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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

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

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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

Interview with Nicholas Jones (former lobby journalist) on the undemocratic future of political commentary

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Here in Britain newspapers have always been free to campaign and promote political propaganda. The intrusive and influential nature of radio and television however has meant they’ve been placed under strict rules and regulations that require their reporting (by law) to be politically balanced and impartial.

And it’s because of these rules that politicians delve persistently into the ‘black arts’ of political communication in order to set, shape and control the media agenda. Politicians no longer announce news policies in the House of Commons; they launch them at stage-managed pseudo-events that are more abut style than substance. Favoured journalists are selectively briefed with leaks and ‘exclusive’ information and unified party-line rebuttals are remembered to defend any negative reporting that arises along the way.

Nothing in this ‘public relations democracy’ is left to chance; everything is rational, rehearsed and rhetorical.

The online political environment is sometimes romanticised as the antidote to all of this. There is no doubt that it does occasionally serve to correct many journalistic and political errors and indeed we are gradually seeing signs that what appears on the internet can affect the mainstream news agenda.

However, there is a growing murky side to all this unregulated political commentary. According to Nicholas Jones, former BBC journalist and now author of several books on ‘spin-doctory’ and media manipulation, the national newspapers remain the all-powerful force in setting and commanding the online agenda – they may not control content but they certainly influence the root of most online discussion.

This on first glance may not appear to be too worrying. But, as Jones points out, there is a natural evolution of newspapers transforming themselves into digital online radio and television broadcasters (the politically-charged Sun Talk launched last April with who else but David Cameron appearing as their first live interviewee). Free of the legal regulations placed over traditional radio broadcasters, Sun radio is free to broadcast whatever serves Murdoch’s political agenda best – it’s no surprise then that the Tories plan for the ‘Digital Britain’ provides little resistance to these new, unregulated mediums.

It appears that Britain is soon going to have a new media network that parallels that of the American ‘shock jocks’. If Jones is correct, this could indeed be one of the biggest challenges to our democracy.

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Written by Robert Dale

August 13, 2010 at 12:01 pm

interviewing the new MP’s with Catch21

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I spent a few days last month filming interviews with about 50 of the new batch of MP’s. Working
with Catch21, the idea behind ‘mpinions’ was to encourage political engagement by ‘humanising’ the new crop and asking them simple yet timely questions – such as ‘do you believe in proportional representation?’

All MP’s we’re asked the same 5 questions –

1) What is your main priority as a new MP?

2) What colour is the coalition government?

3) Are you in favour of electoral reform and if so which system?

4) What is your special talent and can you demonstrate it briefly to us on camera?

5) Where are you off to next?

Video’s are being posted here, on facebook and being linked to from all over the place. So far the interviews with Duncan Hames, John Glen, Liz Kendall, Ian Murray, Angie Bray, Kate Green, Simon Wright and Peter Aldous have been uploaded. MP’s still to come include Caroline Lucas, Zac Goldsmith and Julian Huppert.

The project was supported and promoted by the HansardSociety, Dod’s Parliamentary Communications (via e-politix)Operation Black Vote and The British Youth Council and of course the new MP’s themselves.

if you would like to follow for you can do so on@robandale or on Facebook

Written by Robert Dale

July 26, 2010 at 9:24 pm

Interview with… Co-operative Party General Secretary Michael Stephenson

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The Co-operative Party is all about giving power back to the people. They are the second largest centre-left party in the UK and are in a ‘sister’ relationship with Labour. There were 28 Co-operative MP’s in the last Parliament including Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.  The co-operative and mutual mentality operates in all sectors of our economy and society, from food to retail, banking, housing, care provision and even supporter ownership of football clubs.

There is a definite ‘sea of change’ happening between society and state, and a wave of enthusiasm for sustainable, long-term planning – so I believe it was the perfect time to interview the Co-operative Party General Secretary Michael Stephenson with the aim of  learning more about the politics of the co-operative movement.

The vast majority of people who replied to my Facebook note said that they hadn’t actually ever heard of the Co-operative Party. Naturally then ‘what are the Co-operative Party?’ became my first question to Michael.

Michael said that the Co-operative Party is basically the political arm of the whole co-operative movement. The ‘sister-party’ relationship with Labour means that in certain constituencies, candidates contest the seat as both a Co-operative and Labour representative.

There appeared some confusion on Facebook about what the term co-operative could actually apply to, so next I asked Michael to define the co-operative ideology.

According to Michael, the movement was conceived in Rochdale in the 19th century when ordinary working people grew tired of being ripped off by shop owners. Rather than be at the whim of the markets, these people came together and formed their own organisations which were based on the principles of democracy, sharing rewards and self-help .

In other words, ‘co-operative’ means giving everyone  a say in how a organisation is run. Giving greater autonomy and control to local communities has been a key theme in the current election campaign, and the reaction on Facebook was greatly in favour of devolving power from the state. So are co-operatives now highly fashionable?

