Universities and higher education

Tomorrow MPs are due to debate the Higher Education Bill.  It therefore seems to be a good time to make a few points about post-school education.

Let me start by saying that I went to university, enjoyed three years there and came away with an academic qualification that set me on the road to becoming a chartered engineer. But then, as now, it was not the only way to achieve such a qualification, and other routes are not inferior, indeed they can be better. But there was a presumption by my school, and from home, that university would be my route into a career.  And alternative advice was weak.

I encouraged my children, and I encourage other young people, to consider whether alternatives to university might be a better route into their chosen career.  Or indeed, whether postponing university for a few years until they have more idea what they want to do, might also be a good option.

So I come to the issue of higher education from the view that more is not necessarily better. The university sector has grown enormously over the last 50 years, both with existing universities expanding, and with waves of new ones being created.  Do we need more?

I’m not that close to the subject, but if there is a clamour for more, it certainly isn’t very loud.  It’s apprenticeships that I’m hearing calls to be expanded – and higher apprenticeships can lead to a similar level of qualification as a first degree.  So shouldn’t this be at the centre of any Higher Education Bill?

Post the Brexit vote, higher education is in new territory.  Our existing universities will need to reassess their student numbers and research base without EU membership.  Is this the right time to unsettle their environment in other ways with new organisations and private sector competition?

And for students, higher fees are already changing behaviours.  I’m particularly concerned that trends in the ‘marketisation’ of higher education mean teaching styles are moving away from students taking individual responsibility for their learning to staff being expected to direct learning in a much more school-like way.  Is encouraging this trend by linking fees to teaching ‘quality’ better for individuals? How is that ‘quality’ to be judged by progress in post-university careers?

So I don’t know what problem this Bill seeks to address.  I can’t see it having value to existing universities.   And I’m left with an uncomfortable feeling that the driving force for the changes it proposes is a dogma to expand private provision in the university sector. And I hope it’s not the result of lobbying by a few individuals with deep pockets.

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After the referendum

On Thursday roughly a quarter of people in the UK voted to leave the EU.  Roughly a quarter voted to stay.  A quarter who could have voted didn’t and a quarter living here were unable to vote because they were too young or not eligible for other reasons.


Where are we now?

On Friday, the prime minister resigned.  That probably means that the formal process to leave the EU can’t start until we have a new one, maybe in October.  We are in limbo.

Later on Friday and on Saturday, we started getting better explanations from the media about what ‘Leave’ actually means.  Why didn’t we get these explanations before we voted?  I don’t know, but that’s history.

Also history is that by Saturday morning over a million people had signed a petition asking our MPs to change the rules on the referendum to make remaining in the EU more likely.  People were continuing to sign it at a rate of over 2000 a minute.

We have millions of people jubilant that we will leave, but concerned that we aren’t yet, and some who voted leave now worried that we might.   We have millions of people mourning our changed relationship with the EU, the falling pound and worried about what the future holds.  We have people who’ve lived here for years, even born here, now feeling unwelcome in the country they think of as home.

What many thought of as a process to empower people has left us feeling disempowered and broken.  People in Scotland, Northern Ireland and London are talking about going it alone.

It’s early days, but what should we learn?

Three things are important to me just now:

  1. That we treat each other with respect and understanding whatever our backgrounds or how we voted. Most people are not happy at the moment.  We need to be gentle with each other.
  2. For the UK to have a voting system that means everyone’s vote counts, for both local and national elections. If we trust the system, we should be more trusting of those elected to represent us.
  3. For schools to teach more about how decisions are taken in the UK, and crucially how to get involved and influence them. We should have done this decades ago, but starting now is better than never.
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Imagineering. Where is travel going?

By the end of this year there may be the first driverless cars on our roads.  Not science fiction, but science fact.  We already have unmanned planes in our skies – drones.  How soon will these be combine to become the 21st century norm?

Imagine a vehicle that you can drive a few miles from home to your local runway.  Log in your destination and relinquish control to the auto pilot, which communicates with all other such vehicles in that area – a bit like being in a race using your games console and others in the room/online.

You sit back and relax as you automatically join the queue for take off.  You’re informed of your arrival time according to auto-route planning.  Maybe you are in a hurry and are willing to pay a premium to queue-jump and route-jump.

Either way the vehicle automatically converts from road to air mode, does fuel and other pre-flight checks and you take off.

Motorway repairs no longer delay you.  The preceding train can’t break down and cause a hold up.   You’re meeting in person, and travel times are probably comparable to current short-haul flights.

You land at the arrival runway – probably dedicated to arrivals – and convert back to road mode for onward travel to your destination.

No luggage to transfer, and no border checks so long as you’re still within the EU/Schengen area.

Could this happen, and happen safely?  The ‘soft’ engineering and political structures are very close.  The hard engineering has a little way to go.  But 100 years ago powered flight was only just starting, and barely 30 years later the world was getting excited as passenger travel took off post WW2.

If this vision appeals to the masses, then technically it could happen, and sooner than you might expect!

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Water for Derby homes and businesses

Last Sunday, 22nd March, one of the largest water mains feeding Derby – a 30 inch main under Mansfield Road by Chester Green burst.  Flooding was dramatic, as pictures from Derby Telegraph show.

The major repairs on Mansfield Road in Little Chester

The major repairs on Mansfield Road in Little Chester.

This is one of the main supplies into Derby, feeding from the Little Eaton water treatment works.  The pipe is old – 30 inch pipes are no longer a standard size which makes getting a replacement section and fittings more difficult.  The repair has been on-going all week, so how has the waater supply network coped?

If water was delivered across Derby through a simple branching nework like a tree and its branches, this would be like chopping through the trunk.  Many people would be left without a water supply.  Luckily this is not the case.  Water pipes form a linked network under the city’s roads, with several supplies from different directions.  The main ones here are from the landmark water tower beyond Mackworth and the more hidden reservoir at Constable Drive, in Littleover as well as from ? in the east and ? in the south of the city.

By closing valves to isolate the broken pipe, and opening others to allow more water to flow from other areas of the network, Severn Trent have been able to keep people across Derby supplied with water – so far.

The next water tanker reversing into position to offload at Constable Drive.

The next water tanker reversing into position to offload at Constable Drive.

The water use from Constable Drive and Mackworth is obviously much higher than usual.  So much so that the supplies feeding these reservoirs are insufficient.  Using their usual routes they can not be filled up as fast as water is wanted.  Severn Trent has therefore been tankering water across Derby, pumping water into these reservoirs to increase the water supply from them.  Even so water supply pressures have been low, as complaint incidents logged on their website indicate – ironically close to the reservoir in Littleover – near the top of the hill!

This morning I phoned Severn Trent as their live updates map doesn’t mention the incident in Chester Green at all.  However, their helpful switchboard team had been briefed, and warned that water supplies in Derby are becoming more critical.  Low pressure is likely to be a problem to more people later today.  But as members of the public we’re not even being asked to help by not wasting water.

The repair Severn Trent hoped to make last night unfortunately failed, but generally their technical teams seem to be managing the situation well.  A major supply incident has made barely a ripple in the lives of most of Derby.

But for me, this is also an opportunity for people to be reminded about how smoothly our basic services like water supply work, day in day out.  It helps us to appreciate what we have, not take it for granted.  If that includes using a little less water for a few days while the repair is completed, we should.  That way no one will be left without an essential supply.

More pictures and background at: www.lucycare.mycouncillor.org.uk

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