Monday, September 01, 2008

Value of gaining a degree plummets

One-third of graduates are receiving no financial benefit from their degree as young people drawn in by Labour's mass expansion of universities see the value of studying decline for the first time. A study has identified a widening gulf between the highest-paid graduates, whose degrees have brought them soaring returns over the past decade, and those at the lower end.

Among male graduates, 33.2% end up in nongraduate jobs five years after leaving university, from 21.7% in 1992. The proportions for women are similar. These graduates now earn 40% less than if they had found a job where a degree was necessary. In 2001, before the market was swamped by university-educated applicants, those who had to settle for lower-paid jobs were only 32% worse off. The worst affected were from the former polytechnics and other new universities which had been encouraged to expand under Labour.

"This is the first real sign the tide is turning," said Francis Green, professor of economics at Kent University, who led the research. "If you are coming into university with not very good qualifications and do an arts degree at a low-ranked university, you are not really doing yourself any favours."

Official data, to be published in next month's Sunday Times University Guide, show there are many institutions where more than 40% of those leaving do not find degree-level jobs. The lowest-ranked include the Welsh universities Aberystwyth, Swansea and Lampeter as well as the former polytechnics Derby, Plymouth and Thames Valley. Lancaster, where 42.7% of graduates are in jobs below degree level six months after university, is the lowest ranked of the longer established institutions.

Many are now questioning whether it was worth going to university. They include Vanessa and Olivia Flaxman from west London, unemployed graduates of the University of the West of England in Bristol. "I was never interested in going to uni," said Vanessa, 25, who graduated this year with a 2.1 degree in business studies and a debt of about $40,000. "But you are under the impression that if you have a degree you're really employable."

Olivia, 27, added: "I didn't see it [university] could be massively useful, but my tutor said, `You've kind of got to go, so you may as well pick something that vaguely interests you'." Labour has expanded university education from 32% of school leavers in 1997 to about 43% now. It justifies tuition fees of more than œ3,000 a year by claiming that an average graduate could expect to earn œ120,000 extra in a career.

Some employers are now recognising that potential high-flyers may decide not to study for a degree because they are worried about running up debts. The management academy programme set up by HSBC, Britain's biggest bank, is targeted at school leavers with A-levels and management potential. Its first 38 trainees are about to move into junior executive jobs, complementing the bank's 230 graduate trainees. "The programme is targeted mainly at those who made a decision not to go to university because of the debts they would incur," said John Morewood, senior graduate recruitment manager.

Signs have also emerged that the job market for graduates is slowing. Allied Irish Bank has told its recruits who were offered jobs before they left university this summer, that the vacancies are no longer available, while Citigroup is cutting its graduate recruitment programme by 5%.

Vacancies for students graduating this year grew by 11.7% over 2007, but this is set to stall. Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, said he did not expect a fall in the jobs on offer at this autumn's "milk round" recruitment fair, but added: "I suspect the boom is over."

Defenders of university expansion point out that despite the worries over debt and the financial payback to be expected from a degree, applications from students are still growing strongly. Bill Rammell, the universities minister, said there were strong advantages to expanding higher education. "Having a workforce with graduate level skills has never been more important to economic success," he said. "There are also nonfinancial benefits for graduates, who tend to have better jobs and healthier lifestyles, be more involved in their children's education and be more tolerant and active citizens."


Britain: Muslim council chiefs ban ALL members from 'tea and sandwiches' in meetings which take place during Ramadan

Councillors have been ordered not to eat during town hall meetings while Muslim colleagues fast during the holy month of Ramadan. All elected members at Left-wing Tower Hamlets Council in East London have been sent an email asking them to follow strict Islamic fasting during September no matter what their faith. As well as restricting food and drink until after sunset, the authority's leaders have decided to reduce the number of meetings throughout the month so they do not clash with the requirements of Ramadan. The seven remaining meetings scheduled to take place will also include special prayer breaks to accommodate Muslim councillors.

But some members of the Labour-run council say the demands favour one religious group over the others. Dr Stephanie Eaton, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, said she would ignore the restrictions. She said: 'The Liberal Democrats have enormous respect for the contribution of all faith groups and cultures to the life of the community of Tower Hamlets. 'But we fervently believe that the rules of any one religion should not be imposed upon others. 'I was rather disconcerted to see that the arrangements put in place for Ramadan, which we support for Muslim colleagues, have been imposed upon all councillors. 'We object to the request that non-Muslim councillors observe the fasting rules for Ramadan. This sends out the wrong message to our community. 'Our community consists of a huge number of different religions, all of which should be valued, and no one religion should be accorded more status or influence than others.'

This is not the first time the council, which has a broad ethnic make-up, has courted controversy. It has been criticised in the past for being 'overly politically correct' after calling its staff Christmas meal a 'festive meal'. And it has also staged a Bonfire Night party which featured a Bengal tiger instead of Guy Fawkes.

During Ramadan, strict Muslims are obliged to fast between sunrise and sundown. They must abstain from all food, drink, gum chewing, tobacco, and any kind of sexual contact. The holy period falls on the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, and this year it begins at the start of September, which means there are more daylight fasting hours than if it fell in later months.

Most of the council's debates are scheduled to start at 6.30pm. But with the sun not setting until an hour later, devout Muslims will be unable to break their fast - known as Iftar - until midway through the meeting, where they will be given a 45-minute break. Food and refreshments, such as sandwiches and biscuits, are normally laid on at town hall meetings.

Controversy has arisen because all members have been told not to eat until after sunset, out of courtesy to their Muslim colleagues, and so there will be food left for them later in the evening. In the memo to councillors, John Williams, the council's head of democratic services, said: 'It is requested that members do not partake of any refreshments until after the Iftar refreshments are served.' Council bosses said the arrangements were in place 'where it is not reasonable to expect members observing Ramadan, and who are required to attend a formal committee or other meeting, to travel home in time for sundown in order to break fast and undertake prayers'.


NHS drugs body Nice reviews drug funding

The NHS drugs rationing body has ordered a review of its funding limit for new drugs after a series of campaigns by patients groups denied access to treatment. The National Institute for health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) has commissioned research to establish whether the threshold at which drugs are determined to be cost effective is set too low. It has not changed since Nice was set up nine years ago even thought the NHS budget has more than doubled in that time and there has been no adjustment for inflation in that time.

The results of the review will be discussed early next year and could pave the way for more expensive drugs being made available on the NHS. Campaigners may see the move to consider raising the threshold as a tacit admission that it is currently too low. The organisation has faced a storm of protest over its refusal to recommend the use of a string of drugs for use in the NHS including treatments for Alzheimer's, arthritis, eyesight conditions and cancer. Earlier this week kidney cancer patients and their carers demonstrated outside the headquarters of Nice after draft guidance on four new drugs to treat late stage cancer were turned down even though they extend life on average by four to five months.

NICE also apologised over the fact that it took more than two years to issue final guidance approving the eyesight-saving drug Lucentis after previously ruling that patients would have to go blind in one eye before receiving the drug

Figures showing that the NHS is expected to have a surplus of 1.75bn pounds this financial year sparked further concerns about funding for treatments. The Citizens Council of Nice, a representative sample of 30 members of the public, examined the calculations earlier this year and recommended "a thoughtful and penetrating review".

Nice's method involves quality of life scores which one Citizens Council member found would give her a negative score meaning she would be 'better off dead' as she is confined to a wheelchair, a report of the meeting said. The quality of life score forms part of the calculations used to determine the extra Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALY) that a new drug would give patients balanced against the extra cost. Each QALY is the equivalent of one year of perfect health, two years of 50 per cent perfect health or four years of 25 per cent perfect health. Nice has set the acceptable cost per QALY at between 20,000 and 30,000 pounds.

