Friday, 29 July 2011

Student Fees

With schools breaking up for the summer, many young people will be making the most of a well earned break before they get their exam results in the middle of August. For those who have just taken their A levels, it is a particularly anxious time because the results they get can affect their hopes of going to the university of their choice.

The changes the government brought in regarding tuition fees raised the threshold before students have to repay any contribution to the cost of their fees, so graduates will only start to repay money if they earn over £21,000 per year. In that sense, graduates will have less pressure on their finances than their predecessors. However, it is also true that the overall student contribution to tuition fees, over their working career, has now increased. That is why it is so important that the next generation of students shop around and demand more from universities for less money.

I was disappointed to see so many universities decide to charge the maximum fee possible of £9000 per year. This highest fee was intended to ensure that the very top universities, such as Oxford or Cambridge, were able to maintain their position as international centres of excellence. Higher fees can be justified in such institutions because there is a genuine premium on the career prospects of a graduate leaving Oxford or Cambridge so they will be able to afford it. However, in a lot of other cases, the decision cannot be justified. It looks like some universities charged the highest amount because they regarded it as an issue of status: that, to be perceived as a “top university”, they had to charge as much as possible. This “spend as much as you can” mindset is exactly the sort of backward attitude that bankrupted the nation’s finances over the last decade and students should have no truck with it.

The solution is to increase competition. Earlier this summer, Cornwall College announced that it would be offering degree courses for £6000 per year. Some other universities are charging a full 50 percent more for identical degrees. In the old days, Colleges like Cornwall College could only offer degree courses through a franchise agreement with another university which then used to take a cut for themselves. The government has now decided to open the system up, cut out the middle man and let colleges offer degree courses directly which is good news for students.
Some academics have wailed that this is a “race to the bottom” but it is nothing of the sort. It is just healthy competition. We need students to realise that the universities and lecturers work for them now and students now decide what a course is worth. They should vote with their feet to get the best deal they can.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Localism

I have visited many of the parish and town councils in recent months and plan to meet the remainder in the months ahead. The government has put the principle of “localism” at the heart of its agenda and I want to make sure that it works in practice as well as in theory. This is especially important in Cornwall because we are a dispersed county with a single unitary authority so we need strong town and parish councils as a counterbalance.

Localism means a radical transfer of power downwards: from national government to Cornwall Council, from Cornwall Council to the parish councils and from parish councils to local groups who can get things done. If you give institutions power, then they will develop greater responsibility. If we want to attract talented local activists to stand for election on parish councils then we must give them the tools to do the job. Serious people have no interest in attending a talking shop that gets ignored.

Under the last government, there were a lot of disappointed hopes. Some parish councils say that the old Cornwall Council paid lip service to localism but refused to let go of the purse strings. It is crucial that we get it right this time. The problem with previous attempts is that the balance of power within the relationship was wrong. Local authorities regarded parish councils as mere “stakeholders” to be listened to and talked at. The only way to change this is to change the law so that there is a presumption in favour of parish councils that gives them a proper negotiating position.

Everything the government has done has been aimed at driving this culture change. In future, parish councils will be able to put forward their own plans and put them to a referendum of local residents. If supported, these parish plans will take precedence over the opinions of Cornwall Council planners. A developer who has strong local support will be able, in some circumstances, to by-pass the planning authority altogether through a local referendum.

The government is also going to allow communities to keep all of the council tax on new homes that are built and match that pound for pound with an additional bonus. This creates a powerful incentive for local communities to build housing for local need (but no more). But Cornwall Council will only be able to build the houses it plans, if it gets the agreement of parish councils. This, at long last, gives parishes the negotiating position they need. They should demand their share of the new council tax bonus in return for their agreement to accept some new housing and they can use that money for the things the community wants. This would boost the authority of parish councils, giving them more money and ensuring that they can never be dismissed again.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Health and Safety

One challenge facing the government is how to restore a culture where people are prepared to take more responsibility for themselves and their communities. Last week, Michael Gove made an excellent step forward by slashing health and safety guidance for schools from some 150 pages to just eight pages.

Adventure and learning by your mistakes is a crucial part of growing up but, in recent years, there has been an appalling growth of petty, back covering process and paperwork which has stifled personal initiative and undermined the values which make a civilised society.

Last week, I met a constituent who tried to organise a charity event by getting everyone in the village to open their gardens to people from the neighbourhood for a fee that went to charity. He was told by his insurance company that he wasn't covered for doing such a low risk good turn for society and so the event was put in jeopardy.

I have come across numerous events this summer where organisers have bemoaned the growth of ludicrous rules regarding road closures and the like which have hindered their communities. Camborne Chamber of Commerce is currently in a dispute with Cornwall Council over so called “bunting regulations” - petty rules which require a risk management assessment to be carried out before bunting can be put up for special occasions.

Last summer, the King’s Troop, were granted "freedom of the town" by Camborne Town Council during their visit to Cornwall and a ceremony was planned where the cavalry would parade through the town. In an ironic twist, safety concerns meant that freedom of the town was limited to a tiny stretch of Trelowarren Street at which point they had to turn around and go back.

A key driver of this risk averse culture has been the growth of sham litigation. Lawyers offering “no win, no fee” services have created a whole industry. Solicitors can even buy insurance so that if they lose a case, the defendant’s legal costs are covered. They can afford this because they take a big cut when they do win. The result is that people can sue at no risk to their own pocket and that is wrong. That is why the government also unveiled plans last week to crack down on this iniquitous compensation culture.

But another reason this risk averse culture has grown is that governments, local authorities and, to some extent, the public have failed to recognise the value of risk. Risk taking is an essential flip side to the pursuit of excellence. Successful business people take risks all the time. Life itself is a bit of a risk. I am not saying we should abolish health and safety regulation altogether – dangerous industries like farming and construction definitely need protection. But it needs to be proportionate. Surely we can take a chance on a bit of bunting?

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or on 020 72197032.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Cornwall School Games

Last weekend I attended the Cornwall School Games which was taking place at a number of venues around the county. 1600 Cornish school children took part in a whole range of events including athletics, rugby, hockey, netball and even sailing, cheerleading and gig racing.
Cornwall was one of just nine areas across the country to pilot the idea of a major county wide games event covering many different sports. The aim is to boost the amount of competitive sport taking place in schools and to inspire all children, whatever the ability, to achieve their own personal best performance in the sport of their choice.

With the Olympics coming to Britain next year, we need to do all we can to leave a lasting legacy and if one of those legacies is a new games event that lasts for years to come and helps children find the sport that is right for them, that would have been one good outcome.

I have always thought that sport has a crucial role to play in education. Despite the old stereotype of the brainy children at school being the less sporty, the truth is that there is actually a lot of evidence that physical activity and fitness can boost the performance of the brain. There has also been concern in recent years about the growing problem of childhood obesity. The growth of electronic games and home computers means that some children are less active now than they perhaps might have been in the past and it requires a special focus on sport to try to counterbalance that development.

Because of our coast, Cornwall is also blessed with a whole range of sporting activities that are not realistic prospects in other parts of the country from surfing to sailing and so everyone can find something that they enjoy or are good at. At Stithians reservoir, we also have the best site in the UK for windsurfing.

The other striking thing about sport is the strong network of support with all of the voluntary clubs and we should take our hat off to the hard work of volunteers who keep those clubs going. When I was growing up, my passion was running and I will never forget the volunteers at Cornwall Athletic Club who gave up their time to coach us, drive the mini bus to competitions at the weekend and act as officials at all the events. Quite often, these volunteers started because their own children were interested in the sport, but once involved, they were committed and would often stay involved for many years after their children had moved on.

I hope that last weekend, some of those 1600 children will have discovered a new passion for a sport they excelled at and will go on to pursue it through one of the many local clubs.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or on 020 72197032.