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Will the Lib Dems be the first big casualty of organised social media campaigning?

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Governments of the past have always been able to propagate their message, however the rise of social media over recent years has provided a great swing of power back in to the hands of ‘the ordinary people.’

With Aaron Porter leading an NUS campaign to oust U-turning Lib Dem MPs we are about to see just how strong these new platforms really can be. Members of the Education Activist Network  are risen sharply since last week’s demo and tonight they are meeting again to ‘discuss next steps’ according to ULU President Clare Solomon – a meeting again which will draw physical participant through online communication.

So it seems like something ‘big’ is definitely growing. With so much student energy on facebook the NUS clearly have the upper-hand in all of this. They have the participants and the tools and for as long as they can keep the message right, they look certain to unnerve any Lib Dem who signed that pre-election pledge on fees.

I filmed an interview with Aaron Porter just before last weeks demo in which he speaks about his plan to ‘make sure that any Lib Dem MPs who votes in favour of tuition fee increases will lose their seat in 2015.’


Written by Robert Dale

November 15, 2010 at 3:34 pm

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Aaron Porter – President of the National Union of Students

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Today we learn of the Ministers response to Lord Browne’s report on funding for Higher Education. They are rejecting his plan to lift the £3,290-a-year cap on tuition fees altogether and instead opting for a two-tier system – under which universities can charge between £6,000 and around £9,000 a year.

Aaron Porter, President of the National Union of Students, has been very vocal in his opposition to any increases in tuition fees. I therefore thought it might be quite interesting to meet with him so I learn exactly what he believes the government should be doing.

In this Facebook thread the Students Against Tuition Fees group told me, “Higher Education is getting increasingly more expensive in negative correlation to the benefit (career wise) and quality of the provision due to the widening of participation”. Posting the question ‘do you feel your university course is value for money?’ on my wall then sparked off an interesting discussion on the fiscal aspect of education so  I seemed like as good a place as any to start with Aaron. He said;

– the annual student survey shows that students rate their courses no higher than when fees were £1,000.

– contact hours have only seen a ‘negligible improvement’ over this time.

So, I asked, where has this extra cash from students been going? Aaron said;

– university accounts are very opaque so he would like to see greater transparency.

– he believes 60% of the extra money has gone into staff salaries.

– and ‘the bulk of the rest’ has gone towards new buildings.

* an interesting stat passed on to me by Elliot Jebreel states that only 18% of students at Leeds University would ‘recommend their course if fees were raised to £7,000’

On this thread Sam Murray voiced his concerns over the lack of contact hours and raised the idea of some courses being condensed down to two-years – being taught over 45 weeks over the year rather than the standard 30. I wanted to get Aaron’s views on these two idea – he said;

– he wants universities to be ‘clear and upfront at the point of application,’ so students know when they apply what exactly they will be getting from the course.

– two-year courses are ‘not a solution that should be pursued with any great volume.’

– two-year courses may actually be more expensive to operate.

Aaron wants the government to replace tuition fees with a graduate tax (a tax which would be levied on graduates for 20 years following their graduation, ranging from 0.3% to 2.5% of their income). However, Vince Cable, who flirted with the idea during the summer has now said that such a tax would be “superficially attractive, this additional tax on graduates would fail both the tests of fairness and deficit reduction.” Why then does Aaron believe it will work? What does he know that Vince Cable doesn’t? Aaron said;

– Vince Cable’s assessment of a graduate tax is ‘misguided and misinformed’ – he has been looking at a different kind of graduate tax and has been ‘devious and underhand in suggesting it would be unfair.’

*I’m interested to know how many students agree with Aaron’s vision for a graduate tax – please comment below or drop me a message on Facebook. So far most people have been telling me the NUS should be pushing much harder against any change whatsoever in funding – the NCAFC for example.

On the 10th November, the NUS and UCU (University and College Union) will be leading a national demonstration against the plans to increase tuition fees. Students and staff are even getting buses down from Belfast to attend and they have expectations/hopes of around 20,000 people marching through Westminster. But, as Keith Halstead asked, can this demo really have any affect on those MPs voting on the Bill? Aaron said;

– students must have a national event so they can stand up and say what they think about future cuts in Higher Education.

– the government does not have a mandate for what it is doing and the Lib Dems (who are the key party in terms of the vote on tuition fees) stood in May’s general election on a manifesto that said they would abolish fees – ‘they cannot vote for higher fees or we will chase down around the country and I will make it my mission to ensure as many of them lose their seats as possible.’

Many (about 40 of the 57) Lib Dem MPs represent constituencies with high student ratios. Greg Mulholland MP from Leeds North West for example is largely believed to have won in 2005 thanks to the student vote (I put this idea to him in this interview). Mulholland has though said he will vote against any increase in fees – so it definitely seems like many Lib Dems won’t side with the coalition in this.  Should be an interesting debate keep track off.

