Monday, March 19, 2007


Middle-class pupils face losing out on university places if their parents have degrees and professional jobs, after changes to the admissions system. For the first time, applicants will be asked to reveal whether their parents also went to university, as part of moves to attract more working-class students into higher education. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) said yesterday that it had also decided that information on the occupation and ethnicity of applicants' parents should also be made available to admissions officers. Previously this had been held back until after places were offered. Ucas said that the decision was specifically designed to "support the continuing efforts of universities and colleges to widen participation". Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, confirmed yesterday that the Government was backing the changes.

Critics said that the move smacked of social engineering and that it could be used to discriminate against middle-class students. The new questions, which will appear on Ucas forms from next year, will also ask students if they have ever been in local authority care.

Pat Langham, president of the Girls' Schools Association, said that she had grave concerns over the changes. "Why collect this information at all? If they are going to use it to discriminate against those who they feel are privileged - ie, those whose parents went to university - then what would be the point in anyone ever trying to improve themselves? "I was the first person in my family to go to university. My father was a policeman and my mother a dinner lady. But I'm a headmistress with a degree; were I to have children applying for university under these rules, would they be discriminated against because I have worked hard?"

Research shows that being the first member of a family to go to university is the hardest barrier to break. The former Labour leader Neil Kinnock proudly proclaimed in 1987 that he was "the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to get to university."

Ms Langham also suggested that the new questions would encourage applicants to bend the truth. "If your parents were property developers, applicants could mark them down as a `builders'; if they were managing directors you could describe them as `clerks'. Who is going to establish the veracity of these forms?"

Jonathan Shepherd, generalsecretary of the Independent Schools Council, called the changes "nonsense". He said: "What next? Are they going to go back two or three generations or start collecting people's DNA?"

Oxford University said that it had no intention of using the information, adding that it would hold it back from college admissions officers until after offers had been made and acted upon. Mike Nicholson, director of admissions at Oxford, said: "We haven't any evidence to suggest that this type of information has any valid relevance to the decisions we have to make. It would be far more useful to know whether a candidate predicted to get good grades goes to a school where few pupils expect to do well." But Drummond Bone, president of the vice-chancellors' group Universities UK, said it would allow institutions to understand more about how the applicant got to where they are.

The Government has set aspirational targets for universities designed to get more students from state schools and working-class groups. Some funding is contingent on this. But ministers have been frustrated by lack of progress.Between 2002-03 and 2004-05 the proportion of entrants from state schools fell from 87.2 per cent to 86.7 per cent. Over the same period the proportion of students from lower social classes fell from 28.4 per cent to 28.2 per cent.

Although Ucas says that the new questions are optional, opponents believe that those who refused to answer may also be discriminated against. Boris Johnson, the Shadow Higher Education Minister, said that students should have a right to withhold the new information without fear of prejudice.



Some excerpts below from an interview conducted by Benny Peiser with Freeman Dyson. Dyson is "a British-born American physicist and mathematician, famous for his work in quantum mechanics, solid-state physics, nuclear weapons design and policy, and for his serious theorizing in futurism and science fiction concepts, including the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He is a lifelong opponent of nationalism, and proponent of nuclear disarmament and international cooperation" (Quote from Wikipedia). Lubos Motl also picks out some highlights of the interview

Benny Peiser: Britain's leading cosmologists seem to be particularly gloomy about the future of civilisation and humankind. The so-called Doomsday Argument seems to have had a significant influence on many Cambridge-based scientists. It has induced among them a conviction that global catastrophe is almost imminent. Martin Rees, for instance, estimates that there is a 50% chance of human extinction during the next 100 years. How do you explain this apocalyptic mood among leading cosmologists in Britain and the almost desperate tone of their pronouncements?

Freeman Dyson: My view of the prevalence of doom-and-gloom in Cambridge is that it is a result of the English class system. In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status. As a child of the academic middle class, I learned to look on the commercial middle class with loathing and contempt. Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher, which was also the revenge of the commercial middle class. The academics lost their power and prestige and the business people took over. The academics never forgave Thatcher and have been gloomy ever since.

Benny Peiser: Your sociological reading raises the question whether the current fashion of issuing doomsday predictions could be interpreted as the revenge by leading academics against the business community? After all, their very activities, success and societal role are blamed for impending catastrophe. Could it be that the scientific prophets of doom are trying to regain some of their lost influence by portraying themselves as saviours who, at the same time, provide governments with strong incentives for increased state power and intervention?

