issues, although in the context of post-war era buildings, but much of the same policy should be applied to Victorian and Edwardian era buildings. E.g. fitting external fire escapes (as in New York) and sprinklers, fire resistant barriers, etc.

Meanwhile the question now being asked is whether the art school can be rebuilt. Some suggest it might not be feasible, others feel it is possible. We’ll have to see. There will inevitably be a strong desire from the art community and the Scottish government to rebuild it, but some polls suggest there might be opposition from the public, if it costs too much money.

For the moment, given that its basically now a burnt out shell, the best that can be hoped for is facade retention. Which would have to be undertaken quickly, given that its on a hill and exposed to the winds (it probably won’t survive the winter in its current state). Even then if the building were rebuilt, you’d be rebuilding everything inside that retained facade. And as noted, you’d have to modify the design to account for modern fire codes, which would require considerable modification from the original. So it would be more of a replica, rather than the real thing.

The thinking wing nut’s troll

The Toronto academic Jordan Paterson has been in the news recently, largely thanks to an encounter on Channel 4 news earlier this year, which has made him something of an intellectual hero for the alt-right. However, in truth he’s just a slight better inform right wing troll, who engages in many of their same tactics (gish gallop’s, contrarian arguments, weasel words, etc.)

Take this example where he attempts to argue that much as the right is basically anti-liberalism ID politics (his alt-right followers only hearing what they want to hear will have no doubt filtered that out) that the left is basically the same. That many on the left for example only support social welfare programs that they’ll never benefit from due to a similar commitment towards ID politics.

This position combines a number of contrarian arguments based on a falsehoods. It relies on the myth that working class people tend to vote conservative, and its the “champagne socialists” who vote for left wing parties. However, data from both the last UK election and US elections show that those who are working class tend to vote for left wing parties. When those on right try to claim the opposite, they are often forced to use weasel words statements (e.g. focus on white men over 40 in specific states).

But certainly it is true that a certain portion of those on higher incomes do vote for left wing causes. As I happen to be one of those, although real ale socialist would be more accurate, I can tell Mr Patterson my views have nothing to do with ID politics. Its because I understand that I might end up needing that social welfare safety net myself someday. No matter how hard working you are, or how well paid, all it takes is one accident, cancer diagnosis, bankruptcy of your employer or misadventure and suddenly you’re in a world of trouble.

For example (and this is just one of many examples I could give), I know a guy back in Ireland, hard worker, used to lead scouting groups, took a fall at work one day. He seemed to be fine after a few days, but as the months and years passed he developed ever worse back problems (not unusual for these to take time to surface) and eventually he had to give up work. Now if we take the right at its word, he should be dragged to the side of the street and left to die just because he had the misfortune to have an accident that wasn’t his fault (should you wonder why he hasn’t sued, his employer went bust during the crash and it was only a small building firm anyway, there won’t have been any money to sue for).

That’s all it takes to ruin your income. I wonder if Mr Paterson has paused to consider what would happen to him if he, or one of his relatives, were to fall ill and need expensive medical treatment, which his HMO wasn’t willing to cover (pre-existing conditions and all that). In fact I know of a lecturer who found himself in this very situation. A relative got ill and he had to drop everything, give up his well paid job and fly home to Pakistan. Now while last I heard he’d gotten a part time job over there, but I’m going to hazard a guess its paid a lot less than a lecturing post in the UK. And given his likely outgoings I suspect he’s probably only just about managing. Voting in favour of social welfare is not ID politics, its basic common sense.

Indeed perhaps more the question is why is it that some, notably those over 40’s blue collar workers don’t vote for left wing parties. I would argue that this stems from a long instilled ideology of rugged individualism (you’re considered less of a man if you ask for help), as well as the usual right wing lies and propaganda. And more crucially this tendency does tend to be growing (while those on lower income tended to vote overwhelmingly for left wing candidates by at least 80/20, now its closer to 60/40). So its more a sign of desperation and frustration than meaning an increase in support for the politics of the right. Which perhaps isn’t surprising given how the right doesn’t really have a political philosophy anymore, other than “anti-liberalism”.

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The calm rational logic of Trump voters

But either way, the only real difference between Mr Paterson and Alex Jones (and they are both believers in the paranormal, living on wing nut welfare, which kind of makes his point regard social welfare more than a little hypocritical), is that Paterson knows how not to look and sound like a nut, even when he’s saying pretty crazy things.

The Wakanda conundrum

I came across an interesting little video on youtube, which discuss the Wakanda conundrum. For those who didn’t see the movies (Black Panther, age of infinity), or don’t read comic books, Wakanda is a small yet highly advanced African country which has kept itself hidden from the world for many centuries (for reasons we won’t get into right now). It owes its formation to the arrival of a meteorite from space made of a strange and nearly indestructible metal. As a result its now extremely wealthy and century’s ahead of the rest of the world technologically.

So what’s the problem? Well there’s simply no way such a society could exist. No matter how valuable this resource is, without trading with the outside world (and thus sharing ideas and technology) they’d struggle to figure out how to exploit it. And without trading this resource, they’d never be able to earn any cash from it and thus never be able to buy in the stuff they’d need to exploit the resource and develop their economy. In short the economic policy of Wakanda is basically the same as that of North Korea, and they ain’t exactly the richest country in the world, nor the most advanced (I’m sure Trump would tell you differently tho!).

And speaking of which, the government of Wakanda is an absolute monarchy, with kings picked by barbaric fights (okay, if you’ve ever seen a bunch of politicians fighting over whose in charge, its not that much different maybe). The problem with such a system is all it takes is one bad king to ruin everything. And essentially, that’s the plot of the Black Panther film, but they ignore the consequences of that.

Then there’s the matter of the so-called “resource curse”, which means that small countries with valuable resources can sometimes end up worse off than countries without any. While this doesn’t apply in every situation, Iceland and Norway or Bahrain, for example. But generally countries tend to only avoid the resource curse so long as they’ve got open borders, good trade and a reasonably free society and competent government. Inevitably Wakanda would hit the buffers sooner or later and descent into a corrupt, autocratic mess.

And the other problem with having resources is it tends to draw attention to you. African dictators surrounding Wakanda, not to mention western colonists (notably the Belgians), would soon learn of it and be very quick to swoop in and try to take over the country. And given how in the last film the Wakandian army got the snot kicked out of them by a large pack of dogs, I doubt they’d be able to hold off an invasion, regardless of how advanced their technology.

Uber scooters

A number of silicon valley based firms have begun to set up dockless bike and scooter hire schemes. The logic is, rather than the traditional bike hire schemes, where bikes are picked up and dropped off at designated spots (which can mean trucks rolling around transporting bikes from docking station to docking station). Instead, the system is more free flowing. You pick up the bikes wherever you find one (a mobile phone app directs you to the nearest one) and then leave it wherever you are when you’re finished. Simple!

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So what’s the problem? Well many of these schemes are being set up by companies without the support of local governments and councils. This is causing all sorts of problems, from people riding bikes and electric scooters on pavements, then abandoning them in the middle of the pavement, where they represent a trip hazard, particularly for blind people.

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I think this is a good idea that needs to be developed more, indeed I’d be curious to see if its possible to marry this idea with current car sharing schemes. However, clearly there needs to be some sort of regulation. Frankly the operators of these schemes are lucky councils didn’t just classify all of their scooters as litter and bin them (then fine the company for waste disposal), which is actually what happened in China. No doubt these rules would specify where the bikes and scooters could be used and that where they can be left (if not at designated docking points, then off the pavement and parked neatly). Presumably a system of fines imposed (and/or penalty points) on those who break the rules might bring some discipline to the situation. So it would be a good idea for these firms to start working with local authorities, rather than trying to go the whole uber.

So long and thanks for all the fish

The one shining reason for brexit we were told was the fish. The fish, dear god will someone think of the fish! Those poor fishermen, Farage said as he cried crocodile tears. Well, aside from the fact that this ignored the realities of how trade deals work, and that the Tories have already screwed the fishermen over, there’s a more specific problem – the fish are moving.

As a result of climate change North sea cod and north Atlantic cod are migrating northward out of UK waters and into Scandinavian waters. You would think the Scandinavians would be delighted about this, but they aren’t. Their preferred fish is the Arctic cod and the increasing presence of North Atlantic cod is not only making fishing difficult for them, but threatens the long term viability of their industry. While I’m not much of a fish eater, I’m told by those who do that there’s a distinct difference in taste between the two types and that as a result, the Arctic cod is considered a more valuable product. So you can see the problem. Its issues like this that underline the need for action on climate change.