UPDATE – Just been sent a response to today’s announcement by Caroline Lucas MP

“Today is a dark day for the students of the future – and for Lib Dem voters who have seen, yet again, their Party’s leader make a shameful u-turn on a key election pledge. The Greens are now the only main political party that support free education for all. A cap of £9,000 is simply unacceptable for a country that values social mobility and inclusiveness. This announcement will mean our public degrees will be among the most costly in the world. Many people will be priced out of going to university – and those who do go will be saddled with huge debt. All this at a time when our young people are facing increasing unemployment and anxiety about the future.
“A more progressive policy to address the challenge of funding our higher education would be a business education tax levied on the top 4% of UK companies, which would generate enough annually to abolish tuition fees and take our public investment in higher education up to the average in other comparable countries. As MP for Brighton Pavilion, I am determined to work hard to protect students and staff at Sussex University from creeping privatisation and devastating cuts.”

As always, I really do welcome any comments, criticism or ideas you may have about my work. You can see what my idea behind this ‘social journalism’ is here – basically it’s a way of using social media as a platform for non-traditional engagement and a new kind of political literacy that seeks to open-up, explain and explore issues that relevant and a little bit interesting.

You can contact me on Twitter at @robandale or on Facebook here

Written by Robert Dale

November 3, 2010 at 8:21 am

A big loss in today’s midterms may be a blessing in disguise

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Once upon a time there was a democratic President of the United States working with a democratic Senate and a democratic House of Representatives and he went in to his first midterm elections and was slaughtered – losing both houses of Congress and being written off as a one-term President.

That was a man called Bill Clinton who bounced back and out manoeuvred his opponents – so what fate awaits Barack Obama if , as today’s papers predict, his Democrat Party are going to crumble in the elections?

It seems fair to say that the losing of momentum that Obama was able to garner in 2008 has really began to show in Washington – whether it is people leaving his administration (Larry Summers, Jim Jones and others) or in this the general feeling/realisations of the public that ‘well this isn’t as rosey as we thought.’

But regardless of what today’s results come out like,  it’ll actually be quite good for the administration – allowing them to start focusing on actually governing the country and not running the elections. The White House seems to have been in paralysis of late. With Biden and Obama spending massive amounts of time flying around the country trying to convince people to continue supporting them, hugely important work has huge been left on the back-burner.

Besides, if these last two years have seen the best support Obama can get from a Democratic Congress it might actually prove better to work with a Republican House. At least he will have someone to blame.

The Vibe will be experimenting with various ‘live’ ways to cover today’s election results – do feel free to follow/join in/offer advice – http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=145805472132471&index=1

Written by Robert Dale

November 2, 2010 at 7:30 am

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An interview with… NUS President, Aaron Porter

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photo: NUS

Next week I’m working with yoosk and The Vibe to film parallel interviews with NUS President, Aaron Porter and Minister for Universities, David Willets MP. This note refers specifically to the interview with Aaron Porter – @AaronPorter.

As always, I’m interested to know what you think to all of this? So we can make a legitimate claim to ask questions that serve the public interest, please feel free to add your thoughts and feelings to the discussion on this note. The goal of this is to promote a rational, educational and rather interesting discussion of a hugely important issue.

A summary of Aaron Porter’s stance on university fees
Porter argues that the proposed changes to university fees will lead to only the richest students being able to choose where to study, and the most prestigious universities becoming too expensive for the poor.

His preferred outcome to the Higher Education Funding dispute is to replace tuition fees with a graduate tax – a tax which would be levied on graduates for 20 years following their graduation, ranging from 0.3% to 2.5% of their income.

Vince Cable however describes such a tax as “superficially attractive, this additional tax on graduates would fail both the tests of fairness and deficit reduction.” If a graduate tax were introduced, where would the money come from to fund universities until these taxes start being paid in?

Under the current system, fees are capped at £3,290, interest rates on loans are relatively low at 1.5% and repayments only start when graduates start earning over £15,000. Following Lord Browne’s review on Higher Education Funding, fees may be allowed to double to £7,000 and the interest on loans will be dependent on future earnings – in other words, if you earn more, you pay more. (This link takes you to a nice piece by The Telegraph that summarises the main arguments in the review.)

According to his blog, Porter fears that these increase may mean many students leaving university with £40k worth of debt.

Other interesting issues

EMA – which provides college students whose household income is less than £20, 817 with £30 a week to cover the cost of travel and books – is also about to be scrapped by the government. Is this justified or are the government passing even more hardship and debt on to younger generations?

