Paying for education
This week in the news we had the issue of tuition fees, and the proposal to let universities charge students extra fees if they’re really good universities and think they’ll get away with it. Not surprisingly, quite a few people pointed out that this would be likely to lead to the rich kids going to the good universities while the rest of us fight it out for the places we can afford. It seems to me that as a country we’ve completely failed to deal with the issue of higher education. There is no real appreciation in our culture of the value that a degree can add, not just to the person who works for it and has the qualification, but also for the people that the person comes into contact with, including employers, and by extension the economy as a whole. A well educated work force should be an attractive thing for everyone to appreciate. Jeremy Hardy on The News Quiz pointed out that his taxes pay for all sorts of things he doesn’t directly benefit from, but that’s the way the system works. Not the first time that point has been made, but he made it well none-the-less.
The compromise solution appears to be the graduate tax (currently used in Australia), which has always appealed to me. I like the idea that I can go to university and have my fees (and even my living expenses) paid, and then if I gain from that experience financially, I pay it back. If I choose not to work in a highly paying job, through working in the charity sector for example, then I don’t have to pay back the money. I’d also be happy to pay back several times the amount I was given to subsidize those who don’t earn the money, but that’s really because, at heart, I like the idea of more of this country’s higher education being paid for through direct taxation.
This whole issue is of interest to me because I was working at the University of Sussex Students’ Union just as the New Labour government were bringing in tuition fees in ’97. It was a shock to all us idealistic students who’d never experienced a Labour government to discover that New Labour were prepared to go even further than the Conservatives towards making university expensive for students. At Sussex, our policy was still in favour of grants, an idea that most unions have since given up in the fight against tuition fees. I think it’s a sad fact that now education is easily attainable for the rich and incredibly difficult to reach for the poor. Having said all this, I can’t claim to have made much of an impact on the campaign, as I was always frustrated with our complete inability to provide a viable alternative. That’s why, now, I’m pleased the debate is finally happening and the options are being discussed.
You won’t catch me in a white dress
In other news, the government, pretty much from nowhere, this week announced that it was going to look into establishing a partnership register for same sex couples. Hurrah! About bleedin’ time. OK, I know it’s complicated, not least because of the fear of ‘gay marriage’, but I think it’s a solvable problem and I’ve ranted before about why I care about this. I really don’t want to get married – I just want Sarah and I to have basic rights that come with sharing our lives together. I guess, if I had to, I’d stand up in front of some people and say I love her, but I’d rather just sign something and get it over with. The thing to remember is that this disinclination to marry is not because I’m incapable of committment, but because for so long I’ve been unable to make a public statement and after a while you really come up with ways to deal with that. Whether that be finding other ways to express committment, or just reaching the conclusion that you don’t want to join a club that doesn’t really want your membership, the result is roughly the same. This isn’t a bad thing, and it doesn’t mean we’re not committed, it just means the idea of ‘gay marriage’ is something that scares the right-wing Christians while it appeals to hardly any of the gay community (I think :-).
ASP is horrible
This weekend I sat down to learn ASP. I’m already comfortable with PHP and figured that ASP would be a similar experience, but little did I realise exactly how different the development environment would be. I’m used to devloping using Apache server on a Linux box, with a MySQL database and PHP for scripting. I tried IIS server on my (rebuilt) Windows 2000 machine, connecting to an Access database and ASP for scripting. The whole thing is like web sites for dummies, with all sorts of options hidden away and no real way to debug. I’m sure once I’m used to it I’ll look back on this as the rantings of a frustrated learner, but here’s an example of something that went wrong. I built a database using Access and linked it into the webserver. Then I connected to it using ASP script to list the contents of the database. Simple. And it worked, happily showing the contents of the field I requested. This was until I refreshed the page, when I got what I think was a permissions error. Once the error ‘times out’ I can get the page again. I’ve still not worked out if the database is refusing connections, the server is caching in some way, or the server is refusing connections, or what? And of course, it’s not documented anywhere. Give me open source any time.