One possible temporary fix would be for the Faroese, Greenland, Norwegian and Icelandic governments to agree to let EU boats into their waters (for a fee of course) to catch the North Atlantic cod and basically take em back down south. Of course given that the UK is leaving the EU, its inevitable we’ll be cut out of any such deal. Given that all are part of the single market, its going to make a lot more sense to deal with the EU than the UK. So it looks like the UK isn’t even going to get a smoked kipper out of post-brexit fishing deals.

Free range parenting

I got into a discussion on another blog recently about how parents are becoming increasingly controlling of their kids, so called helicopter parenting, and how this wasn’t a good idea. Well now its official. A study from America suggests that overly controlling parents can lead to behaviour problems.

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I’d argue the problems go much further. We end up with students in university, who are used to having every little obstacle swept out of their way and thus haven’t learnt how to strike a work life balance or think for themselves. Its long been my observation, as both a student and a lecturer, that students from the strictest parenting background tend to be the ones who become complete tear away’s in uni.

They’ll show up in the first week of term dressed like a Mormon, or in full islamic dress, but by the end of the first semester they’re complete party animals (for whom breakfast consists of peeling last night’s pizza off their face before eating it), who start missing classes and falling behind. By contrast those from more “liberal” backgrounds (who’ve already learnt how to manage their time and say no to a night out) are able to maintain focus. And they tend to be the ones more likely to drop out, not least because it can sometimes turn out that their parents picked the course and uni for them, which turned out to be something (or somewhere) they didn’t want to study.

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In contrast to this is so-called free range parenting. Rather than for example, walking the kids to school, parents take the view, well he/she knows what time classes start, they know how to get there, so its the kids responsibility to get up on time and get there. If they don’t, its going to be a steep learning curve. While there are merits to this, there are problems with it, not least of possible legal issues.

But my view is that parents need to think of the long term impact of what they are doing. While you have to have some rules and boundaries with kids, if you don’t give them some level of independence, they’ll never learn it. Then you are stuck with them living at home and you have to get them evicted. Birds won’t leave the nest if they don’t learn how to fly.

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Not going out

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The great outdoors, Rannoch Moor Scotland, with the mountains of Glencoe in the background

You may, or may not, have heard the story that Penn State university has banned their outdoor recreation club, because its too dangerous for their students to be let out in public. Which from a PR point of view doesn’t exactly send out the right message. Come to Penn state and you’ll be so hopeless at everything you can’t be trusted to go outside.

Let’s be clear this has little to do with “elf & safety”. I cannot help but notice that the American football team, water sports (generally anything involving water carries a certain level of risk), skiing (who tend to be more at risk from avalanches than hikers) and boxing clubs aren’t being closed down, even though some of these would be much more risky. And any contact sports is where we’d expect to see the bulk of injuries to students. Instead this is more a case of “liability avoidance” or what I refer to as Save Ass Policy Schemes or SAPS for short.

Admittedly, being a mountaineer and a bit of an outdoorsy type myself, it has to be said that the risks involved with such activities are difficult to quantify, as is often the case with many adventure sports. A route that some would find suicidally dangerous (e.g. the Cullin ridge on Skye), experienced climbers will do while wearing boxing gloves and roller blades….or riding a bicycle. Similarly even the most experienced climber in the world would be putting himself at an unnecessary risk if he went up certain routes in the wrong kind of weather (the guides on Skye won’t go up the aforementioned Cullin ridge in bad weather, its just too dangerous).

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One person’s inaccessible pinnacle is another person’s Sunday morning bike ride

So context is very important. Indeed this is kind of an important life lesson mountaineering teaches you, how to manage risk. Which, can be a useful thing to put on one’s CV or cover letter. But clearly the SAPS in Penn State are too dumb (or scared) to understand that. I bet employers will be queuing around the block to hire these graduates after they hear of this!

I would note that said SAPS are probably reacting to parental pressure. US universities are increasingly having to deal with not so much “helicopter parents”, but what are referred too as “snow plough parents” who expect every possible obstacle to their little darling to be swept out of his or her way. I’ve seen several situations where students stuck with a course that they didn’t like simply because their parents insisted. And when he got caught cheating, it turned out that this was the parents idea. That is kind of what universities are having to deal with right now.

You could argue the most insulting thing you could say to a mountaineer is to call him “experienced”. Because often you learn from your mistakes (so when I say I’m an “experienced” mountaineer, that means I’ve “extended the trip” or “explored alternative routes” on a few occasions). The trick with student clubs is to create a safe environment for people to learn without putting them in danger.

In Scotland we have a pretty good system set up in which the university clubs and the various mountaineering organisations (the mountain rescue teams, guides & instructors, RAF/RN rescue, McOS, BMC, SMC, etc.) arrange various safety courses towards the beginning of term. There’s events in early autumn (just a few weeks into the 1st semester) focusing on general mountaineering safety with further courses run in January/February focusing on winter mountaineering skills (just about the same time the snow’s started to accumulate). This allows new recruits to clubs to pick up the necessary skills pretty early. The clubs also tend to ease people into it, taking them on easier routes first, so they can learn some sense…rather than taking them straight up Tower ridge on Freshers week.

And this is the thing, far from improving the safety of students by shutting down this club, instead Penn state is putting them at risk. The reason for all the courses in Scotland I mentioned earlier is a little statistically anomaly. University clubs rarely get into trouble (given all the precautions they take and the fact they tend to be pretty well equipped). However, students in general are involved in a very high proportion of mountaineering accidents.

So by removing this “safe space” in which students can learn good practice, Penn State is arguably putting its student’s at risk. I won’t be surprised if, irony of ironies, they are sued in a few years time after a student gets into difficulty after being denied access to safety equipment and denied the opportunity to learn safety skills by the university.

Of course I’m going to guess America being America there’s probably a gun club in Penn State and I’m going to assume that there’s no way they’ll get banned (as nobody in senior management would want to pick a fight with the NRA). And given that Pennsylvania is an open carry state, that they ain’t going to say a word about anyone carrying a gun on campus.

Well there’s the solution, change the name of the Outing club to the Outing Gun Club. They carry on as normal, just always carry guns around while doing it (you don’t have to shoot, or go hunting or anything, just carry guns while muttering about your 2nd amendment rights). In addition use NRA style language to get out of answering any pesky questions from uni admin e.g. “Where are we going this weekend? That sound’s like an attempt to run a background check. Deep state! Deep state!”. When in Rome, do as the Romans do!

But either way, this sends out all the wrong messages. It suggests the uni doesn’t trust its own students. In which case why should any employer consider hiring them? People accuse millennial of being “snowflakes”. Yet when they try to do anything remotely adventurous, they get told not to do it. If you don’t let people learn how to manage risks, they’ll either never try anything adventurous, or worse, go out and do something incredibly reckless and foolhardy. Which hardly sounds like the sort of life skills a university wants to encourage in its students.

Why tuition fees have to go

I’ve long argued that exorbitant tuition fees English students are required to pay are a generally bad idea. I’ve described before the impact they’ve had on the running of universities and how they’ve turned universities into money hungry corporations. How it has resulted in students increasingly seeing their degree as a commodity to be bought, not something life changing they are earning through hard work. I certainly see the benefit of students making some contribution towards their studies, after all not everyone gets to go to uni and fees do make universities less dependant on the whims of government. However, the more and more I look on it, the more I feel that given the choice between the no-fees system of Scotland or the supermarket uni’s of England, fees are just not a good idea and should be scraped.

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The arguments put forward for fees are that they would give student better value for money in their education, more choice, it would increase funding to critical courses, such as medicine and engineering and it would cut student numbers. As these statistics show, in all three cases they have failed and the opposite has happened. Students, saddled with increasingly high levels of debt have becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their courses. Given that engineering and medical courses are more expensive to operate, the mercenary nature of some universities has seen them cut back on these course, as well as shutting down various specialised courses and restricting student’s choices (I don’t think I’ve worked in a uni where one course or another wasn’t in the process of being wound down).

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As for cutting student numbers, they’ve been going up until recently. This is just as well, for as I discussed in a prior article, we are entering into an increasingly technology driven age where its going to be harder and harder for anyone without some sort of qualification (a degree, college cert, trade, etc.) to stay employed.

However thanks to the brexit effect and Tory cuts to student grants they are now getting their wish and student numbers are down slightly this year, by about an average of 4%. Now within the meta data there are some alarming numbers, with a 23% drop in nursing, this on the back of a 96% drop in EU nurses coming to the UK to work. So this raises the risk of some serious staffing shortages in the NHS in a few years time.

Another impact of brexit, is that not only have lecturers and researchers begun to leave the UK, but UK universities too are looking to establish campuses in Europe. I recall suggesting that this might happen in the event of brexit a few years ago, and well, now its happening.

Meanwhile students in the UK are now looking at leaving uni with an average of £57,000 in debt. That is a lot of money to end up owing, made worse by the fact that the interest rates are now set to go up to 6.1%. Indeed this is sufficiently high that it for most graduates earning an average entry level salary they will will struggle to pay off just the interest on that loan, and will likely see the principal written off, which basically means the taxpayer pays it.

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So in effect the entire student fees system is little more than a tax on millennials to exploit the fact that they don’t vote, while pensioners (who either went to uni for free or paid a fraction of the amount) get an above inflation pension rise every year. Of course, increasingly, it seems the millennials aren’t willing to pay this “tax” and will vote for a party that promises to scrap it and the brexit voting pensioners can go spin on it (again I recall pointing out something like this might happen after a leave vote).

Also we need to consider a more fundamental issue, effectively by raising tuition fees Osborne and Cameron pulled an old fashioned accounting trick. The accumulated student debt in the UK now exceeds £100 billion, which we’ve established will mostly be written off, but the government won’t have to pay that off for a good few years. So in effect they set up a sort of buy now, pay later scheme and create the illusion that they were cutting the deficit.

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Now “only” £100 billion doesn’t sound so bad against the back drop of a UK debt level of £1,737 billion, 86% of GDP, noting that it was only 65% of GDP when the Tories took over (and the Tories were elected because they claimed that labour had let the debt get out of control). However given that student debt is rising at about 16% a year, so it will be closer to a figure of £300 billion in 2025 (not accounting for inflation). Add in the expected cost of brexit and its economic impact (another £100-200 billion depending on the breaks) and its not too difficult to see how the UK’s debt levels could exceed the critical threshold of 100% of GDP within a decade, worse than every European country, other than Italy and Greece I might add.

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If want to scare away your creditors, you can do it very easily if they discover that you’ve been playing silly buggers with them and there’s a whole block of off the book debts that you’re on the hook for. This is what happened to China recently. The rating agencies cut China’s credit rating due to concerns about debts run up by state owned companies. I was in China at the time and suffice to say, they were less than pleased about this, pointing out that its highly unlikely that all of these debts would go bad all at once and that China’s economy is in a vastly more healthy state than any western state.

Well the danger is that at some point the penny will drop, the rating agencies will apply a similar logic to the UK and we could see a ratings agency downgrade of the UK debts (again!), both public and private. A rating agency cut remember will make everything more expensive, mortgages will go up, personal loans, car loans and yes student loans. So its altogether bad news. Oh and since we are talking about it, as things stand the rating agencies are jittery, telling the EU to go whistle over the brexit bill, you might find its the Chancellor who is whistling if that provokes another credit rating cut.

Now the Tories will probably argue that this is the whole reason why they are trying to sell off student loan debts to the banks. However this risks making the situation worse. Firstly the whole reason for increasing the interest rate was to facilitate this sale. But increasing the interest rate on any loan will increase the default rate yet further. You are also selling off an asset which you know is going to be defaulted on. Its like sub-prime mortgages all over again. And you are creating a mechanism by which a contagion of debt can spread from one institution to another (or to the government). Again, the whole logic behind the Chinese debt downgrade isn’t that the rating agencies doubt China’s ability to pay, its their worry that a default on a loan in rural Gansu province, could lead to the collapse of one local bank and then ricochet through the system until it threatened the finances of the whole country.

Furthermore, saddling young people with an economic millstone and putting them under the thumb of the student loan company (who are known to “punish” students for disloyalty to the UK by ramping up their interest rate), leaving them living on baked beans for many years and putting off important spending decisions (such as buying a house) is not good for the economy. It could lead to economic stagnation (which would prompt another rating agency downgrade!). And why should banks get to profit from that?

So all in all, something has to give. In the first instance, if we don’t actually expect students to pay off this debt mountain, then why make them. Set up a debt forgiveness scheme and cut down student debts to more manageable levels.

As for fees, I still do think that students should pay something for their education, if they can afford to do so. A graduate tax is one idea, or some smaller, more limited level of fees. Alternatively, as pensioners will directly benefit from graduates (i.e. doctors & NHS nurses), maybe going after wealthy pensioners and taxing them (or breaking the triple lock on pensions) might be another solution.

But certainly the current system is just a recipe for disaster. It will lead to skill shortages in key areas, its creating a third level system that is increasingly unfit for purpose and could actually threaten the financial health of the country.

The future of work

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Many from working class areas of Britain voted for Brexit because they fear their jobs are under threat from migrants. Similarly support for Trump has been growing in parts of the US rust belt. And there’s a major divide, both sides of the Atlantic, when it comes to education. If you have a college degree, you are very unlikely to be a Trump supporter and less likely to have voted leave.

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Now it has to be said that the argument that migrants are taking jobs isn’t backed up by the facts. A strong leave vote was seen in the parts of the UK with the lowest number of migrants, while places like London with very high rates of migrant tended to vote for remain. Similarly, major US cities, where migrants tend to concentrated tend not to be the places where there is strong support for Trump. So either these migrants are holding down three of four jobs (and presumably being rapist, drug dealers and claiming benefits in whatever limited free time this busy schedule allows them), or the risk they pose is being vastly overestimated.

When I hear the story about how, oh I can’t get a job because the company down the road just hired a load of Poles/Mexicans who will work 60 hours a week for 3 bucks an hour, my response is A) don’t you think you should report that to the proper authorities? because its kind of illegal! B) leaving the EU ain’t going to help, you do realise Switzerland and Norway have more migrants per capita than the UK? C) In a globalised world, restricting the movement of labour will result in jobs moving overseas, so its foreigners staying at home and taking your job we need to worry about (far more jobs have moved overseas than have been taken by foreigners moving here) and D) do you have these guys number? cos I’ve got this bit of decking…..

But there’s an elephant in the room here that I think both sides of the debate are missing – automation and technology. In short, even if it were true that you’re in competition with Poles or Mexicans working for £3 a hour (which you aren’t, its just a neo-fascist myth), how do you expect to keep your job when you are competing against a machine that will do the job 24/7 for nothing?

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Like the frog in the saucepan, technology has crept up on us and we’ve not noticed. And yes it is changing the workplace as we know it . Think about it, when was the last time you rented a video? I’m guessing you get your video fixes from youtube or netflix these days? In fact when was the last time you saw a video store? Are there any young people reading this who need me to explain what a video store is? How about booking a holiday or flight in a travel agent? And I mean in an actual office, not online? Same with car insurance or other financial products. What about paying your taxes online? don’t tell me you actually take a day off work so you can go down the tax office and do in manually (obviously you’ve way too much free time!).

Online shopping is now much more common. And in shops these days various tasks are becoming more and more automated. We have those self service checkouts. Its conceivable in the not too distant future that shelves could be stacked by machine (we have machines that can do that already) or even provide customer service (yep, they’ve prototype machines that can do that).

Automated cars are now being developed and while I reckon it will be some time before they become a day to day reality (not because the machine’s aren’t smart enough, but because they have to share the road with dumb humans). But they are probably going to happen eventually, which will have numerous implications…. and meaning a whole host of jobs disappearing or changing radically. And there are similar plans to automate entire ships, cargo planes or trains.

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Could the Johnny cabs of Total Recall become a thing of the future?

In short technology has changed the world of work and it will continue to do so. There will still be jobs available, but many traditional jobs will disappear, and the skill set you need to get those jobs still available (or the new jobs created by technology) will continue to rise. This is the problem facing certain segments of society. As they see it, the bar keeps going up, they can’t get over it anymore, so they have it in their heads that we can somehow lower the bar again and keep everything the same, but we can’t, not without reversing many recent technological trends and isolating ourselves from the globalised world.

In manufacturing engineering for example, we are well ahead of the curve. There’s still plenty of people working in UK factories and the UK still makes lots of stuff. Prior to the Brexit vote the UK was on course exceed its 1970’s peak in car production by the 2020’s, even though the work force is a fraction of what it used to be (i.e. automation has made a smaller workforce more productive). However, nobody gets a job these days in a factory without some sort of qualification. The days when, like in Bruce Springsteen’s “the river”  (or Jimmy Nail’s “big river) , your dad could have a word with the guys down at the plant and you could walk straight into a unionised job for life are long gone.

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Many traditional jobs will increasingly disappear in future

And my prediction is that this will now roll out across the entire economy. The blunt message I’d give to people is that if you don’t have some sort of third level qualification (a degree or professional qualification of some kind) you will probably struggle to remain employed in future. So for those who voted Brexit, or are thinking of voting Trump, I’d say leave migrants alone, they are not the main threat to your employment, you need to get educated.

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And to be honest, you won’t want to be employed in future if you don’t have a qualification. What few unskilled jobs that remain will be increasingly the really crappy jobs that nobody wants, with the highest levels of job insecurity and the worst pay. The sort of jobs which will only be taken by students (who will take anything while they pay their way through college), recently arrive migrants (who just want some cash while they settle in), or those suitably desperate who can’t find anything else. Indeed, the employees of Sports Direct will argue this is already reality for them. You could argue that quite a number of those who voted Brexit (or Trump) are the canaries in the coal mine, as they are already seeing these effects.

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Feel worthless at work sometimes? Others have it worse

However, their actions are likely to prove counter productive. Restricting migration does not mean locals will find it easier to get work. What’s likely to happen is employers will just move jobs overseas, or you’ve just given them a very strong financial incentive to find a way of developing a machine to do those jobs instead.

So clearly such a future of work means some profound changes for society. Obviously the costs of third level education means its beyond the reach of many. Hence why I think of all the proposals from Bernie Sanders that Hillary needs to endorse, its reducing college tuition costs. Yes, I realise that won’t be cheap (i.e. can she afford it and still reduce the deficit?), but I suspect it will be a necessity in future, if a massive level of social stratification is to be avoided.

And in the UK far from putting up fees, we need to start cutting them. Is it any coincidence that in countries like Germany where higher education is free, there is less unemployment and less people whinging about migrants?

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And this is not just for the benefit of those who don’t have a degree yet. Even those of us who have one will likely need to return to university to learn new skills from time to time. A recent trend in academia has been a move towards what are called massive online learning courses. And these are mostly aimed at post-grads (rather than undergrads) looking to learn a new skill. I won’t be surprised if a few years from now, the main job of universities is supporting courses like this, rather than teaching degrees to undergrads in RL.

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The future of work will likely be a future where we need to accept the fact that change is good, its normal. We need to be intellectually curious and willing to learn new things and try out new ideas. Of course if you’re a conservative voter, changes are you’re not intellectually curious and you don’t want things to change. You are also more likely to reject ideas like global warming and evolution. The roller coaster of technology is going too fast, they want it to stop so they can get off.

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In the future all of us will need to re-train and change careers from time to time

But getting off the roller coaster would mean giving up what we have. Given that I can’t see us banning the use of the internet for commercial purposes (I mean how would you even police that!) or introducing soviet style jobs for the boys policies (you join one queue and then another), I don’t see how these future trends can be halted. Technology has created many problems for our society (e.g. global warming) and often as not, the solution to these problems is more technology (e.g. renewables, electric cars). So the “getting off the roller coaster” option that conservatives are aiming for would come with a price and I don’t think they understand that this price is probably more than they are willing to accept (you’d have to live sustainably without fossil fuels or renewables…. so basically become Amish!).

Another question we have to ask is whether full employment is a realistic goal for future society. Our entire economic system assumes that anyone who can work will work, but that may not be true in future, there might not be enough jobs to go around in the future.

Now in theory this shouldn’t be an issue. Technology merely means making a smaller pool of workers more productive. In Germany and Scandinavia, yes the manufacturing sectors are smaller than they were a few decades ago. But they avoided the wholesale decimation of working class areas seen in the US or UK, with some districts being reduced to little more than welfare colonies. This I would argue is because the bulk of these job losses were due to miss guided neo-liberal economic policies in the US and the UK. Reversing these policies would seem a sensible solution, although voting for Trump or Brexit amounts to asking for a double helping of more of the same.

So in theory, full employment is still a possibility. But we need to remember that more productivity often means more energy and resource consumption. Now with good recycling policies and a 100% renewable energy grid this shouldn’t be a problem, but we don’t have that yet. So its possible that full employment will not be possible in future (at least for some period of time). Which means some profound changes to society. Given that already the number of workers is falling in Western states thanks to an ageing population, this means even less and less people having to pay more and more of a nation’s taxes to fund the welfare for those who aren’t working.

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Migrants are increasingly needed to help fund retirement for an ageing population

And incidentally curbing migration, which means less young people coming into the workforce and paying taxes to fund the pensions and healthcare of retirees, is likely to prove entirely counter-productive. It could well be a recipe for national bankruptcy.

My view is that we may need to change how the entire tax system works. This is one of the reasons I’ve long favoured a system of carbon taxes, or taxes on things that are generally bad for society (e.g. high VAT on alcohol or fatty foods), a Tobin tax (i.e. a tax on financial transactions) and of course higher rates of corporation tax. In all cases, the goal here is to spread the tax net away from simply funding everything off of income taxes and pushing those rates up every time the state coffers run bare. Which of course tends to provoke much whinging from the fewer and fewer workers stuck paying incoming tax.

And as for distributing welfare, well one alternative to the current system is that of a basic national income paid out to everyone. This would be enough to fund housing and keep people out of poverty. You want more money, you want the luxuries, get a job and work for it. No more whining about lazy people on benefits, everyone is on benefits, indeed presumably this system would come with the clause that such payment would be withdrawn if anyone commits anti-social behaviour (e.g. petty crime, dodging taxes via your offshore account, the usual!). Just this year the Swiss at a referendum on implementing this. Now while it was rejected, I think this was because many didn’t understand the underlying issues. So I won’t be surprised if such ideas don’t catch on in future.

So in essence our society is at a crossroads. I’d argue that we are at the end of a 2nd gilded age. Like the first gilded age, this was a time when neo-liberal capitalists ran wild, we all had a big party and nobody complained a lot because everyone was doing rather well out of it (as this moment of Zen from the film Margin Call summarises). But now, like in the 1920’s we’re stuck with the hangover. And like society in the 1920’s we face a choice.

On the one hand we can opt for a new deal of continuing down the path of social and technology progress. And let’s face it, progress is good. The factories of past era’s, yes there was full employment, but they were awful places to work. Repetitive backbreaking labour while being exposed to extremes of heat, noise, toxic chemicals and rotating machinery. Many had to retire from such jobs in their 50’s because their job ruined their health. Technology means that cars and other products these days are safer, more reliable (used to be the best way to make money from TV’s was selling warranties to fix them), more energy efficient and more user friendly. I mean is anyone reading this seriously suggesting that they hate Microsoft/Apple/Google so much that you want your old Commodore 64 back?

Or, as some societies did in the 1920’s and 30’s, we may end up taking the regressive path of fascism, blaming foreigners and other convenient scapegoats for all of our ills, restricting trade, reversing past policies, going backwards and focusing inward….until said leaders realise they need a war to prevent national bankruptcy and likely end up starting world war 3 in the process!

The economic impact of Brexit…..the story so far

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The Brexit brigade are still trying to delude themselves that everything is hunky dory. However, the reality is that it has dented growth and there are growing signs of an economic slowdown, if not a recession.

Easyjet are blaming Brexit for a fall in profits . And Ryanair, whose also felt the pinch, is now planning to cut back on flights to the UK and move some of its hubs out of he country. Meanwhile the Polish airline Wizz Air plan to roll back from a planned expansion of services operating out of Britain (damn foreigners staying at home and giving jobs to Polish in Warsaw instead!). Meanwhile a travel agent, which collapsed over the last month (leaving a number of tourists stranded and others out of pocket), has blamed Brexit and the drop in value of the pound for pushing the company over the edge.

A weak pound is also expected to push up petrol prices (and thus pretty much everything else gets more expensive), make holidays more expensive, mortgage costs may well rise and pensions will be worth a lot less. Indeed, I won’t advise retiring anytime soon, as annuities are taking a hammering. And spare a thought for pensioners living overseas. Quite apart from Theresa May’s plan to basically use them as pawns in her negotiations with Brussels, a weak pound is making living abroad suddenly very expensive.

A weak pound, does help exporters, such as the UK’s car industry. However, they will be anxious about the possible long term impacts on trade. If the EU brings in any kind of tarrif on them, that’s pretty much their business model gone. Also the manufacturing of most goods these days takes place over multiple countries, many of the parts on UK cars are imported from the continent (so Brexit just made those parts more expensive). So any sort of a trade barrier at Dover, will make it awfully tempting to simply move production to the other side of the channel.

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Already Renault is contemplating a rise in car prices sold in the UK, while the word round the camp fire is that there’s at least “a 75% chance” of lay off’s in Japanese owned UK based car companies.

