Tuition fees for Argentina? No, thank you!

Argentina is the latest country proposing the introduction of university tuition fees to combat growing economic turmoil and the low international competitiveness of its higher education institutions. Is this plausible? I agree with Alberto Barbieri, rector of the University of Buenos Aires, who contends that implementing fees is simply ‘not the answer’. 

As it stands, public university courses in Argentina are largely free for both home and international students. This may all be about to change. Faced with crippling economic pressures and ongoing failure to catch up with the relative successes of their international counterparts, Argentinian universities may soon begin implementing tuition fees.

Those calling for the adoption of fees appear at a loss of how else to resolve problems circulating the Argentinian higher education sector. Campus budgets are increasingly under pressure meaning that per capita student resources are underfunded, arguably limiting the level of educational attainment an individual may gain. We only need to look at UBA to see that, in relation to its Latin American competitors, its per capita funding is scarce. In strong recognition of this crisis, THE reported today that a shocking 70% of Argentinian students fail to graduate on time. This is only likely to worsen, with sky-rocketing inflation and a drastically falling Peso, which prompted the nation to seek out a $30 billion loan from the IMF in May.

Arguably, tuition fees would be the easy solution. Bring more money into the universities? Check. Increase per capita funding and resources, as a result? Okay. Improve regional and international competitiveness of Argentinian universities? Done, fantastic.

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University of Buenos Aires- Argentina’s largest university, home to 4 Nobel Prize Winners

However, tuition fees are scarcely ever the ‘easy solution’.

Unsurprisingly, in any nation, protests usually commence at the very mention of this proposal. Consider the outright chaos sweeping through the UK in 2010 over tuition fee hikes. Notably, Argentinian students are no strangers to protesting against educational reform. Only last year, schools were occupied by students contesting proposals which, if implemented, would pose an ultimatum between attaining work experience at the end of high school or failing to graduate. With the heavy burden of economic disarray currently facing Argentina, further protest and disruption (on top of demonstrations recently launched concerning the nation’s dealings with the IMF) is the last thing the country needs right now.

Political disruption aside, tuition fees would also pose a much deeper problem: capping off university to those who can ‘afford it’. Dr Barbieri told THE: ‘I came from a working-class family and was the first to graduate from university in my family. I am an example of how important [it is to have] diversity of social classes in our universities’. He added that the proposed reforms would ‘damage meritocracy’.

Barbieri’s comments have considerable merit. Diversity is one of the elements that makes university such a special place to be. Universities are often hubs of not only cultural exchange, but of learning how others, from backgrounds different to oneself, have grown and developed. As well as being simply very interesting, opportunities to connect with those from a range of social backgrounds offer crucial learning experiences. After all, university isn’t all about what you learn in the classroom.

He is equally correct in his recognition of potentially damaged meritocracy. Believe it or not, one particular socio-economic grouping alone does not monopolise the intelligence or skills necessary to enter university. This would be a revelation if we were still in the 18th Century, but, alas, we are not. Fees make learning in higher education not a healthy competition of the organised, knowledgeable or motivated, but a game between the wealthy in society. The rebirth of a society like this anywhere (let alone in Argentina, with its historically large middle class, namely thanks to increasingly wide accessibility of education) would be detrimental.

Even on a restricted budget, UBA has been relatively successful as home to 4 of Argentina’s 5 Nobel Prize winners. However, unemployment continues to rage, with graduate jobs a rare find. So, is it really a toss up between accessibility and quality of education for Argentina?

Not necessarily. Barbieri proposes a whole host of measures, none of which include putting a price on higher education. Internationalising courses, staying in tune with technological change and constantly reviewing labour market demands are a start. These measures, if carried out efficiently, will not require lumps of money to be implemented. Instead, they will prepare Argentina to face its ongoing economic calamity, which is only likely to worsen in the forseeable future.

 

The good, the mediocre and the disillusioned

This week, Britain’s local council elections dominated national headlines. Whilst the term ‘expectations management’ was at the centre of most analysis, the nation’s leading parties failed to produce significant gains. 

On Thursday, 150 council elections took place across the UK, alongside a handful of mayoral races. Prior to a mixed bag of results, many commentators had predicted a woeful performance from the Tories, in the face of Theresa May’s tumultuous premiership and the unexpected outcome of last year’s General Election. However, this did not materialise, with the party profiting from carefully crafted expectations management. At the base of each party’s chosen spin lines, the results were as follows:

  • Labour won 2,350 seats, up 77.
  • The Conservatives won 1,332, down 33.
  • The Liberal Democrats won 536 seats, up 75.
  • The Greens won 39 seats, up 8.
  • UKIP won 3 seats, down 123.

As these results show, the day produced some clear winners and losers, with Britain’s two biggest parties offering relatively mediocre performances. On the other hand, smaller parties, such as the Liberal Democrats and UKIP, were pertinently affected by the local contest results.

