politics

Should first year at university count?

When you roll up on Day One feeling like an impostor of inferior intelligence to every anxious face around you, knowing that your marks this year won’t count towards your final degree seems pretty assuring. When you groggily wake up after a fortnight of Freshers in a hangover coma, this seems especially assuring. At the end of their first year many do receive that 40% pass with pride. After all, maintaining such an impressively low average seems an achievement in itself. But plenty of students, myself included, did lo and behold venture into the library this year (I didn’t actually take a book out mind you) and end up wishing that it did count, if only for a little.

The “40% mentality” annoys me. First year does count – it counts as much as £9,000. No one would ever willingly throw away such a sum, so why do most students? Sure, first year is about meeting new people, adapting to life away from home, and building up your alcohol tolerance. But you could do all of these things on a gap year – let’s be honest, it’s also about upping your game academically. Scraping a pass isn’t going to do you any favours here. You’re bound to do better second and third year, when it does count, if you can remember how to read and write.

I’m probably giving you the impression that I’ve sat at my desk, locked away in my room for most of the year. I have – playing Football Manager. Contrary to popular belief, attending a lecture or seminar now and again (I only had seven hours of them a week anyway!) doesn’t mean missing out on any of the “uni experience”. I had the best year of my life, going out two nights a week, playing for a sports team, meeting new people all the time. The reality is, the only thing studying really replaces is the afternoon nap you would never have considered taking before this year anyway. You shouldn’t sleep through £9,000, even if your lecture is at 9am.

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I think easing us in with a weightless first year is unnecessary and disparaging. No other environment grants you such a luxury. The real world is a high pressure environment. An employer wouldn’t refrain from sacking you any longer than a week, let alone a year, if you only handed in papers when you felt like it. Sixth Form was all about preparing us for university level work, so we don’t need a year-long practise run when we get here. What is there even to learn? You pick up how to reference in essays and how to work the washing machine soon enough.

I think the first year at university should count for something like 10% of your degree. Such a reform shouldn’t be made to motivate those otherwise careless and lazy students, but to credit those who would have put in the effort anyway (though subsequently it would encourage the former). First year should be worth enough to acknowledge the hours of study that made it up, but not so much that a jittery 2.2 can’t be raised to a 2.1 by the time you graduate. You might argue that it would be wrong for someone’s early homesickness to be the difference between them achieving or missing out on their dream of a First. It would be a great shame, but the reality is there are countless other factors equally influential and out of our control. The difference between success and failure can be said to boil down to anything: a stingy, hard-to-please marker, or the man flu you couldn’t shake for a month in second year.

Alternatively, maybe first year could be valued with financial incentives. At some colleges in Oxbridge, for example, the highest achieving first years are given the nicest rooms the next year. This sort of approach makes a lot of sense. The way universities are throwing scholarship money at prospective undergraduates in an attempt to lure overqualified students is immoral. These funds should be redirected towards the hardest working first years – students who actually chose to study at the university in the first place and weren’t bribed to do so. Giving £500 to anyone who manages a First and perhaps £250 to those that get a 2.1 seems like a good policy. Universities might even save money as some of the scholarships they offer to new students at the moment amount to thousands of pounds.

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Failing any kind of reform, I would urge employers to pay more attention to those invisible first year marks that most probably don’t declare on their CV. If you have two similar candidates boasting 2.1s the first thing you should be doing to distinguish between the two is to check whether either was guilty of the “40% mentality” in their first year – forget the DofE award. If one candidate did only scrape a pass while the other was pretty solid, you sure as hell know who’s going to be the one pulling sickies, and leaving the office mid-email when the clock strikes five.

 

I am sorry if this offends you but…

Last month author Salman Rushdie declared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival that we live in a “culture of offendedness” where we take opposing views to our own personally. Moreso than probably any public intellectual he is familiar with such danger. His publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988 was so controversial amongst Islamic communities that the Iranian government issued a fatwa, his death warrant. Imagine fearing for your life every day for a decade (it wasn’t lifted until 1998), threatened by a government on the other side of the world, all because you wrote a book they didn’t like. A book you didn’t exactly force them to read… Rushdie has argued that no book has the power to offend for this very reason, a view myself and Oscar Wilde agree upon: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

I want to talk more generally about opinions and argue the case that no opinion however ‘offensive’ should be supressed. We can all appreciate what Rushdie means by a “culture of offendedness”. Its truth is illustrated by the mere familiarity of sentences that begin: “I am sorry if this offends you but…” or its twinned rebuttal: “actually, I find that to be offensive”. The former remark is flawed in that it only invites the latter response. And the latter reply is worthless, stated often with an air of arrogance. It is nothing more than a self-pitying demand for an apology that the speaker is not entitled to, and an indication of their incapability to retaliate with any reason. By all means tell me if I have offended you – but tell me why – and don’t expect me to withdraw my opinion thereafter.

Free speech is not just the right to express your own opinion – it is the right to listen to someone else’s. To borrow the words from Christopher Hitchens, “if you repress other people’s opinions you become a prisoner of your own”. On this premise no opinion should be censored for being ‘offensive’ because the notion attacks not just the speaker’s right to speak, but the victim’s right to listen. Free speech grants a right to offend and a right to be offended. Any appeal for censorship should be scrutinised with the simple argument that no one is qualified to play the role of the censor. Don’t tell me what I should be offended by. Let me make my own mind up.

You might be thinking that my defence of free speech is over-simplified. It all sounds digestible enough but what about evils like sexism or fascism – will you defend the right to express those?

Yes. The point to highlight is that censorship is not a method of reformation; it is a method of suppression. If you forbid a sexist from saying sexist things you do not stop them being a sexist. You are only hiding the fact there are sexists (misogynists and misandrists) among us, painting the false picture that society is a more pleasant and safer place than it really is – a dangerous mistake. If feminism tried to censor sexist language it would in many ways be shooting itself in the foot. It is far more effective to allow sexists to express themselves because in causing offense they are reaffirming and clarifying the case for equality. The same works with politics. A fascist candidate should be allowed to promote their views and stand for an election (though they have no right to an audience) because in doing so they would only invoke valid criticism that might not have been voiced otherwise. Furthermore, to restrict the expression of ideas like sexism or fascism would also make us more sensitive to them: it is better that we confront such evils out in the open.

Should 16 year olds be allowed to vote?

I pose this question because Labour has announced they will be going into the next election promising exactly this, no doubt under the assumption that young people like myself are inclined to lean towards the Left (not that they represent any such notion).

I suspect, even if you are around 16, that your answer to this question is a resounding no. I wouldn’t trust my 16 year old brother to lay the dinner-table. Is allowing him a say in who governs our country really a good idea?

The argument against the notion is clear enough. At 16 or 17 years old an individual is believed to be too irresponsible to influence decisions that affect the entire population. Furthermore, it is fair to say that most have no real interest or knowledge in politics at this age, so their involvement would run the risk of skewing elections to reflect a somehow ill-informed result. Many would see this extension of the franchise as a discredit to the serious world of politics. One would expect parties to ‘dumb-down’ their campaigns (it probably wouldn’t hurt), or even try and invade the teenage-orientated media scene. Imagine if the likes of One Direction decided to publicise their support for a certain party – one would fear a significant fraction of their 16 and 17 year old fan-base mimicking the alliance baselessly. A worse-case scenario yet would be attempts to vote someone like One Direction, or the Monster Raving Loony Party, into government for the “lols”. The case against is a strong one. Yet I find myself somehow disagreeing.

Are 16 year olds really as irresponsible as we make out? They can already in this country have sex, and marry with parental consent. You might argue that these are personal responsibilities, and that voting is different because it affects the population. Well then, what about the fact they can join the army with parental consent at 16? Surely defending our country is a responsibility that affects us all? Today there are youths who are willing to die for our country but they are not allowed a say in how it is governed. There are also 16 and 17 year olds who have left school and started earning enough to pay taxes – but they are not allowed a say in how their contributions are spent.

Then there comes the generalised objection that they have no real interest in politics anyway and would not be knowledgeable enough to make an informed vote. Thinking back to 16 year old me and my peers (or even me now), I don’t think this is too unfair. But I would argue that, seeing as only 65% of registered voters bothered in 2010, there are plenty of adults who can be summarised, and even would describe themselves, as the same. And they are allowed to vote. In an ideal democracy only those who were knowledgeable about politics would vote – true – and under ideal conditions this would be everyone. However, this is not the case, and it never will be, so to exclude 16 and 17 year olds on this basis is an empty argument. Education nowadays is gradually increasing political awareness, but acceptingly not enough is being done. 16 and 17 year olds should be granted the right to vote, taught why they should want to, and also the skills needed to process the information that will influence their decisions. Then they wouldn’t grow up into adults who unconditionally, for a lifetime, give their vote to the same party their parents did with no further justification.

While I have voiced my support for Labour’s plans to extend the franchise, I must condemn the Shadow Lord Chancellor’s suggestion (a pretty cool title) that perhaps voting should be made compulsory for teenagers entering the electorate for the first time. After some research, I was shocked to learn that many countries – including Australia, Argentina and Brazil – already have a nationwide compulsory voting system. This seems to me to fundamentally violate freedom of speech, as an obligation to voice an opinion should be criticised for being as repressive as an obligation to stay silent. If you make it compulsory for teenagers, or anyone, to vote then you are prompting many to vote randomly, which completely defeats the principle of democracy.

Should 16 year olds be allowed to vote? Against my initial reaction, I say yes. And to be honest, when the voting options are as bleak as ours are at the moment, I think the age of the people ticking the boxes is the least of our worries. But what do you think?

The royal hype

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UNDERSTATEMENT: A baby was born here in England recently.

Well actually, as media coverage at the time insisted on highlighting, many babies were born on the 22nd July 2013. While all of them shared the same qualifications – none – it was a little boy named George who was to be awarded the title “Prince” and furthermore secure the third spot in line to our throne. The parents of the other children, instead of being offered condolences by the visiting reporters, were encouraged to speak of their gratitude for this coincidence – their big day joyfully overshadowed on television.

Where did this republican (please note: small ‘r’) find himself at the time? Quite appropriately, at the pub, and in Cambridge as well, the Prince’s very domain. My friends and I had only just finished celebrating Great Britain for the right reasons, or rather watching a Shakespeare performance, when the “news” reached me via a text from my Mum. It read with enthusiasm: “Baby boy born.” I only wish that more of the media had taken to a similar delivery, in order to have reigned reined in the hype. It was nicely alliterative after all.

I never did bother to reply, part of me thinking: why should I care? Only the very next day did The Guardian inform me, based on life-expectancy trends, that I am actually due to die the year before George will most likely be coronated anyway (a doubly bleak prospect).

I am of course as pleased for William and Kate as I am for any parents. But this event for me portrayed the principle of monarchy at its most ridiculous. For example, the phrase “His Royal Highness” – with its connotations of an individual who looks down on his subjects – is laughable when the Prince in his current state would need a rather tall royal highchair to do so.

Many Royalists take great joy from the fact our future King is, at least biologically, just like the rest of us. George is a baby whose royal nappies fill no more pleasantly for his parents than any other (although allow me some scepticism over who changes them). The Royal Family and its swooning right-wing media have been trying to paint this humble and ‘down to earth’ picture for years. It didn’t take long for the Daily Mail to declare George the “People’s Prince”. They are all of course primarily trying to win the support of the younger generation, people who were sat down by their parents or grandparents, like I was, to watch the Royal Wedding.

But not all of us are buying into it. I know I cannot be the only one bewildered by the idea that one child is starting life with an entitlement to power over, and wealth at the expense of, another child born only in the opposite ward. If I told you that the members of one family have historically enjoyed lives 15 years longer than that of the national average, you would assume I was describing somewhere in the Third World or at least in the past – not 21st century Britain. This crossed my mind last week when I read in The Times the list of gifts sent to this particular family from political leaders across the world: a ‘needy’ home I am sure you will all agree…

On the other hand, I must offer my sympathy to Baby George. A mother who gave birth in the opposite ward chose her occupation, and her child will enjoy the same freedom. But while Baby George’s mother opted to enter the Royal Family: he did not. Perhaps aspiring to be a fireman or a football-player growing up, a different kind of life in the public eye, with its countless trivial duties, awaits him.

Other teenagers will be taking their bathroom ‘selfies’ – he might have a stamp to pose for.