The more expensive a drug is the more it has to improve and/or extend life in order to meet the threshold. In exceptional cases more expensive drugs that breach the upper limit have been recommended. The calculations pay no regard to the NHS budget in any way.

Pat Hanlon, trustee of the campaign group Kidney Cancer UK, said: "We think the QALY is woefully inadequate as a measure of patient benefit. It was arbitrarily set and we think it is too low. "It will be very difficult for any new cancer drug to pass the test because they have very high research and development costs. And with the kidney cancer drugs there is a relatively small number of patients so the cost per patients to recover the R&D costs are fairly high."

Prof Karol Sikora, Medical Director of CancerPartnersUK, Professor of Cancer Medicine at Imperial College School of Medicine, said a review of the QALY was 'long overdue' because the European threshold stands at around 45,000 pounds. He added: "It is absolutely essential that some allowance is made for the increase in the NHS budget and the fact the medical inflation is running at about 10 per cent a year at the moment."

Argument has raged between academics and experts on whether the QALY it set correctly since Nice was launched in 1999, with some saying the threshold should lower so drugs would have to be cheaper or more effective to get through, while others believe it must be higher in order to take into account more sophisticated and expensive drugs that are in development.

Richard Davidson, director of policy and public affairs at Cancer Research UK, said of the threshold: "We believe it is too low in the context of other areas of government expenditure, and in comparison to the amount of money spent on new drugs by our European counterparts. "Additionally, it does not take into account inflation since the threshold was first used."

A NICE spokesperson said: "We have commissioned research to assess whether our current threshold range is reasonable or whether it should be altered; and the findings will be discussed, fully, at a workshop next January."


Leave the fat alone – state bullying won’t curb obesity

Comment from a British writer. She has swallowed a lot of the official propaganda but still comes to a reasonable conclusion

Fat is not a feminist issue, despite what feminists used to say. It is a class issue. Well-to-do, well educated people are rarely fat, still less obese. You see few fat children in private schools. Fatness and obesity are directly related to low income and low education. A fat map was published last week by Dr Foster Intelligence, showing the areas with the fattest populations, and sure enough the poorest industrial areas in the north of England and in Wales produce the most obese people. The problem seems to be getting worse, fast.

You hardly need expert medical data analysis to understand that. You need only to go to a few supermarkets. At a Tesco in western Scotland this summer I was astonished by the number of horribly obese shoppers waddling round the aisles with their elephantine children, who could not possibly have squashed themselves into an ordinary one-person chair. Young women, with eyes reduced to slits by the pressure of the fat on their faces, laughed grimly with each other as they scanned the shelves. And this is a rich country.

Even though the vast Oban Tesco is full of good food, the trolleys at the checkout were heaped with stuff that is either useless or positively bad to eat – crisps, snacks, swizzlers, twizzlers and guzzlers, cheesy dips and fatty whatsits, cakes puddings and pies, heavily dusted in additives. The obese seem to fill their carts regularly with several times their own weight in eatables that can make them only fatter, that they shouldn’t eat and that nobody should produce, as if they were determined to lay down yet more adipose tissue. Yet you rarely see such bloated people and trolleys in smart supermarkets in rich areas. These days you can easily tell people’s precise socioeconomic bracket and body weight by the contents of their trolleys.

Obesity seems to be the issue of the day, possibly because we are still in the silly season. Coincidentally last week, Andrew Lansley, the Tory health spokesman, spoke against obesity in a long speech to the Reform think tank. He was widely understood as saying that fatties have only themselves to blame; they must take responsibility for themselves and their weight because “we all have a choice”. And while that is a slightly unfair take on his speech, he does seem to mean something of the sort. Yet at the same time he offers what’s now called a whole raft of measures to stop people getting fat. This is awkward for Conservatives; either you interfere with people’s choices or you don’t. Empowerment, a word he used, is often just a weasel word for state intervention.

