Saturday, 11 December 2010

Free education - free for whom?

Since the student demos have been in the news so much recently, it got me thinking about the whole "free university education" issue.

Education in the UK is only compulsory up to the age of 16. After that, it's entirely optional (though personally I think it should be compulsory up to the age of 18 and if you choose to leave school before then or get expelled, you shouldn't be entitled to any unemployment benefits in the future - but that's a whole different bee in my bonnet!)

Now, once upon a time, only a very small minority of people went on to further education - most didn't even continue on to Sixth Form College or Technical College etc, let alone university. It may well have been seen as something that only better-off kids did - though I'm not quite clear why that would be - the education was totally free then as far as I know so it shouldn't have made any difference how rich or otherwise you were. The only thing I can assume is that if you came from a lower-income family, there was more of an imperative for you to go out and work so you could help support the family. I'm quite certain it had nothing to do with intelligence. Of course, there is always the chance that it was snobbery and that it was simply that universities didn't want poorer people attending. Who knows?

I digress. As the number of people wanting to attend university rose, so did the cost - to both the universities and the taxpayer. I'm not saying that more people wanting to gain a degree is a bad thing, but it does depend on why they're doing it. In my current job, I work with quite a lot of students who are in their first couple of years at uni. I've heard some of them say that they're there not because of some compelling desire to learn, or because they have some particularly high-brow career in mind which absolutely requires a degree, but simply because at the age of 18 they either didn't know what they wanted to do for a living, or simply didn't fancy getting a job. Many of them do also seem to be fitting the stereotype of the heavy-drinking, ever-sleeping, doing-no-work student. Two of them yesterday said that they hadn't actually attended any lectures, tutorials or even been near the university for two and three weeks respectively. I'm really not clear how that's something to be proud of! One of them was on one of the demos last week. So let me get this straight - she wants me, via my taxes, to pay for her to have a free education, but she doesn't actually plan to work at it? So I think one of my objections is pretty clear now.

My second objection is that from the way many people are talking, you would think that the students or their families are being asked to turn up with a suitcase full of used fivers at the beginning of term (totalling between £3500 and the new maximum fee of £9000 for a 3 or 4 year degree) in advance. No! There are still grants, bursaries, scholarships etc etc. Many will still get it paid for and then not have to start paying it back until they're earning £21,000. So if they leave uni and either choose not to work, choose to continue in education or take a job at a lower salary, they're not going to have to pay it back anyway. And if they do make use of the degree and get into a job that's paying them that sort of money, why shouldn't they be expected to give something back?

On a more personal note, if higher/further education is to be free for all, surely it really should be for all. There are several adult education courses I fancy taking, either for personal development or to improve/change my career prospects. I know plenty of other people who would love to go and get a couple of extra A Levels, learn a language, do a vocational course etc - do we get that for free? No, of course we don't. We have to find the money to pay for the course up-front, then pay a fee for any associated exam, pay for transport/parking to the college/university etc. Perhaps the taxpayer would like to cough up for that too. Yeah. Thought not.

Much like for most things, I'm all in favour of means-testing. I realise that's more difficult with education as most people don't have any "means" at the age of 18 - and I don't think that parents should be expected to fund a degree either unless they really want to. So what is currently being suggested pretty much fits in exactly with how I think it should work. Do your degree. Pay for it later if and when you're earning enough. Is that really so unfair?

I've got EEG on my face!

Gumtree was yet again responsible for providing a weird distraction from daily life. This time, it was an ad for paid volunteers for a psychological study. It seemed interesting and, to be honest, an easy way to make a few quid.

So I fired off an email a couple of weeks ago and got back a message asking me to complete some online personality questionnaires. I did them, and submitted the results to Mindlab as requested. I wondered soon after if it was just a way of getting responses to the online test because once the results had been received, they emailed simply saying that if you were then chosen to take part in an actual study, then you would get the £5 payment for filling in the questionnaire. To be honest, I didn't expect to hear from them again.

However, last Sunday I got a phone call asking if I could go to the University of Sussex the next day to take part in an actual study, involving being hooked up to an EEG, for which I'd be paid £20 (plus the £5 for filling in the personality test). Dade had volunteered for the very same study so we elected to go along at the same time, either for moral support or a mutual opportunity to laugh at each other, I'm not sure which.

So a freezing Monday morning found us mingling with the students on a train to Falmer. We checked into the Mindlab centre and met the four people who would be conducting the tests. They were a fairly young and amusing bunch, though the office looked a little thrown together (and the walls moved more than the ones on Crossroads!)