Academia enters recession

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In my line of work we are starting to see the effects, as this article discusses academics report that they are now being frozen out of EU grant funding applications. Funding opportunities are drying up and layoffs are now probably inevitable. And note it will generally be the non-academic support staff who will get the chop. Many leading academics are already contemplating moving to other EU countries. And recall, as I pointed out in a prior post, if an academic walks, the grant money follows him, as its always attached to the academic, not the university. In my own uni we’ve already lost two professors. Now in truth they were thinking of retiring anyway, but clearly Brexit has pushed that decision forward as they no doubt realise that they will struggle to get funding in future.

And its not just academics that suffer. As I’ve pointed out before, clustered around the UK’s universities are many small high tech firms who rely on this research funding and collaboration through the EU to establish themselves and develop new products. A number of them are already starting to scout out locations in the EU in which to move too. Its ironic given how many complain about immigration that one of the effects of Brexit could be Britain’s best and brightest moving abroad to set up companies overseas and create jobs for people outside of the UK. In short, the UK could very well be in the process of of burning an entire generation of entrepreneurs and innovators.

And already we have the Tories subsidy cuts to renewables to contend with. This is believed to have cost at least 12,000 jobs over the last year, with no doubt more redundancies in the pipeline.

The impact on the construction industry

Meanwhile house prices are now expected to level off, perhaps even drop. Already there’s been a slight drop this month in some London districts. And this is not good news for first time buyers, as the likely trigger event for this is a reluctance of banks to lend money, particularly to first time buyers. By contrast, foreign investors will now find it easier to buy property in the UK,given the weak pound (damn foreigners coming over here and investing their money in the country!).

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This of course means that those in the construction industry are probably the most vulnerable to the immediate effects of Brexit. I’ve heard tales of emergency board meetings at many leading construction firms with said firms deciding to now cancel certain projects now deemed too risky, a hiring freeze in the short term and an orderly downsizing with lay-off’s longer term.

Indeed, already some senior members of staff are loosing their jobs. One funny story I heard, a newly hired exec got the sack days after Brexit, as it meant the cancellation of projects he was supposed to be in charge of. Apparently he voted leave, so he literally voted to be sacked. The only thing he’s “taking control” of is his application down at the jobs centre. I’d laugh, only I’m aware of how many others in the industry have also lost their jobs, or are about too.

Trouble at the border

And of course custom delays in France which is causing traffic chaos in Southern England gives us a taster for how nasty things could get post-Brexit.

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Basically if the French at any point decide to get arsy because they feel the UK with a weak pound is undercutting their economy, all they need to do so restrict traffic at Calais, which is easily achieved under the guise of anti-terrorism checks or customs checks that they are just very slow to carry out, quickly causing traffic to grind to a halt. In the mean time they simply wave trucks going the other way straight through.

They won’t have to do that very often to quickly make it all but impossible for British companies to export to the continent. And keep in mind this was a quite normal thing back in the bad old days prior to the EU. Any time people went to France (or visa versa) they’d be asked by relatives and friends to get this and that for them. My own memories of family holidays was of us driving back in a car loaded down with hidden contraband. Is this really an improvement?

Over a barrel

All in all you’d have to be incredibly naïve to believe that Brexit isn’t going to have any impact of future trade. And keep in mind that the UK now needs to not just negotiate with the EU, but with the other major trading blocks as well. Many expect the Chinese will do rather well out of this , as they will essentially have the UK over a barrel.

The US too has previously warned of the UK “going to the back of the queue”. While its not clear if they will follow through with this, but certainly if the UK wants a deal quickly they will have to concede a lot. The US is locked in a serious of talks with the EU over the controversial TTIP’s trade deal, something Brexit might well have now derailed. Needless to say, while the EU can haggle, or even walk away from such a deal, the UK can’t. For the UK it will be take it or leave it when it comes to TTIP.

Like a Victorian workhouse

One of the areas where we could see some major changes post-Brexit is when it comes to workers rights, as it is widely expected that the Tories will now use this as an opportunity to gut the protections UK workers have long enjoyed. So I hope every doesn’t mind working on weekends or Christmas, an end to overtime, not to mention it being made easier for bosses to fire workers with little or no notice.

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And we have a taster for what’s in store given recent reports from Sports Direct. Its boss Mike scrooge Mac Ashley is accused of running a Victorian style workhouse. With workers being paid below the minimum wage, arbitrary punishments for minor infractions, female staff being solicited for sexual favours, children being forced to go to school ill because parents could not take a day off work. We even have one story of a mother giving birth in the toilet at work (and I hope she clocked off for that that one!).

Well you have to give him credit for being ahead of the curve here. As this is likely to be the model upon which many UK firms are run post-Brexit.

Saving face

We were promised by Theresa May that she’d get some concession on immigration as part of Brexit negotiations. However, it is privately accepted that this will be impossible. So officials in Whitehall and Brussels are looking at ways of trying to make it look like she’s gotten something, when in fact she hasn’t.

One proposal is to dust off the very “emergency brake” measures Cameron managed to get. Of course as I pointed out this was mere window dressing. It would only restrict migrant benefits, which is less of a concern to those who are coming over to work and then plan to go home (which of course applies to the vast majority of them). Government in some parts of the EU will be less than keen on this (in effect they are being asked to subsidise the UK welfare state by their citizens paying taxes towards it but not claim any benefits), which means they will either veto such a proposal or insist on some sort of sharing of NI contributions (i.e. some portion of their citizens NI contributions will be passed on to their home state if they leave or return from the UK and start to claim benefits). Existing arrangement along these lines already exist between the UK and Ireland.

So its likely to be just window dressing, that doesn’t actually change anything (other than draining the government’s coffers), but hopefully it will take the Brexit bigot brigade sometime to work that one out.

Mixed messages and Pedofiles

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In the university where I work there’s some discontent over promotions and how staff are rated. The uni has been putting much greater emphasis on research, in particular research that con contribute to the REF and revenue raising by bringing in money via grants. Its a trend that is all too familiar across UK universities these days.

Now if your working in a Russell group, research led university, then okay, this is kind of the primary role of such institutions and they are heavily dependant on research funding (hence why they are so worried about this EU referendum, given how much funding comes from the EU). But the vast majority of the UK’s universities don’t fall into this category. Their primary means of funding (and I mean +90%) is through teaching.

And its worth remembering that good research takes time. Most Russell group uni’s have a significantly higher staffing levels to cope with this, as well as more PhD research students, well equipped labs and of course, the technical support staff to keep everything running smoothly. By contrast a number of universities I’ve taught at have been cutting back on support staff…because as they see it, the best way to encourage research, it would seem, is to make it much harder to do!

While research is an important part of being an academic, life is about priorities, and in the absence of new staff to take over the teaching load, its inevitable that any time spent on research is time not being spend focusing on teaching and looking after students, which undermines one of the key selling points for most of the UK’s universities . You can after all get a free university education in several other countries such as Holland, Ireland (we have “fees”, but a fraction of those in the UK) or Germany.

Anyone watching the university rankings recently will have perhaps noted a trend whereby research led university’s are slipping down the rankings and a number of the ex-polytechnic’s are gradually creeping up. This, I would argue, is because Russell group uni’s are crap at teaching undergrad’s. If I had a kid and he/she wanted to go to uni I would sit them down and ask them, what do you want out of it? If you want to become an academic or a professional researcher, go to a Russell group uni. If you want to get a good degree and then get a job, then stay away from them, go to a well ranked non-research led uni instead.

For the reality is that in most research led uni’s the bulk of the day to day teaching is handled by overworked teaching assistants and PhD students, with the professors too busy jetting off to conferences or chasing research grants to have any time for undergrads. The only way an undergrad gets to see a professor in those places is if they bump into them in the lift. I’ve even heard stories of some Russell group uni’s getting their professors to make a video tape of their lecture’s, which they then play each year….so you’re basically paying 9 grand a year to watch a couple of videos! The university’s minster himself recently bemoaned this drop in teaching standards, although he sidestepped the issue of what’s driving it.

That said, for a research led uni, the primary degree is really just a taster session, the really serious learning starts with the Masters or PhD…..or indeed the post-doc that follows. It should also be remembered that those who follow a more academic, research led career, tend to be good self-learners, a trait that isn’t shared by the bulk of students (that’s the whole point of lectures! Do you think I do them for fun or something?).

But like I said, any uni trying to copy this model without the resources of a research led uni is going to just piss off its students, develop a really bad reputation and see student numbers, and thus overall revenue, plummet. And its worth remembering that to many UK university’s the bulk of what research they do generally comes to them via ex-students and industrial contacts. So long term, such a policy will reduce the levels of research, not aid them.