The question is why a Conservative government should interfere at all in people’s inalienable freedom to choke on deep-fried Mars bars if they choose to. The argument is that the fat and the obese (people with a body mass index over 30, which is something you could spot without a calculator) cost the country squillions in lost productivity and increased National Health Service costs. The obese tend to develop serious illness, particularly heart disease and diabetes, and are, generally speaking, crocked up and expensive to look after.

Somebody somewhere has come up with a figure for the cost of all this, which Lansley quotes – $14 billion a year, for what it’s worth. Last year’s Foresight report said this cost could go up by six times by 2050. And fat is getting fatter so fast. According to NHS figures, the proportion of obese men in the population rose during Labour’s time in office from 13.2% in 1993 to 23.1% in 2005. Among women it was even worse, from 16.4% to 24.8%. That is nearly a quarter of all women. If you consider people who are not obese but overweight (with a BMI of 25-30), 46% of men in England are overweight and 32% of women.

Fat is also an ethnic issue. According to NHS figures published in 2006, Irish and black Caribbean men had the highest incidence of obesity (25% each) and among women black Africans had 38%, black Caribbean 32% and Pakistani 28%. So, with migration trends and immigrant fertility, the costs of obesity are going to rise fast as well.

However, I wonder how much, if anyone knew the facts, the final cost of obesity would be to the taxpayer. For fat people die sooner and obese people die much sooner than others, thus relieving the NHS and the economy of their needs. It’s true that obese people need expensive treatment for diabetes and heart disease before they die, but that might easily be offset if they had significantly shorter lives – and they do. Current thinking seems to be that the obese die between five and seven years earlier than otherwise they would.

Few papers I’ve looked at on this subject discuss the possible cost-benefit of obesity, although one from an insurance company coyly mentioned the advantage to pension providers if a person died before he reached pensionable age. For years I used to argue that smokers were a net benefit, purely financially speaking, to the exchequer, because they died early. I still feel rather proud of being the first, I believe, to get a known expert (Professor Richard Peto in 1993) to agree publicly to this idea, now accepted. Might not the same be true of obesity? The real drain on the NHS is geriatric medicine; the obese might not reach old age.

If the only reason for interfering with what fat people eat is how much it costs the rest of us, perhaps we should leave them alone. It’s well known that obesity (and fatness) are associated with poor education, poor housing, poor employment or none, low expectations, low opportunities and all the rest. These are all social ills that this government has been trying to deal with for more than a decade. Yet little has improved and obesity – as an indicator of that fact – has swollen vastly while Labour has been in office. What prevents obesity is a good income, a good education, good opportunities and the kind of background that develops self-confidence. Prosperity, in short.

Obesity cannot be defeated by taskforces, better labelling on packets or investing in health accreditation schemes. This has all been tried and has failed. In the presence of a complex problem, and in the absence of a workable solution, perhaps it is better to leave people to their own devices. Nobody can pretend they don’t know what they’re doing. They should be left alone to do it.



Sales of winter clothes and thermal underwear are soaring as Britons suffer a dismal summer and prepare for a winter of high fuel bills, according to a leading retailer. Department store Debenhams said shoppers were turning their back on summer sarongs, shorts and swimwear and opting for woollens instead. Sales of thermal underwear at the store are up 54% on this time last year, winter coat sales are up 76% and warm knitwear is up by 53%. Debenhams said the figures were similar to those traditionally seen during October.

The retailer said it had expected a slight increase in sales of winter clothes during the dismal August weather, but put the "massive boost" in figures down to "hibernation hysteria". It noted the higher sales followed comments by Jake Ulrich of Centrica - the parent company of British Gas - telling consumers struggling with soaring fuel bills that "maybe its two jumpers instead of one".

Debenhams' spokesman Ed Watson said: "The awful weather clearly has something to do with this hibernation hysteria. "However with gas and electric companies turning up the heat, it looks like many people will be turning to their wardrobe rather than the central heating thermostat this winter to keep warm. "I suppose it's a reluctant thanks to Jake Ulrich as well. A full set of Debenhams' long johns and a couple of our woolly jumpers are in the post so he can follow his own advice."


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