The good

It was perhaps the Liberal Democrats who profited the most from this year’s local elections. After being effectively washed away in 2017’s GE, the party made significant gains on a local level this week. Offering a strong performance in ‘remain’ favouring areas, the Lib Dems reclaimed Kingston-upon-Thames from the Tories whilst seizing its neighbour, Richmond. Gaining four councils may be a modest achievement when compared to Labour and the Conservatives. However, this is a considerably more promising result than previously anticipated by Britain’s ‘third party’ with leader, Vince Cable, stating: ‘It’s certainly the beginning of the comeback of the Lib Dems’, whilst pragmatically noting that this revival would not happen ‘overnight’.

The mediocre

Labour and the Conservatives failed to produce significant results, leaving their spin and ‘expectations management’ to do the talking, rather than the outcome itself. Whilst both parties took away seats from a dormant UKIP, few major surprises emerged. May survived her first large-scale electoral challenge since last year’s General Election and comparatively few seats changed hands. This was, however, a relief for May, in the context of ceaseless public scrutiny, cabinet scandals and the knowledge that the ruling party normally performs poorly in local elections. The Conservatives were heavily grateful towards strategic expectations management, which assured that the party outperformed relatively low predictions analysts and members had previously expressed.

Labour, on the other hand, claimed that its mediocre outcome had demonstrated a consolidated party position. Its hopes of claiming seats in Westminster and Wandsworth were dashed, although the party did take Plymouth from Conservative hands. Losing ground in areas such as Barnet, North London, Shadow Local Government Secretary, Andrew Gwynne, believed that the party’s recent anti-semitism row had plagued this particular outcome.

The disillusioned

By far, the biggest loser of the night was UKIP. The party failed to retain a grand total of 123 seats. After previously profiting from the divisive context of a contentious Brexit discourse in 2014, this outcome indicates that many voters perceived the party as one which is (or was) single-issue driven. The party’s response was somewhat disillusioned, with former deputy chair, Suzanne Evans, focusing on how UKIP’s acquisition of two seats in Derby meant that it could still, to her, ‘put the cat amongst the pigeons’. However, for any kind of substantial influence on the political landscape, UKIP must learn from this and redefine itself rather than live in denial and disillusionment.

Who are La Douane and why are they in so much trouble?

Border security. We see it discussed everywhere today, from its domination of international news headlines to parliamentary agendas of every level. In the face of globalisation and increasingly porous borders, many countries, of course, are fighting this trend in the name of so-called ‘national security’. Without a doubt, each country needs some element of border control to combat terrorist epidemics and the traffic of drugs. However, we only need to look at France to see how some nations are taking the patrol of their borders too far, at the expense of citizen liberty…

It’s 30th March 2018. A TGV (super-fast train) is on its way from Paris to Milan. All is running smoothly, until the Douane arrive to proceed with their security measures. For readers who don’t know, the Douane is the French Customs and Excise Agency, who live to protect French borders from contraband and any dodgy characters. They fight Drugs Trafficking, Counterfeiting, Cigarette Smuggling and Illegal Immigration. However, the way in which they behave often makes it appear as though they are fighting anybody who is not French, or, in some cases, even those who are French, the very citizens who they seek to protect.

Now, in this particular instance the Douane suspected a Nigerian man, on an innocent trip from Paris to Milan, of smuggling drugs through concealing them inside his body. As a result, they would not leave him alone until he could produce a urine sample. So, what did they do? When the train arrived in the Italian town of Bardonecchia, they led the ‘suspect’ (who, by the way, was innocent), into the base of an NGO, to perform the control measure. On the one hand, La Douane, based on a 1990 agreement, claim that they had the right to use the premises for this purpose. The NGO’s comments suggest otherwise, with witnesses saying that the armed border agents burst into the clinic, forcing a migrant into producing a urine sample, whilst intimidating doctors, mediators and lawyers at the base. Needless to say, diplomatic ties between Italy and France suffered.

This isn’t uncommon for the Douane who, for the most part, like to throw their weight around, even when in the wrong. Based on both personal experiences and reputable news headlines, such as this incident in Italy, the Douane take pride in being as rude and intimidating as they wish, until they are certain that their ‘suspects’ go away feeling as uncomfortable as possible.

Take today, for example. My boyfriend and I were en route back from Milan to Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport. For one reason or another which remains to be known, we had the joy of passing through passport control and then past our good friends La Douane, who, frankly, looked very bored. All of a sudden, we were halted, for no apparent reason. After being addressed incredibly rudely and treated like convicts (again, for no apparent reason), our passports were checked. After our passports were cleared (thanks, GB), it was obvious that the agent was trying to find a reason, any reason, to keep us just a little longer. He turned to my new Moschino bag, a birthday present I picked up in Monte Carlo last weekend. He, of course, asked where it was from. Mishearing Monaco for Morocco, his face lit up: maybe he had found some contraband! Needless to say, I abruptly clarified ‘Monte Carlo’ was the destination from where I purchased my handbag, before he reluctantly let us go.