The NUS and UCU (Universities and Colleges Union) have organised a national demo for 10th Nov. Is taking to the streets and occupying universities buildings the best way for students to voice their objections?

Written by Robert Dale

October 28, 2010 at 9:18 am

Posted in interview

robert’s notes

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robert’s notes is a new idea I’m playing with on posterous. I’m using it as an opportunity to experiment with another blogging platform whilst adding a ‘social’ angle to my research notes.

It’s not designed to be a promotional tool, however I will tweet whenever a new set of notes are added as  I would like to think that others too can find some useful information in these words.


Written by Robert Dale

August 18, 2010 at 11:16 pm

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Interview with… Debbie Purdy

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Debbie Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, is the face of Britain’s right-to-die campaign. She doesn’t want to die. She has ‘far too much to live for’. But when the time comes, and the pain is so unbearable that she cannot go on, she wants her husband to be by her side, holding her hand until the end; and she wants to know that he won’t be arrested.

Debbie Purdy’s legal battle then was all about clarifying the law so she knew whether or not the authorities would prosecute her husband Omar if he helped take her to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to die. As the majority of comments left on my facebook note were highly pro-assisted suicide, I thought this interview would best serve the public interest if it opened up the story behind Debbie’s legal battle and allowed for a deeper understanding of why her and Omar believe so passionately that assisted suicide should be legalised in the UK

The first aim of the interview was to identify what multiple sclerosis (MS) actually means and its effects on the human body. So my initial question was quite simply, 15 years on from being diagnosed with MS, what is Debbie’s physical state?

Debbie said that really she is just the same as anyone else, everyone has problems, it’s just that 15 years of this MS means she is now in a wheelchair.

Debbie has primary progressive MS – she explained that this means that your central nervous system is like the wiring in your house. If the plastic protection on the wires becomes broken, the flow of electricity to certain areas stops. And that is exactly what is happening with Debbie – the current that flows from her brain to her muscles instructing them what to do is simply getting lost somewhere along the way.

Debbie clearly is a strong-minded person, but I had to ask how she initially reacted when she was diagnosed with MS back in 1995?

Debbie said that when she originally went to the doctor’s she felt she had a brain tumour or ‘something more sexy like that’, but when she was told it was MS her reaction was one of disbelief. As neither her or Omar really knew much about MS before, it has just been a case of learning as time went by.

From reading Debbie’s book, it appeared that in many ways, MS actually made Debbie and Omar are stronger team?

Debbie said that had she not had MS, her and Omar would probably of had just a ‘nice, hot relationship and that would have been it’, but because they were both in a position to help each other, they’ve adapted into one another and indeed become much stronger as a team. As Omar states, it’s all about having mutual respect.

Obviously being in a wheelchair means Debbie quite literally sees life from a different perspective, so I wanted to know what Debbie has learnt about people from her view from 4-feet?

To put her response as simply as possible – she say’s it has been an amazing experience.

As there are different forms of MS, I wanted to know if Debbie’s feels her progressive decline in mobility has made the whole experience easier to deal with?

Debbie said that it always feels that whatever problem you are faced to deal with, it always feel harder than anyone else’s. But to her, she believes she’s had an easier road because she has had time to adapt and think how she is going to deal with things.

This then leads on to the case of Daniel James – a devoted rugby player who was disabled during a game when he was 23. After three failed suicide attempts in the following year, Daniel’s parents accepted his decision and helped him travel to Switzerland to die. Because he was so young, and made his decision in a relatively short space of time, anti-assisted suicide campaigners believe this was an example of people can make rash decisions.

According to Debbie, the case of Daniel James shows that we need a proper framework in place in the UK – one that is tailored to the character of this country. This would include months of counselling and doctors meetings which would allow patients to talk through their feelings and explain why they believe they want to die. Through this you can address the problem individually and on a one-to-one basis.

But if this system were put in place, who would be the final one to say ‘yes, this person is thinking clearly, they want to die, here’s the authorisation, away you go?’

Debbie said that ultimately it’s the individual who decides. To back this up she mentioned the research from Oregon in the US, where 40% of the people prescribed the drugs to kill themselves don’t actually ever use them. Having this power to say when gives people back control over their lives.

Now, as one person commented on facebook, politicians don’t seem to have the ‘balls’ to openly discuss the reality that a change in law would fit in with public opinion

Debbie agreed and said that for politicians to argue that families will start ‘killing off their aunties’ to inherit the house shows a shocking disregard for the public and a huge lack of distrust and respect for the British electorate.

Now one thing I’ve always wondered and a number of people on facebook pointed this out too, did Debbie’s high-profile case make it more likely the authorities would make an example of Omar and sentence him for 14 years imprisonment if he helped Debbie travel to Switzerland?

Debbie said she had made it perfectly clear that she had made this decision on her own. But, from a legal point of view she needed clarity, the law is as colour-blind as it wishes it were. Because the law has now been clarified, she says she now feels confident to live. Omar concludes that although this issue is an uncomfortable one to talk about, people should and must (just like with politics or football) and following Debbie’s efforts more people really are  openly discussing a change in the law.

With Debbie and Omar being such close friends as well as husband and wife, I wanted to know what Omar has learnt from Debbie?

Omar said that Debbie has always had a strong mind and a strong personality – and he admires her for all her work. Debbie is proof that it doesn’t matter if you have a disability, you simply find a way around it and get on with you life.

Obviously there is strong resistance to any changes in the law coming from religious groups.

Debbie said that its bizarre that we talk about empowering people in everything but their lives. She said she’s glad hat Gordon Brown has his Presbyterian principles, but the strength he finds in his faith, Debbie doesn’t find. So technically this is saying Debbie should suffer while someone who has faith has that to see them through.

Debbie states that if her case hadn’t been clarified she would have taken herself to Dignitas 6 months.

And finally… as Debbie and Omar seem so perfect together and having found so much strength in each other, I couldn’t help but ask if they believe in fate bringing them together.

This was a really important for me personally. Not only was it different in the sense that it was quite biographical and I was speaking to two people, but obviously the issue itself is a very emotional one.  How do you think the interview went? Did I serve the pubic interest? What questions did I miss? What issues did I leave unresolved? I want your thoughts and opinions…

robdaleworks@googlemail.com or contact me on facebook or twitter

Written by Robert Dale

August 17, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Notes for… Debbie Purdy

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It’s not a choice of life or death, it’s a choice of dignified death or painful death

You have lived now for around 15 years with multiple sclerosis – how are you physically?

How did you manage to engage in such a lengthy legal battle and balance this with the care you need?

Just to clarify here, are you or how close are you to reaching a place where you believe you will travel to Dignitas in Switzerland? Due you believe as Claudia Smith points out tha this a fundamental right of yours to decide?

Let’s go back to 1995, how did you react when you first found out you have this incurable and degenerative illness?

Describe how life has changed? Do you believe that it has changed the person you are or in fact made you stronger?

You write in your book about the ‘Big Four’ – immobility, incontinence, sex and pain.

What I wonder though, you physical abilities have deteriorated gradually – how would you have coped if it had all happened at once? Do you feel you would have already gone to Dignitas?

In those first few months and even years, you must have sometimes got so down that life didn’t seem worth living – had Dignitas been so easily available then do you believe you would have gone?

So Omar, you took on a lot by falling in love with a woman with MS whom you hardly knew. You appear quite a calm and charismatic guy, how have you approached Debbie’s illness? How was it when Debbie told you she was thinking about going to Dignitas?’

If you don’t mind let’s talk about the possibility of taking Debbie to Switzerland, how does this prospect make you feel?

Clearly you two have an incredibly amount of love and friendship – What have you learnt from Debbie during these 15 years?

Do you feel that had the law not been clarified, the authorities may have made more of an example of you. Do you think that because you a black man from a foreign country (as Debbie puts it) that this would have mattered?

You say you are yet to hear an argument against assisted suicide that can’t be addressed, but as Richard Jones points out on facebook

I’m in favour of assisted suicide in principle, in the sort of cases people have already described. I just don’t know how you would go about introducing a system by which it could operate. Clearly having people going to Switzerland isn’t satisfactory, but I’m not clear about the mechanics of how assisted suicide would work here.

Who decides when someone is a suitable case? What criteria do they use to come to that decision? Who administers the fatal dose of drugs? Where does the assisted suicide take place? I’d like to hear some suggestions on that.

– So what about the ‘slippery slop’ argument? To ways – people either go to early or are pushed into it my family members.

What about faith arguments?

You have debated this issue with all three party leaders, now public opinion approved massively on by my facebook note, is greatly in support of the right to die with dignity – why do you believe the politicians unwilling to reform the laws on suicide? Is it, as Claudia Smith wrote, that they simply don’t have the ‘balls?’ Racheal Seabrook This issue urgently needs calm, rational, public debate. Is it getting it?

Now I want to end with talking about what this whole experience has taught you both about society in general. Debbie regarding your wheelchair you say ‘life in a chair is undoubtedly fraught with obstacles, ignorance and patronising attitudes, but like many difficult journeys the view is breathtaking. Negotiating the difficulties can be heartbreaking and draining, but then you get a glimpse of the human spirit and you feel privileged to be a witness.

What has this experience taught you?

I’d like to end on what I think is the most inspiring sentence in your book ‘it’s important always to consider what you can do, rather than mourn what you can’t.

Written by Robert Dale

August 16, 2010 at 11:51 am

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