Before we knew it, we were being wired up - me in a very fetching tight-fitting cap with Polo-sized holes in, and a weird strap that attached the cap to a chest strap. Once secured, some really unpleasant electrode gel was squeezed into the holes (and all over my hair) before the elctrodes were attached and the signals were checked. Once that was done, I resembled some kind of multi-coloured Gorgon - or at least that was what I was told - I couldn't see myself. Very unfairly Dade could move in his seat and spy on me but I was practically velcro-ed to the back of my chair and couldn't reciprocate. I should just be grateful he didn't get a photo!

Once all the signals were being picked up OK, the procedure started. First, I was shown my "resting" brainwave - although initially even relaxed and with no visual stimuli, mine looked like the seismic readout of an earthquake. However, this turned out to be a glitch and it finally settled down. To show how important it was to remain as still and calm as possible, they asked me to blink a couple of times and also to clench my teeth. When I did so, the readout wnet wild. Finally, the actual test got underway - we were moved to our designated tables, the lights were dimmed and off we went. There were some control exercises - following dots round a screen with your eyes, presumably so that the eye-tracker could be tested, then counting the number of dots that appeared for a few seconds and shouting the answer out to the technician. That one was a bit disconcerting because our tests had been started almost simultaneously but Dade's just a little ahead. I could actually hear what number he was saying and it made me paranoid every time I counted a different number of dots, even though I couldn't be completely sure that we were doing exactly the same test! They then showed some random video clips of varying degrees of boringness (some Juliette Binoche rubbish), sentimentality (Forrest Gump) and violence (American History X). Once the controls were complete the actual study began. I'm not going to say with what we were actually shown because a) it's very boring and b) we signed a confidentiality agreement. Suffice to say, it involved looking at various pictures, accompanied by the most annoying voice in the world and then saying a number between 0 and 10 to say how much fun etc we thought the pictures looked. The actual test probably only took about 30% of the time!

Once done, I was disconnected from the apparatus and the cap was peeled off my head. Bleurgh. The gel was everywhere - my hair was all gunked up with it and was plastered to my head. Mmmmm, nice! Just as well my coat had a hood!

So off I trotted with my £25 in my pocket for my trouble - not bad for 75 minutes of weirdness.

I'm on their books now for future studies so we'll see if anything interesting crops up.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Not so glamorous assistant

Debbie McGee? Dr Watson? Mutley?!!

OK, so my first foray into the glamourous world of "photographer's assistant" was an interesting one.

In an attempt to get some portraiture experience, Dade had advertised his services for free to anyone who fancied having their portrait done. The first respondent was a young guy called Alex, who asked if Dade could make him "look good".

I happened to be free on the afternoon they had arranged to meet and apparently an extra pair of hands might come in useful, so I tagged along. We waited in the pre-arranged meeting place, Add The Colour, wondering if a) he would turn up, b) how we would know it was him and c) what Dade would have to work with!

Only a couple of minutes later, a rather dapper young man entered, looking a little lost. Was it him? Aha - he went to the counter and said "I'm looking for Dade". Well, it was either him or a very spooky coincidence! Rather pleasingly, it was him. He told us a little about himself - half-French, half-English, cabin crew out of Heathrow, had lived in Canada and basically wanted some decent photos of himself as he said he usually didn't like being in photos.

We headed to the seafront and the pier, the chosen locations for the shoot. On the way, Alex stopped off at a florist's as he wanted a flower as a prop for the photos. The usual selection of roses, carnations and lilies weren't deemed suitable due to either their size or their colour, but one quite unusual one jumped out at us all - Alex went in to get one and discovered it was, in fact, an ornamental cabbage! On reaching the seafront, the shoot began.

Alex was a very natural subject, happy to be directed and had some good ideas of his own. My not-so-glamorous job pretty much involved carrying the camera bag and lenses, Alex's bag, coat and other paraphernalia and generally being vaguely useful. I must admit that had the subject not been so easy on the eye, I might not have lasted the two hours. It was getting a bit chilly, the sun was disappearing quite fast so it became a bit of a race against time to get the final set of photos under the promenade arches. As it got a little gloomier, I got a "real" job - holding the remotely-fired off-camera flash - I even occasionally held it in the right place! This was a particularly pleasant job when Alex decided he would rather like some shots without his top on. Sigh!

Anyway, it was a fun afternoon, Alex was very friendly and sweet, and it was interesting to finally watch Dade work properly. Alex loved the shots - so he should, they're really good.

If you want to read Dade's blog about it, and see the actual pics, head HERE