The Pedofiles
Given these facts you may question why so many university managers are pursuing such a crazy policy. Well some form of an answer become apparent when you learn that they have also begun to place particular emphasis on research into Pedagogy (the theory of learning and education). All of us academics are now expected to gain qualifications in Pedagogy as well as undertake research into it. Or put it another way, we’re all expected to maintain a folder somewhere on our PC where we record all our Pedagogy…..or a Pedofile ;0

If you think about it, this is silly. Humans have been teaching each other since the first cave man showed someone how to light a fire. By contrast technologies such as Graphene, computers or electronics have only been around for a few years or decades. Unless you are working in a particular discipline such as IT (where computers have brought about changes to teaching methods) or psychology, Pedagogy is a dead research area. You’re wasting your time conducting research that is of very little value to anyone.

And of course, such emphasis on “Pedofiles” directly contradicts the pressure on us academics to produce “REF worthy” research (which has to be of a certain standard to count), as very little if anything in this field is going to count as high impact. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that for many of the senior staff in many UK uni’s the only original research they’ve done recently is in Pedagogy. Hence they are emphasising its importance purely to justify their own position and bloated salary.

And of course the emphasis on REF related research is driven by the fact that setting and meeting research “targets” is a good way for these mangers to justify a future salary increase or bonus. The fact that they are setting in place policies that are likely to infuriate both staff and students, lower academic standards and probably in the long term undermine research, does not matter, as they’ll have changed jobs by then.

In short, UK universities are becoming a perfect proof of the so-called “Dilbert Principlewhereby those who are the least technically competent in any organisation are swiftly moved into the position where they can do the least damage and be kept out of the way of the competent staff – management. Unfortunately, like many privatised public services, we have the problem that while the private sector has various means to “cull” the numbers of management goons from time to time (via the occasional merger, restructuring or proxy blood bath), university’s, and other ex-public sector bodies, don’t.

So if Osborne is keen to save the Treasury some cash, here’s a piece of advice. Sack every member of staff in every UK uni above the grade of head of department (along with all their minions, PA’s and other hanger’s on). You’ll eliminate the main obstacle to progress and the efficient running of universities, while saving a lot of money in the process.

 

UK universities face foreign competition?

I’ve long worried that the UK's decision to put up tuition fees would ultimately discourage students from going to UK universities. Either choosing to go to universities in other EU countries (such as Holland) or not going to uni at all. This risks making a university education the preserve of the middle and upper classes. Also by making university's more commercially orientated, with a greater emphasis on revenue raising and less on tuition. Indeed I cannot help but notice a trend between universities (such as for example Strathclyde) being praised for their “entrepreneurial spirit” and then sliding down the university rankings, presumably because the staff are too busy chasing grants to look after students properly.

Well the BBC have a brief piece out about US students going to study in Germany, which has recently abolished fees for university students, even those from outside the EU. This goes to show that you can get just as good an education in Germany for a lower price. While living costs in Germany are quite high, this elimination of tuition fees, plus the less commercially oriented outlook of German institutions makes for good value for money. Language? Many European institutions now do courses in English, notably engineering and technical courses.

However the is also the US aspect of this. For many years foreign students, in particular non-EU students have been a key part of any UK university's finance. And the US students are generally seen as the cream of the crop. Not least because they ain't shy about spending money. However US students are also caught up in the pointless Daily Mail-esque antics the Tories have dumped on all non-EU students. Being required for example to prove they are still in the UK every 30 days, or having to prove they have good English language skills (okay Americans can get something's wrong, like metre or calling a toilet a restroom, but I think they've good enough English to cope with an engineering degree!).

So its just a matter of time before the penny drops for many US students. Why pay tens of thousands a year to go to a UK university and be treated like a terrorist, when you can pay about 150 euro's a year and go to a German uni, which is just as good….oh and they throw in free public transport too! In essence the UK might be killing its golden goose. Its not just about a few uni's loosing out on a bit of tuition money. Its about the fact that these students going somewhere else and thus taking their ideas and the skills they've just accumulated with them. No more US entrepreneur's setting up a internet start-up in London, when they got their degree in Munich. And where the Americans go, the Chinese students will surely follow.

In essence I wonder if the UK HEI sector has been “found out”.

The Reckoning – The view from Ireland

I went home to Ireland the day after the election, thus I got the results while in Ireland. Needless to say the view over here is we knew the brits are a bit barmy, but how could 11.3 million of ye be that dumb? :no: Britain seems to have lurched towards the sort of Fox news led right wing delusional politics that has wrecked the US politically (and probably will lead to the America’s decline as a world power).

And make no mistake the media were fairly bias towards the Tories, as backed up by statistics. A study by Loughborough university found that during this election the media, while swallowing whole any old tripe the Tories trotted out, they were mildly negative towards UKIP, extremely negative towards labour and overwhelming so towards the SNP. As the Cork Examiner over here put it “to believe the British media, Scottish hordes were going to come South and take Miliband hostage in Downing street, then bleed England dry”.

The Sith always betray their own
Its now clear that the Tory election strategy was not to directly confront labour, for they knew that given the choice between a party committed to more cuts and austerity, v’s anyone else was a battle they’d loose. So instead, they left their right-wing media attack dogs loose to spread all sorts of ridiculous stories about how the SNP, pitted labour against the SNP, while the Tories focused on going after Lib dem held seats.

Now given that the lib dems had moved so far to the right over the last five years it was starting to become hard to tell where they stopped and the Tories started. And given how angry students were with them, it was a safe bet that all of their seats were vulnerable. So perhaps this isn’t surprising, but certainly it is a bit of an underhand and dishonest way to win an election. I’m reminded of that bit in Star Wars whereby the Sith always betray one another >:-[

Needless to say once the lib dems have finished pulling themselves together one hopes they will never again even contemplate making this same mistake again. Going into power with the Tories is a death sentence for any small party….unless you’re prepared to light-sabre them in the back at a moment of weakness….or toss them into a bottomless pit!

Proportional Representation
Its rare you’ll hear me or any Irish person agree with UKIP but given that they got several million votes, yet one seat, with the greens in a similar position, it hardly seems fair that the Tories averaged one seat per 30-40,000 votes. Needless to say the Irish view would be that its not really legitimate for Cameron to claim a majority mandate when only 37% of the votes went to the Tories….and with a turn out of 66% that works out as a mandate from just 25% of the electorate. Hence my tag line for the next 5 years will probably be “we are the 75%”.

This should underline the need for electoral reform, bringing in either AV or a proper system of proportional representation. With PR the Tories would have still finished as the major party, but not with anything like a majority. The SNP would have only gained half the seats they did, with the bulk of the rest going to Scottish labour. Of course the irony here is that the SNP campaigned for AV, while labour campaigned against it (pay back’s a bitch ain’t it!).

Certainly any such system will mean more MP’s from smaller parties such as UKIP. However, I’d rather put up with UKIP in parliament (keeping in mind that many hard right Tories often hide behind UKIP, something they would no longer be able to do), where they are forced to realise that its all well and good throwing rocks around when you live outside of the glass house, but things are a little different when in parliament. Many far-right parties like UKIP that exist under PR systems tend to have a very short shelf life. Largely because while they find it very easy to draw in populist anti-government votes. But in the cold light of day, once they become MP’s and get bogged down in the bureaucracy of government, their supporters realise they are no better (and indeed often much worse) that the politicians they replaced, and they are quickly decimated in a subsequent election.

However, I hope the lesson here is that whose ever in power next needs to put PR on the agenda, otherwise election results like this are a possibility, keeping in mind that it only took a small swing in a few marginals to keep Blair and Brown in power with large majorities.

The Nasty Party
Certainly a Tory majority government, means more cuts, more kicking the poor and screwing over the working class.

The Tories will claim these cuts were a necessary evil to bring down the deficit. To which my response is grade A horse$hit! The UK now has one of the highest deficit’s in Europe, only Croatia is higher. The Tories have been relying on the fact that many people get national debt (what the state owes its creditors) and deficit (how much the state needs to borrow per year to meet the short fall between spending and taxes) confused. They have been in effect borrowing from abroad to pay off the existing debt. If the UK was a company there is a technical term for this sort of strategy.

I bring this up because one of the issues raised in the election campaign is that there are huge holes in the Tory spending plans. Clearly there’s only so much they can borrow from abroad, before they get caught at it and credit rating agencies start getting jittery. They claim they can make “savings” in the welfare budget. However the only bits of the welfare budget with enough zero’s behind it to meet the Tory numbers are things like pensions, working tax credits and child benefits. All of which must now be on the chopping block. So I hope whoever voted Tory doesn’t have any kids!

And I hope your not a fan of BBC programming, as it looks like the price for the Beeb of not offering unwavering support to the Tories (as the Murdoch press did) is that the Tories plan to “go to war” on the Beeb.