Freeman Dyson: I agree with your diagnosis of the academic disease. The academics are suffering from business envy, in the USA as well as in Britain. And of course there are companies like Halliburton that it is reasonable to hate, enjoying political power in the Bush government and profiteering from the war that they encouraged Bush to start. Opposition to the war is mixed up with opposition to the business community. But I agree with you that there is a longer-lasting envy of the business community that has nothing to do with the war. The academics preaching doom and gloom are indeed hoping to take their revenge on the business community by capturing the government.

Benny Peiser: There has been an apparent shift among the political left and liberals from what used to be called progressive ideas to more dystopian anxieties. What are the reasons that you have not been carried away by this tide of cultural and technological pessimism. And why have so few academics and authors of popular science been able to resist this shift towards unhappiness and desperation? In other words, how much of our optimism is shaped by people around us and positive experiences, and how much is due to rational thought, I wonder?

Freeman Dyson: I do not agree that there has been a recent shift from progressive ideas to dystopian anxieties. The best writers have always been dystopian. In the 1890s we had Wells's Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau'. In the 1930s Huxley's Brave New World. These were the classics that I grew up with seventy years ago. Nothing that has been written recently is gloomier than Wells and Huxley. And in spite of that, there have always been optimists like me and Amory Lovins. I recommend Amory Lovins as an antidote to gloom and doom.

Benny Peiser: Finally, let me ask you about your thoughts regarding Britain, the country of your birth, the USA, the country of your choice, and the future of the Western democracies. At the end of your new book you write that "without religion, the life of a country would be greatly impoverished." Perhaps nothing symbolises the glaring differences between Britain and the USA more than the gradual fading of religion in the cultural life of the UK and the profound permeation of religion on public life in the US. Sometimes I wonder whether both extremes may be detrimental to a stable, liberal and open-minded society. In a world of mounting intellectual dogmatism, is there, in your view, a middle way between the Scylla of nihilist despair and the Carybis of fundamentalist unreasonableness?

Freeman Dyson: I do not agree with your assessment of religion in Britain and the USA. The extremes of religious dogmatism in the USA and of atheistic dogmatism in Britain are greatly exaggerated by the media. In both countries, the average atheist and the average Christian are not dogmatic or unreasonable. So far as I can see, there is about the same variety of beliefs on both sides of the ocean. Certainly we do not need any accurate navigation to find a middle way between the two extremes. Probably ninety percent of the population are somewhere in the middle. It is also interesting in this connection to observe the similarity, in optimistic mood and rapid material progress, between China and India. Although China is traditionally non-religious and India is traditionally permeated with religion, this does not seem to make much difference. In both countries, rapidly growing wealth and technological progress create a mood of optimism, with or without religion.

And these little piggies might offend Muslims....

A school production of Roald Dahl's Three Little Pigs has turned the heroes into three little puppies for fear of offending Muslims. Dahl's play, in which he reworks Little Red Riding Hood to include the pigs, is being put on by Honley Church of England School, in Huddersfield, with 250 primary pupils from other schools singing along.

Gill Goodswen, who is one of the organisers of the Kirklees Primary Music festival behind the changes, said: "We have to be sensitive if we want to be multi-cultural. It was felt it would be more responsible not to use the three little pigs."

She said the committee had to consider the feelings of children who would be singing along, not just the performers. "We feared that some Muslim children wouldn't sing along to the words about pigs," she added. "We didn't want to take that risk. If changing a few words avoids offence then we will do so."

One parent, a mother-of-three, said: "Surely there are much worse things to worry about in the world than a story about three little pigs? It is really ridiculous."

Local councillor Terry Lyons said: "I can't believe that Muslims would be offended. This is pandering to a few extremists. People will take umbrage at this decision, making it easier for the BNP to recruit."

Mohammed Imran, of the nearby Hanfia Mosque and Educational Institute, said he welcomed the thinking behind the decision but did not think it was necessary. He pointed out that Islam does not ban the mentioning of pigs but added: "They are obviously trying to involve children rather than exclude them."

But Philip Davies, the Conservative MP for Shipley, said: "My view is that the people responsible for this are completely bonkers. It is the type of political correctness which makes people's blood boil. "As usual it is done in the name of ethnic minorities but it is perpetrated by white, middle class, do-gooders with a guilt complex and far too much time on their hands."