Michael agreed that they are and said that the irony of the Co-operative Party model is that ‘its new-ness is its old-ness’. He says its founding values are as,if not more relavant today than they were in the 19th century. Especially in this ‘post-credit crunch world’ society is looking for long-term sustainability and for people to be put before profit.

So what are some Co-operative Party initiatives. One that most people picked up on (and interestingly hasn’t really been covered by the mainstream media) is that of providing support for first-time buyers.

Michael explained that the Co-operative Party has a radical approach on home ownership, with a new idea of  co-operative housing. In this approach, people wouldn’t take out a mortgage with a bank instead they would get equity in certain housing co-operatives owned by investment organisations.

Another idea that resonated well on Facebook was for ‘Co-operative Trust Schools’.

There are about 30 such schools now in the UK according to Michael. The idea here is that with the help of the local co-op organisation, parents, teachers and students can get involved by being elected to a body that has a say in how the school is being run.

The other issue that attracted a lot of debate (particularly among males) was of allowing football supporters to own football clubs.

This is a initiative that will hopefully prevent situations like what is currently happening at Portsmouth Football Club. As Michael explains, the idea is to allow fans to set up bodies in their football clubs that gives them a say in the running of the club.

And finally… most people on Facebook pointed out that the Co-operative Party sound more like the Green Party rather than Labout. I asked Michael if he believed that Labour has politically moved away from the Co-operative Party and if they would considered an alliance with the Greens.

Michael said this was ‘nonsense’. For eight decades, ‘whenever Labour has been in power they have done the right thing for the Co-operative Party… you don’t just junk eight decades of history and shared values’.

What do you think to the Co-operative Party? Did my questions serve the public interest? What issues would you like me to cover?

Please do get in touch – robdaleworks@googlemail.com or facebook.com/robdaleworks

Written by Robert Dale

July 16, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Interview with… Green Party PPC Martin Hemingway

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With so many first-time voters apparently ‘disillusioned’ and ‘disengaged’ with traditional politics, the ground appears fertile for the newer and fringe political parties to draw in more votes than ever before. As the ‘Green movement’ appears to resonate so strongly within the student community I began by asking Martin why he believes the party’s ideology connects with younger demographics.

Martin said that the Green Party sound very different to the other parties – they focus on promoting clear policies not political bickering.

I challenged Martin on these ‘clear policies’ as a common query on my Facebook note was ‘how will the Green Party ever be elected when they only care about the environment‘.

Martin accepted that recognition of Green polices is a challenged, but they are not a single-issue party. Martin stated that the Green Party have a clear and costed set of economic policies that follow Keynesian principles. I asked if it was possible to reform the economic structure away from today’s neo-liberalism, de-regulated state to which Martin replied that if the UK continues down the Conservative and Labour path the long-term recovery looks unstable. Martin claimed that the Greens have plans to create 10,000 UK jobs in green industries.

A common comment coming from Facebook was ‘how do they relate to other parties’ so I thought it was extremely important then to get Martin to clarify where exactly the Green Party sits along the political spectrum?

Martin explained the he used to be a member of the Labour Party, but left as he felt it had abandoned its principles and it is now the Green Party who occupy the space left when ‘New Labour’ emerged.

The Green Party manifesto claims that the UK needs a 10% reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions. A number of people asked me if i thought this was ‘over ambitious’ as the Government has said we must reduce by 2.5% – so I asked Martin if 10% really is a realistic aim?

Martin said that even 10% may not be enough. It is also not just about reaching targets though, it is how they reached and making sure this is done in a responsible and sustainable way.

A key theme of the Green Party is solving the ‘Crisis in Society’ – but what exactly does this mean?

Martin claims that the legacy of Thatcherism has been a decline in social cohesion and a rise in individualism.

This then links in to the ‘crushing inequalities’ which the Green Party believe exist in the UK.

Martin said that according to research’ the less equal society is, the lower of quality of life within it. He claims that the UK has one of the most unequal societies in Europe and one of the ways the Green Party will solve this is by increasing tax for those who earn more than £100,000 a year.

The Green Party won 2 MEP seats last year and Martin only just missed out to the BNP here in Yorkshire – but as Ian Woodcock commented on my Facebook note ‘I might consider voting Green if they can prove they’ve done something in the European Parliament. So what exactly have the Green Party MEP’s has been able to achieve in Brussels.

Martin claimed that the Green Party MEP’s, along with other European Green-based parties, have done a lot of equality.

And finally, what are the Green Party expectations for the general election?

Martin said the Green Party are confident that Caroline Lucas will be elected in Brighton and there are a few other seats they are really pushing for. In the long-term, the Green Party would like to see a Parliament elected through proportional representation.