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October 5th 2014
I am not much given to introspection, and these days I tend to try not to dwell too much on the past, but recently (September 26th) it was the tenth anniversary of my arrival at Warwick University, and I find myself wondering what I would have thought back then, if I could see myself now.
My priorities then - as they are now, really - were rather short term, so I would have been delighted by the news that I'd get a first class degree, albeit perhaps a little surprised that it was a BSc rather than an MMath. If I'd been told that I'd be a qualified actuary by 2011, my immediate response would have been: "what's an actuary?", although the general principle of the thing - a professional qualification for a numerical office job that not many people have heard of, hardly anyone really understands and absolutely no one wants to talk about at parties - would have come as little surprise. I have never been fortunate enough to feel a calling towards a particular career, so a reasonably well-paid gig that I don't (usually) hate would have been about the limit of my ambitions. So far, so good; it's not like I thought I was going to be a film star. I'd also have been reassured, if hardly ecstatic, that by 2014 I would have a house and a car; I might have been more excited by my ability to grow facial hair, even if the hair on top of my head were gradually redressing the balance, and possibly even pleased to know that I'd be wearing glasses by now. I'd always rather thought that glasses suited me, you see (as, thanks to them, can I).
Leaving aside my personal achievements (yes, I'm including my goatee as an achievement), what I would have been most pleased about was the friends I'd make at university. Arriving on that Sunday in September 2004, I was allocated a room alongside 12 others in Rootes P3rd, and - even leaving aside the other fine Warwick people that are still good friends - I don't think I'd have asked for anything more than still being in regular contact with three of them ten years later, having been second best man for one of them and usher for a fourth. In fact, I've been to weddings of ten university friends (David & Christine, Adam & Becky, Andy, James, Anthony, Matt & Jenny, Guy), and if the biggest disappointment my old self would have felt was that I've not yet invited them to my own; well, let's not bring the mood down, here.
Looking into the future in 2004 I would have seen that the following three years would be by some distance the best of my life, and given how scared I was to be starting Uni - I was absolutely terrified - I would have struggled to believe it; I think I would have been pleased even if I'd also known that the year after those three would be probably the worst. Perhaps most of all I would have been encouraged to see how important the Christian Union was for me, and would be reassured to know that, ten years later, I'd be playing an active part in my local church in Bristol, and that God would be walking with me and I'd still be trying to follow where He leads.
Oh, and I'd have been delighted to know that I've got my Times crossword record time down to only a little over 5 minutes.
If I had been un-egotistical enough to look at the world in 2014, rather than just at myself, I wonder what would have surprised me the most. Perhaps one of these: USA having a black president; UKIP (then mostly associated with Robert Kilroy-Silk and Joan Collins) becoming something of a political force; Osama Bin Laden making it as far as 2011; the downfall of Rolf Harris; the popularity of Sudoku; a Wolves player appearing for England; Colin Firth winning an Oscar; the smoking ban; the ubiquity of "smartphones"; the word 'bake' gaining popularity as a noun; and, of course, the continued absence of hoverboards from the world.
I'll see you again in ten years' time.

October 8th 2014
Usually, when I want to make a political point, it's about something topical. Not today. Instead, I've decided to give me two cents about university tuition fees, a topic that enthralled the nation about three years ago. My view was then, and is now, that raising tuition fees is entirely justified and that almost all the arguments raised against it fall down under the lightest of scrutiny. The reason I think this can broadly be summed up in two words: 'student loans'.
In the world of loans, there are some dodgy providers: we all know about Wonga and its 5,853% APR. But if you take out a loan from Tesco Bank, say, you can get it for the 'great low rate' of 4.1%; every little helps, if they're still saying that. So imagine going to your local bank, loan shark or supermarket chain and asking them for a loan under the following conditions: 1.5% APR (you will be asked, at this point, if you understand where the decimal point is supposed to go in numbers); no need for you to provide evidence or indication of current or future earnings; an agreement that you won't repay anything unless your salary exceeds £16,910 p.a., and at that point you will only pay 9% of your earnings above that figure; and if, once you start paying, you haven't paid it off after 25 years, the debt will just be cancelled.
As you'll probably have guessed, those are the current terms for loans through the Student Loans Company (SLC). Without having done the necessary legwork, I would still state confidently that these are the best loan terms you will ever get in your life (unless your name is Falcao). I mean, having googled '1.5% APR', I only get references to the SLC; theoretical calculations explaining how APRs work; and a couple of banks that offer 18.9% APR but also mention 1.5% transfer fees. But the low interest rate is not, by some chalk, the best part of this deal for students: the bit about not having to pay it off is the reason that all the arguments about students being 'priced out of university' are clearly nonsensical. Even if the government doesn't give you a grant (according to this pdf from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, £1.8bn was given in grants in 2013/4; equivalent to over £1,300 per full-time student), they - or, indeed, we the taxpayer - are paying considerably for your university education. The DBIS estimates that c. 60% of students won't pay off the full amount of their loans, and, if I've understood that same pdf correctly, puts the cost of this at £3.4bn for 2013/4 students alone (£2.8k per full-time student). All in all, 45% of the cost of loans is taken by the government rather than the loanee (including the cost of subsidising to that low, low rate of 1.5% APR) - and, remember, that's before taking into account grants.
Speaking of which, just as an aside, university costs don't stop there: government grants through the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) include £1.6bn for teaching and £1.6bn for research in 2014/5.
Given all the information above, I don't see how anyone can think that students aren't getting a superb deal. Sure, £9,000 a year is a large sum (the good people at Fact Check weren't brilliant at identifying the true cost of providing a university education, but were just about happy to agree to an average of £7.3k p.a., and possibly believe Oxford's claim of £16k p.a.), but it looks a lot smaller when you know that: (i) means-tested grants are available (and I personally benefitted significantly from them when I was at Uni); (ii) you'll get a loan to cover them, almost half of which will end up being paid for by the taxpayer; (iii) even if you do pay off your loan, it won't be until you can afford to; it will broadly be a tax that increases with income. Which, by the way, is why I found it so funny that many of the people protesting against the increase in student loans clamoured to suggest a 'graduate tax' as an alternative, when in fact it is almost exactly the same thing, under a different name.
So, students are getting a great deal. Is the taxpayer? And this is where a slightly more compelling argument against tuition fees comes in: if the government pays for school education, why shouldn't it also pay for higher education? To which I have three answers: firstly, while most of us believe it is vital that the government ensures people are educated to a high school level, far fewer of us think it is vital to pay full whack for their BA in art history; secondly (and less importantly), the costs are too exorbitant now that almost half of us are going to university. The third point is linked to the previous two, and was expressed much better by Matthew Parris than I could hope to manage. For those of you who can't get through the Times paywall, he writes:

"As a Cambridge undergraduate I used to watch the pallid skinheads serving us our roast beef in hall and wonder how their taxpayer contribution to my generous maintenance grant, to my new LPs and to my bar bills, could possibly be justified. I concluded it couldn’t, and have never changed that opinion."

It is a compelling argument. Whenever the government takes money from me and then gives it to someone else, they better have a decent reason for doing so, and most of the time they do. I expect to give far, far more to the government than they will ever give to me, and that's the way it should be; I am more than happy to pay for the disability benefit, child benefits, job seeker's allowance etc. of people who truly need it, and I rest assured that I will get the same if and when I ever need it myself. I cannot convince myself that I - or, more pertinently, the roast beef servers that Parris writes about - should be paying for students to get a higher education that will apparently gain them an extra £165k (men) or £250k (women) over their lifetime.
At the top of this, I said that this wasn't topical. But now I've remembered that Germany have been scrapping their short-lived tuition fees recently, which is perhaps what brought it to my mind. Germany's good at a lot of things, but I am convinced that this is one area where we shouldn't be copying them.

what was I listening to?
Shaking the Tree - Peter Gabriel
what was I reading?
Amazing Spider-Man 1962-63 - Stan Lee
what was I watching?
Forrest Gump
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