River Wissey Lovell Fuller


January 2006

Ron mounts his soapbox to berate the problems of energy supply and academic standards.

So many things that I consider to be so obviously wrong often continue for years and I get frustrated at my inability to do anything about it. As a way of easing my frustration I sometimes write about them in Soapbox and occasionally write letters to various bodies. Over the years I have written repeatedly on some topics; two in particular that I have attempted to focus attention on are the questions of energy supply and educational standards.

The energy supply problem has many facets e.g.; which energy source, energy for transport, global warming etc. Regular readers will be aware that, whilst sympathising with the concept of utilising renewable sources I have been critical of the vast expenditure on windmills which, as predicted and despite the hundreds now in operation, make an almost negligible contribution to the nations electricity demands. At last, however, it seems that the possibility of building some new nuclear power stations is receiving serious consideration, if we do not we will face a major difficulty in meeting the demand for electricity. I have little doubt that reason will prevail eventually and we will see new replacements of our existing nuclear stations at the very least. In my opinion we should have started years ago, we should do more than just replace the existing stations and be more like the French, who produce more than 70% of their electricity by nuclear power.

We are all well aware of the concern over global warming, these days who could not be so aware, but the contribution that the UK makes to global CO2 emissions is almost negligible and many experts will agree that the extent to which global emissions are responsible for global warming is still unknown. Nevertheless it might be argued that it would be wise to try to minimise carbon emissions and nuclear power represents the best option. Probably the second best option is the use of bio-fuels, we are being very slow to develop this possibility, but it now seems possible that we might see this happening on our own doorstep if Wissington's plans come to fruition. A third option is to explore better ways of extracting and utilising coal, possibilities exist for achieving even higher efficiencies of coal burning stations and of extracting the CO2 from the exhaust. Money spent on rather silly windmills would have been far better spent on developing these three options. There is enough coal in this island to last us for a couple of centuries and the NCB was doing good work in exploring better ways of extracting and utilising coal, but this work was terminated by Mrs Thatcher. Current government policy is leaving our energy supply very vulnerable to foreign influence, we have already seen how our dependence on gas has left us open to extortion.

The relationship between energy supply and global warming is another topic in itself. It is difficult to get past all the hype to get to the truth, it does seem as though there is some warming taking place but how much and why are by no means clear. Much has been said about sea level rise but, as with global temperatures, its measurement presents a problem and the accuracy of historic data is questionable. Recently the Rutgers University in New Jersey has produced a report on the history of sea level rise based on core samples from river estuaries in three locations round the world which they claim to give a more accurate record, although I have not seen any justification for that claim. The headline news was "Accelerated rise in sea levels blamed on global warming". Closer examination of the results which, incidentally, show considerable variation from one decade to the next, suggests that the rate of sea level rise has not varied greatly over the last two hundred years during which time it would appear to have risen by about 180mm or 7 inches. You only have to stand on the beach and watch the sea to realise that accurately measuring a 7 inch rise in sea level over a 200 year span is no mean problem, detecting a change in the rate of change i.e. determining if the rate has increased from 1mm/year to 1.5mm/year over a shorter time span you would think is almost impossible. There has been much alarmist talk of rising sea levels but, even at the maximum rate currently claimed by some of 2mm/year it will take 500 years for a one metre rise, although there is the possibility that the rate of increase will change. The variation in heights of high tides in this country is measured in metres, it would probably take a while to recognise a one metre rise in the average. I do believe that there is a tendency for some to distort the truth and spread alarm with false statistics. There is a danger of jeopardising our future prosperity if we do not act in a considered and rational manner. Not only is our future energy supply at risk but improvements in transport, whether in the form of new roads, new rail links or airports are bedevilled by planning controls and endless inquiries that can hold up developments for years.

Academic Standards is the other of my more favoured hobby horses. I have consistently argued that the extensive use of coursework as a means of assessment is partly if not largely responsible for the inability of the assessment to distinguish between the less able and the very able. At last, once again, common sense, is showing some signs of coming to the fore as others are beginning to say the same things and worry is being expressed over the extent to which the assessed work by pupils (and university students) is their own work. Hooray! But why has it taken decades to realise this when it was obvious from the start? Associated with this question is the way in which students in some university departments are being required to work or rather not work. There is a long standing view that study at university should, to some extent, be guided private study by the student, the expression 'reading for a degree' was often heard. Such a view is fair enough provided that there is sufficient sanction applied to the students to ensure that they do undertake this private study. Unfortunately there is considerable pressure applied to university staff to ensure that the majority of students entering a course of study finish by getting their degree and the threat of failure is greatly diminished as a consequence. A recent journalistic investigation of some university courses in the humanities revealed that student-staff contact in the first and second years was often as little as 6 hours/week and that students were spending a lot of time watching day time TV or in the student union bar. Such unstructured learning is potentially unhealthy for young people that have just left school but it is a characteristic of many degree courses in the humanities and social sciences. In my old college it was a standing joke that staff in those disciplines did not like having lectures on Wednesdays because it interfered with the weekend, but it is not funny. Students on more career orientated courses such as science, engineering and medicine are required to demonstrate a certain level of understanding and competence and have a curriculum that is too full to permit this type of laisser-faire attitude.

Among other matters in the news recently that have made me angry is the claims that the introduction of 24 hour drinking would make us more like France, where there is less of a problem due to excessive drinking, and more like New Zealand where the liberalising of drinking laws has eased their problem. Both claims appear to be untrue.

And the case of alleged rape when the judge dismissed the case because the alleged victim admitted she was too drunk at the time to know what she had said. She was a young university student who went to a 'do' in the university and got drunk, a university security guard escorted her back to her flat and then had sex with her. Whatever she might have said in her drunken state and however reprehensible her behaviour might have been, he knew she was drunk he knew it was his responsibility to see her home safely and he took advantage of her vulnerability, no way could he be regarded as innocent. What does this judge's decision say now for the future? It seems to imply that any man can happily rape any woman that he fancies just so long as she is drunk!

Ron Watts

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