And needless to say the environment is fucked. While happy to lavish vast subsidies onto Shale Gas and Nuclear, they are somewhat reluctant to do the same for wind farms (increasingly the cheapest source of low carbon energy) or solar power (rapidly falling in price and heading towards maturity).

Europe
Of course the next few years will be dominated by Europe. As I discussed before, I’m not so sure how serious the Tories are on this referendum, regardless of what Cameron is saying now. Then again, the previous Tory government did earn itself a reputation for bungling incompetence, ignoring advice, putting their foot in it and then running around with the hair on fire in a panic afterwards.

Take the Scottish referendum, I, like many others, pointed out two years before it that without Devo Max on the ballot paper as a valid third option, there was a decent chance of Scotland leaving. In the end the Tories, after going into a tizzy when polls showed the Yes vote had the momentum, Cameron had to sign up to plan (proposed by Gordon Brown) giving Scot’s Devo Max in order to save the union. A plan that’s going to cause him no end of grief with his back benchers.

So its possible they will go ahead with this EU referendum, even thought leaving the EU will likely be the death of the party, raises the risk of a second Scottish independence vote, the loss of Northern Ireland (who would suffer disproportionally worse in the event of Brexit), cost as much as 14% of the UK’s GDP, etc. Previous Tory governments have avoided any such talk of a referendum as they know that Europe is where Tory governments go to die.

Its possible that Cameron might be able wring some cosmetic changes out of the EU. Or perhaps some changes they were planning to bring in anyway (such as welfare reforms that the Germans have been pushing for). I recall pointing to a plan of a few years ago in which the Brussels mandarins proposed giving Britain some sort of second class EU membership. This would see the return of certain powers to the UK, but in return the UK would lose its right to veto or even vote on these issues. Thus for example, they UK gets an opt out on migration issues. But if the EU changes its policy towards, say migration from Africa (bringing in a quota system as is being proposed), the UK has no say on the matter, even thought a large proportion of those migrants are going to end up (by legal means or otherwise) in the UK.

However, nothing Cameron comes back with is going to appease the hard right “headbangers” in his party or UKIP. They will campaign for a No vote…followed by a nuclear strike on Brussels! Meaning even if he wins any in/out vote the end result is likely to be a split in his party (ironically of course, the whole reason for holding this referendum being to save the Tory party from such a split). And if the country votes to leave, then he’ll be going into an election in 2020 having seen the economy go over the cliff’s of Dover, Scotland (possibly even Wales) going for the exit door, a strong possibility of NI uniting with the South. A massive Tory defeat is therefore very likely.

So ultimately Cameron needs to decide whether Europe is really the hill on which he and the Tory party want to die on.

And just to make things interesting, another curve ball. It has been pointed out here in Ireland that any substantial change that the UK gets (i.e. any change to existing EU treaties) could potentially provoke a referendum in other EU countries, such as Ireland. Thus we could see a situation, where the UK votes to stay in (which is what the opinion polls suggest), Ireland and a few other countries then veto the reforms, plunging the EU and the UK into a massive crisis. In essence by voting Tory, England may well have placed its fate into the hands of others EU nations.

Near total wipe out
For me the iconic moment of the night was Douglas Alexander of the labour party being beaten in Paisley by a twenty year old SNP student. It shows just how far that labour has fallen in Scotland.

It reminded me of this incident a few years ago back in Ireland where there was a US warship in the harbour and a couple of sailors from the ship formed a team and visited a local wargaming convention. They ended up being blown out of the water in a game of Harpoon (a naval strategy simulation game) by a team of 10 year olds!

However, the collapse of support in Scotland for labour was perhaps inevitable. Obviously Miliband going around telling everyone that he wasn’t going to even talk to the SNP, nevermind form a coalition with them, totally undermined his credibility. Yes, it was a trap set for him by the Tories and a predominantly pro-Tory media. But he blundered into it rather than fighting the election on his own terms.

But this alone can’t explain labour’s performance north of the border. I’ve been saying for sometime now that labour simply has not understood the implications of devolution, that you need to let regional affiliates of a party offer something more appealing to locals, if you want to retain local support.

For example, let us suppose Arnold Schwarzenegger of California or Rudolph Guiliani of New York were to campaign in their states claiming that the science behind global warming, vaccines or evolution wasn’t settled. That they wanted big government off people’s back, hence no more public subsidies to public transport in NY or San Francisco. And far from promising to take guns off the street, they now favoured concealed carry laws that allowed teenagers to openly carry uzi’s. Well needless to say, such policies would drive away all moderates and quite a few republicans would conclude they’d gone funny in the head, with decimation in the polls following. But this is essentially what labour’s been doing in Scotland.

Take independence, while understandably anyone living in London is opposed to it, many labour supporters in Scotland see it as more a grey area. Some are steadfastly opposed, others in favour. But in short its not a deal breaker, they can work with the nationalists, so long as the SNP realise they’ll be tuning out whenever they go into a Braveheart rant.

Then there’s Trident. Again seems like a good idea down in England, but they don’t have the subs sailing up and down a lough right outside their house! And similarly nuclear energy might seem like a good idea down in England, which is a net energy importer, quite a bit of which comes from French nuclear plants across the channel. But in Scotland, with 50% of electricity now coming from renewables (as much as 70% on a windy day), the case for nuclear is less clear cut. Trying to sell these sorts of policies in Scotland is like trying to sell fridge freezers to the Eskimos.

As a result, if Scottish labour is to survive, or make a comeback, radical action is needed. Hence I would urge Jim Murphy, or whoever ends up in charge of Scottish labour, to break with the rest of the party in England and set up and independent labour party in Scotland.

This party would be more or less in lock step with labour south of the border, they would vote with the party whip, except on certain issues that effect Scotland. E.g. while against independence, they would be prepared to work with the Nationalists, either in Westminster or Holyrood. They would be prepared to back Trident, if it was moved out of Scotland (or failing that, they would abstain altogether) with a similar policy as regards new nuclear power stations in England (on condition similar subsidy packages are offered to renewables in Scotland).

This is not as radical a proposal as it seems. The Greens have similar disagreements as regard the independence issue, hence why there are two Green parties in the UK, one in England/Wales and another in Scotland.

Union busting
Meanwhile back in England, one of the reasons why labour failed to make any serious headway was the fact that Ed Miliband was seen to be too close to the unions. A somewhat ironic fact is that he has instituted reforms, which will make it very hard for the unions to pick his successor. However, what the Tories don’t seem to get is that if there’s anything more scary (from their point of view) than a labour party in the thrall of the unions, its one that’s not.

The likelihood is that labour will now either lurch to the right, in which case we’ll see a Blairite take over the party, something that would undermine the Tory position, possibly rendering them a lame duck administration once a few defections set it.

Alternatively a left wing labour party, which is run by the socialist wing of the party rather than the unions would mean them ditching many policies such as Trident or nuclear energy (in both cases a strong part of the reason for keeping these policies is they many union jobs that depend on it) or looking into re-nationalisation of public services. In short, if there’s anything that will have Tories waking up in a cold sweat its the thought that they’ll make themselves so unpopular over the next five years that such a party might take over in England.

Double Jeopardy
And another thing for the Tories to consider is that with all but 3 of Scotland’s MP’s representing the SNP, the case for independence is strengthening in Scotland, something the anti-Scottish vitriol they engaged in during the campaign no doubt helped. Needless to say Cameron’s “one nation government” speech fell somewhat flat in Scotland. Already here in Ireland parallels are being drawn to the 1918 general election where De Velera’s Sinn Fein finished 3rd, wiping out the unionist parties in Ireland, making Irish independence (be it by the ballot or the gun) inevitable.

So if the Tories plan on doing an Edward Longshanks and screwing over Scotland (all that “English votes for English laws malarkey”) then its not going to be long before the SNP have managed to close that 6% gap and get a majority in favour of Scottish independence. Indeed I came across an opinion poll the other day (taken before the election) which suggests the gap has closed to 44% to 47% (48.4% for and 51.6% against if we eliminate the “don’t knows”), suggesting that a swing of just 2% in Scotland (or a referendum held on a rainy day, which keeps many older voters from the polls) could tip the scales.

And again, an in/out referendum for the EU is the perfect excuse for the SNP to put a 2nd referendum into their manifesto for a future Holyrood election. Keep in mind that the legal opinion is that it would be very difficult for the UK to leave the EU, without the cooperation of the regions, such as Scotland and Wales. Hence independence votes in these regions is a near certainty if the result of any in/out referendum is to leave the EU.

Going, going, back!
One of the more positive moments in the aftermath of the election was Nigel Farage’s resignation. It was looking like that he’d finish his days playing straight man in a double act with pub landlord Al Murray.

However he’s now apparently putting his name forward for the very position he just vacated. Yes, in that strange morally ambiguous universe known only as “the UKIP zone”, one can resign from a post and then simply re-apply for it. I wonder if anyone has pointed this out to Clegg or Miliband?

Of course its not really that surprising, UKIP without Farage is a bit like the Branch Davidians without David Koresh. Its not so much a political party, but a cult of personality. And without Farage, they are nothing more than a group of closet racists.

Back to the 90’s
But if there’s any silver lining to this election result its that the Tories may well come to rue the saying, be careful what you wish for, it might come true. They can no longer blame everything on the lib dems. Cameron will likely be facing off against backbench revolts over Scotland, Europe and a number of other fringe issues.

And with such a small majority and a partisan opposition, he’ll find it hard to get legislation passed, at least without relying on the Ulster Unionists who will demand their pound of flesh in return. In short, my prediction is that David Cameron will finish his premiership as another John Major…and we all remember what happened after that!

Lib dem’s move to the right

I mentioned in my last post how the lib dems seem so desperate to hang in there, that they’ll say anything, however its probably worse than I thought, as an interview with the BBC’s Today programme with Nick Clegg reveals. It would seem that not only is he prepared to sacrifice the parties long standing position on the EU, but also he would end renewable subsidies to onshore wind energy.

Needless too say this is at odds with the very manifesto the party published a few weeks ago, which included commitments to maintaining the UK in the EU and fighting climate change via renewables expansion. He’s even prepared to back Trident now!

To deal with renewables first, wind energy is the UK’s largest, cheapest and fastest growing source of renewable energy, how in blue blazes do they expect to match these commitments while ending wind energy subsidies? Now I’m sure they’ll point to subsidy’s to offshore wind and solar. However these energy sources are more expensive at present with a slower growth rate. While prices are falling yes, we’re gambling that this trend will continue, and the IPCC would say we ran out of time to do that along time ago. And in any event the Tories (with Lib dem support) cut solar subsidies…three times!

The danger with these subsidy cuts is the signal it sends to industry. And the signal that I’m hearing from those in the renewables business is that, so long as the Tories are in power, the bulk of the UK energy market is a forbidden lawn they are not allowed to thread on. The Tories plan to hand this to their special interest allies in the Fossil fuels and nuclear industries. And as I’ve pointed out recently in my energy blog, the subsidy rates to nuclear exceed those given to renewables and there is a big question as to how much energy is available from Shale gas.

And keep in mind here, were not just talking about saving a few polar bears. As I discussed in a recent post on my energy blog, the UK energy grid has seen a significant run down in capacity recently, largely due to a lack of any sort of coherent energy policy. Despite the strong growth in renewables (which is about the only sector that’s adding new capacity) there is a serious risk of us holding the next election by candlelight, unless something is done quickly to sort out this mess out. However, nuclear is too slow to build and expensive, Shale gas won’t deliver the capacity required (and will take time to deploy) and committing to large scale energy imports is not exactly wise given events in Ukraine.

As for Europe, well as I discussed recently, the Tory plans that Nick Clegg now seems to endorse, are incoherent and unworkable. The consequences of an EU vote are likely to be several years of economic uncertainty. And if the UK actually does leave a substantial hit in GDP (up to 14%, although the LSE estimate is more in the range of 2.5-10%), with countless job losses and people losing their homes, savings and pensions. How can any party remotely committed to fiscal responsibility endorse such a policy is beyond me.

Consider my position as a lecturer. A lot of research funding comes from Europe, as do quite a few of our students and research staff. We lose access to that, or have to spend the next two years worrying that we might, and its going to cut things off at the knee’s. And keep in mind its the very big and more prestigious uni’s who will really feel the pinch as they are the most vulnerable to a cut in EU funds. We’ll be literally locking the doors on labs the day after an EU vote and sacking whole departments. Some uni’s might even collapse into bankruptcy, with a knock on effect for the local economy.

And many UK uni’s are now the hub for a large number of high tech SME start up’s in emerging technologies. These firms are here precisely because the UK is an English speaking country with strong well funded uni’s, with a diverse and talented workforce (recruited from around the world thanks to open borders), with links to other EU institutes and access to EU funds. Cut that off, or even threatened to do so, and all of these firms either go bust, or move to another country. Leaving the EU thus means burning an entire generation of investors who will avoid the UK like the plague afterwards. And for the UK HEI sector and students it will amount to a double betrayal by the lib dems.

Yet the lib dems seem quite happy to do this. You may ask why. Well it probably has something to do with the fact that Nick Clegg was looking at losing his seat until stories emerged of Tory voters coming to his rescue. Clearly, this sudden lurch to the right is intended to shore up support for Clegg and save his hide, even if he has to throw everything his party stands for under the bus first.

At the last election the lib dems at least waited until polls closed before reneging on their promises, now they seem to plan on doing so before people have even voted. I would argue that it is now incorrect to see the lib dems as a party of the left anymore, nor a liberal party. They have clearly lost the plot, gone over to the dark side and lurched to the right…as too seems to have the Independent who is now backing a Tory government (last time I buy their paper!).

My granny used to be a lib dem supporter and I can tell you if she was still alive she’d be disgusted with the party now. So I don’t care who you vote for, so long as its not the lib dems.

And this side of the Pond….

The student vote
An interesting article from the Guardian regarding the role several universities will play in a number of the UK’s marginal seats. In the last election a number of labour MP’s lost seats by only a few hundred votes, several in districts with universities in them. Such seats often went to the lib dems (or Tories) who had made promises on tuition fees, which of course they’ve since reneged on. As a result it could be revenge time for students, as some stand a good chance of unseating a number of Tories and lib dem MP’s in the upcoming election, given how tight the margin’s in some seats are.

Indeed even Nick Clegg himself could be vulnerable. Now while normally a majority of 15,000+ votes would seem to be comfortable. But in Sheffield, where his constituency is based, there are two universities. Its entirely conceivable that if enough students, their cash strapped parents and staff voted against the backstabber lib dem leader, then its very easy to see that majority quickly wiped out. While personally I reckon he’d still get in, quite a few of his party members are due a close shave.

The Greens also have a fighting chance of winning a second seat in the University town of Bristol as well as Norwich South, home of the UEA.

The world’s local tax-dodgers
Am I surprised by the latest allegations regarding HSBC?, Am I shocked by the degree to which the UK’s wealthy, including several donors to the major parties are dodging tax? No not in the least! non-news as far as I’m concerned. In fact these allegations are pretty mild compared to prior dealings HSBC have been embroiled, such as money laundering for drug dealers and terrorists.

What I am surprised by is the “shock horror” from the media and politicians. I mean, the way the law works at the moment, the worst that can happen to them is they’ll get caught and pay a small fine, while the balance of probability is they’ll get away with it and win big.

To draw an analogy, let us suppose we change the law on burglars, bank robbers and car thieves to follow similar rules. We rely on these ne’er-do-wells to simply hand themselves in if they break the law, let them keep the money they steal and guarantee no prison sentences, just a small slap on the wrist fine. Do you think the number of robberies would go up or down?

Until we start seeing tax dodgers and greedy inept bankers being led into court in handcuffs, given massive fines (enough to wipe out even the richest of them) and lengthy prison sentences, scandal after scandal will continue to occur.

Warnings from history
UKIP, who are currently smarting from them mistaking Westminster Cathedral for a Mosque (okay I know UKIP’s anti-Catholic but that’s a bit much!). But now they may actually have something to complain about. A head teacher in Derby compared UKIP in a school assembly to the nazi party of Germany.

Of course on the one hand, this school principal has a point. As I’ve pointed out before, UKIP are not the free-market right wing party they like to imagine themselves as, but they are in fact very much a party of neo-nationalist big government. If one were to ask which party has policies closest to the third reich, you would have to say UKIP. And their own membership being caught saying nice things about Hitler or Farage paling around with known neo-nazi’s hardly helps.

Okay, UKIP aren’t advocating death camps…..(yet!). But the fact is that they much of their xenophobic rhetoric is fairly dangerous talk that could easily lead to all sorts of things, one of them being a breakdown of the UK’s multicultural society if not a breakup of the UK itself.

Perhaps another point to be made is about politics and education. Its somewhat dangerous to mix the two, as no matter what you say, bring up politics in a school and you’ll always upset someone. So regardless of the rights and wrongs of what was said, this head teacher was skating on thin ice. I see nothing wrong with teaching evolution, global warming or telling kids about the importance of vaccinations. But this is teaching them science not politics, as its the choice of certain people on the right to politicise what should be a politically neutral matter.