The British Labour party gets desperate

Tony Blair is to invite retail chains including Tesco, Virgin and Boots to bid to run GP surgeries on behalf of the NHS with contracts worth 225 million pounds over five years. GPs will be encouraged to run clinics at breakfast time and in the early evening in poor areas where conventional family doctors have been reluctant to practise. Blair’s announcement, to be made tomorrow, is intended to ensure Gordon Brown carries on his reforms of the NHS after Blair leaves Downing Street. The prime minister will respond to Tory claims that he has left the NHS in “crisis” by publishing his ideas for “progressive” reform of public services. He will allow GPs to link up with pharmacies and supermarket drug counters by sharing electronic patient records.

In an indication that he is signed up to the scheme, the chancellor will announce measures to expand the use of “community pharmacies” for routine treatments and tests. Tomorrow Blair will publish the first of six policy review papers, on public services, in an effort to shift the emphasis away from producers to consumers. Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, will name the first towns to take part in the new programme. Extra family practices, walk-in centres and minor injuries units will be opened in Hartlepool, Durham, Mansfield and Great Yarmouth. Other areas will join the programme in the coming months. Contracts for the new services will run for an initial five years, with the possibility of extension.

Although there is no national shortage of GPs, there are many “underdoctored” areas in England and Wales. The four areas involved in the first wave have significantly fewer GPs per person than the national average of 57.9 GPs per 100,000 people. The programme aims to attract a broad range of providers, from existing entrepreneurial GPs to social enterprises and FTSE-100 companies. Some extra GPs and nurses will be recruited for up to 30 health blackspots to tackle local shortages of doctors.

David Cameron will also focus on the NHS in a speech to the Conservative party’s spring forum in Nottingham today. He is expected to say: “It used to be said that Labour were the party of the NHS. Not any more. Labour are the party that is undermining the health service. “There’s a simple reason why. It’s not because they don’t care. But it is because of their values and philosophy: Labour’s mania for controlling and directing things from the centre; Labour’s pessimism about human nature; Labour’s belief that if people aren’t told what to do, they’ll do the wrong thing. Labour just don’t trust people.”

Thousands of doctors staged marches in London and Glasgow yesterday to protest at reforms to the system of medical training. They accuse the government of trying to “disempower and degrade” the profession.


Junior doctor selection chaos will ‘block medical progress in Britain’

The chaotic selection system for junior doctors is threatening British medical science as well as leaving thousands of trained doctors without jobs, leading clinical researchers said yesterday. The online application process for specialist training posts will lead to a shortage of medically qualified scientists, because it does not give credit to the academic and research achievements of junior doctors, senior scientists said. The Medical Training Application Service (MTAS), which puts candidates on shortlists for specialist jobs by computer, using a rigid scoring system, has been denounced as unfair by the British Medical Association. Junior doctors and consultants have called for it to be suspended.

The system has left more than 30,000 qualified junior doctors competing for 22,000 jobs, and consultants have refused to interview candidates because they regard the shortlisting process as unfair. Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, the Health Minister, was forced to order a review of the system last week, and thousands of doctors are expected to join protest marches in London and Glasgow tomorrow. Further criticism of MTAS has come from medical research groups, who said that the “dumbed-down” method of selecting the best candidates for specialist training paid “scant regard” to the needs of clinical research. The shortlisting system did not take account of junior doctors’ academic achievements or published research, it was claimed. This made it impossible to ensure that the brightest doctors were given appropriate posts.

Professor John Bell, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, and Professor Sir John Tooke, chairman of the Council of Heads of Medical Schools, yesterday wrote an open letter to the British Medical Journal condemning the reforms. “Academic trainees — those doctors wishing to pursue careers which encompass research as well as patient care — have been particularly badly affected by the decision to anonymise applications and deprive the assessors of details of previous clinical and research experience,” they said. “Without a scientifically informed and research-orientated medical workforce throughout the country, the Government’s vision of the UK as a world-class centre for bio-medical research and health-care cannot be realised.”

A poll of more than 1,700 people, including more than 400 consultants, found that most wanted the scheme to be suspended or scrapped. Morris Brown, Professor of Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Cambridge, who organised the survey, said that the results showed that the Government’s review did not go far enough. “Many doctors that preferred to be a physician, for instance, were allocated instead to interviews in surgery or general practice, and would not receive a second chance. Those rejected altogether may not find any of their preferred options available in the second round,” he said. “All but 205 and 241 respondents, respectively, want the first and second rounds of interviews aborted now.” He said that all but 119 respondents believed that the architects of the NHS Modernising Medical Careers programme should resign


No comments: