Feb 062015

I happened to discover today that there is a chaplain within the House of Commons in the UK; fair enough. I don't really have a problem with someone being there to offer some sort of support to the HoC staff. Not even letting them incant some mumbo-jumbo at the start of the day.

But who pays his or her salary? Is it the Church of Englang? Or is it the government … and indirectly, the taxpayer? Which includes me.

I also don't have a problem with a single salary for a member of the clergy – one salary doesn't add up to much compared with the entirity of the public sector. But how many others are employed by the taxpayer?

  • The NHS employs chaplains.
  • The prison service employs chaplains.
  • Universities employ chaplains.
  • The military employ chaplains.

And probably other murkier corners of the public sector. Now when I say "employs", there are some areas of doubt – some are volunteers, and some may be paid for by the Church of England. But there are obviously many who are paid by the taxpayer.

Now I don't want hospital patients, prisoners, University students and staff, nor anyone in the military being derived of chaplains. If some people think they provide a useful service, then I have no objections to them using such services.

But why is my money being used to pay for their services? I would much rather my money was used to pay for properly trained counsellors which would provide appropriate services to all members of the public without being ever so slightly creepy (by talking about the mythical sky-daddy … or indeed the "wrong" mythical sky-daddy). If someone wants to speak to a religious consultant, then a counsellor can find a volunteer to meet that request.

Aug 202011

We are now in the middle of the confirmation and clearing process, which is a process by which students check to see if their place is confirmed at the University of their choice, and to cast around looking for alternative places if they are not confirmed. To those not familiar with the process of applying for a University course, the following is a quick overview of the process.

Back around the beginning of the calendar year, A-level students take ‘mock’ exams which give them (and the Universities) an idea of what they might obtain in the final exams. They then use these results to apply for University courses – if they choose to go to University.

What happens then is that the relevant University offers a provisional place to the student dependent on them getting those results.

Once the students get their real A-level results, there is then a frantic rush to :-

  1. Contact the University of their choice to confirm whether their results entitles them to a place on the course they chose. Sometimes if the results were not quite as good as expected, but the University has spare places, the University will confirm their place anyway. If not the student goes onto clearing.
  2. The student looks for a place on a course available through clearing that matches what they want to do, and the results they have obtained. This has to be done quickly because the best places will be snapped up fast – you may have heard that Universities have started to close their clearing phone lines this weekend, but that gives a false impression. The best courses can close for clearing in as little as an hour after clearing starts!
The whole process is very stressful for the University staff involved as the Universities have to hit a target for the courses. Too many students and the University loses money; too few students on a course and a University won’t make as much money as it could do. Plus the process is very expensive.

But more importantly the students themselves are not only being put into an incredibly stressful situation, but during one of the most stressful periods of their lives – when many have obtained results that are poorer than they wished – they are expected to make decisions that will have a significant effect on the rest of their lives. We usually concentrate on students who get poorer results than expected, but what about those with better results ? In theory they could go through clearing to try and find a better course, but in practice this is very hard – a better strategy would be to take a year off and apply with their real results during that year.

That last bit is a clue as to how we could get rid of the whole clearing mess. Students should wait until they have their A-level results and then apply for their University course. The deadline for applying would be around the end of September, at which point Universities could sort through all of the applications and offer confirmed places to those students they wished to teach.

There would have to be a system comparable to the clearing process to sort out courses for the students who weren’t offered a place at their first choice of University, but this could be handled in a much less stressful manner with better results for all involved. At the very least, there would be much more time available to the students needing to hunt down a place.

This would also involve the start of the academic year to be moved to January which would involve its own challenges but as someone involved in the HE sector, I would rather see the pain of changing the academic year than see the current clearing process continue.

May 102011

Today a Tory let slip that some in the Tory party may be thinking of letting Universities supplement their income by offering additional places over the current quota to UK students which would be charged at the same rate as non-EU students. Of course they very rapidly back-pedalled from this position, but was it a slip or something that the Tories are planning … in a year or five ?

First of all, a little background. UK Universities are free to charge non-EU students pretty much what they want to within the constraints of supply and demand – pretty much like a business. This can be pretty lucrative for many Universities, and there is a fairly active pursuit of foreign students.

There are benefits and disadvantages to this of course. Foreign students may not always have the best possible English language skills which can conceivably have a detrimental effect on teaching. However offering a limited number of places to foreign students does have advantages that counter this – first of all exposing “native” students to foreign students widens the experience of both groups, and recruiting foreign students adds to the possible pool of expertise to hire the best researchers from.

But allowing Universities to recruit UK students on the same fees as non-EU students ? Well it might sound ok – allow the Universities to recruit students from anywhere to supplement their quota of UK students, but it is an obviously slippery slope from that. Over time the Tories could slowly cut the student quota and leave UK students with eventually little choice other than to pay the “full price” with no support for their education.

Of course the Tories claim that there are no such plans, but do we believe them ?

Jul 242010

Some geezer called Digby Jones has been pontificating about how Universities should be looking at offering more vocational qualifications. Fair enough; anyone no matter how ignorant is perfectly free to ramble on about anything they want to. But should we pay attention ?

Well the idea of offering vocational qualifications is such a great idea that Universities have been doing it for centuries – they call it the “degree”. One of the first degrees ever offered at any of the truly old Universities was a subject called Theology, which doesn’t sound especially vocational now (although it is – what qualifications do you think are useful for Bishops?), but was very vocational at the time. The Church (of Rome then) was desperate for more educated priests – there are records of Bishops insisting that uneducated priests be sent to various Universities to get a basic education, and of course the career prospects for an educated man at the time were pretty much limited to the Church or the Law. And of course Universities offered degrees in Law too.

It is easy to see how the “hard” subjects such as science, engineering, geology, etc. are very much vocational, but all of the so called “soft” subjects are very much vocational too. In some cases the vocational aspect of degrees such as history, or philosophy are not immediately of use to business but that does not make them any less vocational (historians need job training too!), or any less valuable.

And more than that, a degree is about teaching someone to think and study on their own, and  work on projects with other people. Are these not skills that businesses need ?

Our friend Digby insists that Universities should be talking to businesses about what subjects they should be teaching students to assist business. Well first of all, business is not the only type of organisation to take on graduates – Universities have a responsibility to train students going into government, the church, and Universities too! Secondly Universities are perfectly willing to talk to businesses about the degrees they offer.

Perhaps it should be businesses who should be a little more pro-active about talking to Universities!

If Digby Jones were to come up with a half decent degree proposal, he would probably find any number of academics knocking on his door ready to turn it into a course. And if the market finds it good, he will find students eager to sign up and qualify as “Digby clones”.

Yes the free market is at work within the University sector (complete with government interference) – students choose which degree courses they want; popular courses survive and prosper and unpopular ones wither and eventually disappear. One of the long running criticisms of Universities is that they do not turn out enough good scientists and engineers; well to fix that we need to make the students opt to go for those degrees.

Sep 302008

The phrase “Religious Freedom” or ‘Freedom of Religion” often comes up, but I would like to see the phrase “Freedom From Religion” used a little more. This is going to sound a bit like an attack on religion itself, but it is not intended as such. Everyone is free to practice the religion of their choice … or none at all.

The key is the end of that last sentence – no religion at all. We’re all too often besieged with symbols of religion and people assume we want to hear about their favourite fictitious god. Certainly the UK is nowhere as bad as the USA where atheists can be subject to treatment that amounts to persecution even including physical and verbal abuse merely for voicing their lack of belief.

But that does not mean the UK is properly secular in public life. Schools can be a little too religious; I do not mind my taxes being used to pay for the education of children, but I do mind that it is used to pay for the religious indoctrination of children. Too many schools are “faith schools” and are at least partially funded by the taxpayer.

In many cases … particularly for primary schools where the most impressionable children are taught, there is little choice other to send children to such schools. The Church of England still “owns” (we won’t worry too much about the fine details of this ownership) 25% of all primary schools. Rather creepily similar to the Jesuit saying “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man”.

Of course there is nothing deliberately sinister about the CoE schools these days. Long gone are the times when one could be beaten for expressing views even slightly atheistic, but there is still a distinct odour of the Christian religion about such places. One school even boasts of providing a “christian education”.

Moving onto Universities, and you will find the education considerably less influenced by religion as these places are supposed to be serious institutes of learning. But if you have a close look at who is employed at these places you will often find a chaplain or six. Now these chaplains probably are not going to ram their religion down your throat, and are to a certain extent simply a counselling service with a religious twist. The funny thing is that both of the Universities I checked also have independent counselling services.

So what we have here is a special religious counselling service that only certain people are qualified for employment with … just christians (or perhaps people who believe in other gods). Now religious students (and staff) could probably do with a little support from a University, but what is wrong with ordinary counsellors just pointing them at local churches, mosques and the like ? Again I’m not entirely sure why my taxes should go towards paying the salaries of people whose principal talent is talking to imaginary beings.

But far worse are the more in your face examples of religion. The church sign that says “The Wages of Sin is Death”, the kerbside evangelist who harranges you about being saved, the smug Christian who insists that all unbelievers will go straight to hell and suffer eternal damnation. At best this is merely irritating; at worst it consitutes a kind of verbal abuse.

Yet religion seems to have a privileged position in our society … it is considered wrong to criticise the beliefs of others. But why is not also considered wrong to criticise the unbelief of others ? I do not believe, do not want to be preached at, and certainly do not want to see my tax money spent on supporting religious belief in any way whatsoever.

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