La Douane

La Douane: should they change their ways in the interest of citizen liberty?

Compared to what else I’ve heard and seen, this was relatively tame of the Douane. Worse was when I witnessed a surprise roadside inspection on a long, stuffy bus trip back from Brussels. All was running smoothly, until… you’ve guessed it: the Douane jumped out of a few unmarked law enforcement cars and made everyone get off the coach, along with all of their bags, including those stowed below the vehicle. Each and every one of us was forced to line up along the peripheries of a petrol station forecourt, passports in hand, to be interrogated one by one before we could return to the now-sacred comfort of the bus.

This was the worst case of racial profiling I have so far come across in France. Whilst, with one glance at the cover of my GB passport and confirmation that I was indeed British, I was granted permission to leave the line, others were not so lucky. This included an Argentinian couple, to my left (and about anybody else who did not look ‘French’ or, indeed, Western European). The Argentinians were interrogated and it was intense, making many of us feel as intimidated and violated as they most likely did: where are you from? Where are you going? Why did you go here? How long are you staying there?  How long have you been there? Do you have any drugs? Drugs are illegal!!! Show me your identity now!

I appreciate that these are the kind of questions that need to be asked, the demands that must be made, to keep a country safe from crime and chaos. However, whilst the Douane may ask the right questions, they do it in completely the wrong way. Three common traits arise that must be changed or France risks compromising the liberty and respect of innocent travellers and its own citizens.

Firstly, whilst they may just be ‘doing their jobs’, it astounds me how rude many of the Douane are in their interactions. For me, there is a clear difference between talking to somebody quickly/efficiently and just being outright rude. I mean, imagine the chaos that would ensue, should a Douane officer actually treat his/her ‘suspect’ as a human being. We need to remember that the Douane’s primary function is to protect France and its citizens. I do not see how talking to citizens, or non-citizens, like something on the bottom of your shoe is compatible with this mission. Would it really be that difficult to be pleasant, or even neutral, rather than plain disrespectful? Perhaps the Douane should save their impoliteness for legitimate criminals, rather than dishing it out left, right and centre. In my opinion, anybody who has done no wrong has the basic liberty of being spoken to as a human being, rather than being treated as a worthless object.

Secondly, the racial profiling element that the Douane would never admit to (but clearly base their work upon) must change. Racial profiling in the realms of French law enforcement is a big problem and it will, inevitably, take a while to change this. However, the security procedures of the Douane are beyond the joke. Their lack of consistency in interrogations is laughable and blatantly unjust. Imagine a system where you pick out anybody who is ‘non-French/European looking’ (even if they are, indeed, French or European) as a potential criminal. It astonishes me how such covert (and, sometimes, overt) racism is still taking place in 2018. This not only makes the Douane look out of touch and antiquated, but also impedes the liberty of citizens based on their race and incompetent profiling carried out by supposed professionals.

Finally, the Douane must stop considering themselves as untouchable, as a force that work above and beyond any rules or regulations that may come their way. The recent Italy example which dominated headlines is a perfect demonstration of this ‘God-like’ attitude in action. Forcing your way into an NGO fails to appear as completely ‘legal’, but abusing its staff in the process? Nobody should have the right to behave like this, let alone those supposedly safeguarding citizen interests. The fact that this occurred on soil foreign to the Douane only makes matters worse.

 

An emoji too far: Brexit cashcow or freedom of expression?

Barely a day goes by where something Brexit-related fails to make it on to the media agenda. As reality has it, Brexit dominates conversation today, particularly in the UK but also across social media, with its powerful international reach.

Numerous companies and politicians alike have been ‘cashing in’ on the contested Brexit verdict. The latest installment of this was aired yesterday when The Guardian reported that an Italian company are planning to release two contrasting ‘Brexit-themed’ emojis. In essence, consumers will soon be able to tailor their social media profiles in line with their individual Brexit stances. Those interested will get the chance to purchase the company’s new application, before selecting between a cigar-touting, bulldog ‘Brexiteer’ emoji or its ‘Starry Blue’ remainer adversary.

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Brexiteer Bulldog vs Starry Blue: would you use them?

As with any divisive issue, there are two sides to the coin. The company has picked up on how frequently Brexit is discussed on social media platforms and claim to simplify any confusion brought by current mixtures of emojis used to illustrate views surrounding the issue. They insist that the focus groups they quizzed about the app would happily use the symbols to tell others what Brexit means to them.

Of course, emojis were intended to simplify our conversations. Anybody can now receive multiple ‘beer-clinking’ emojis and know exactly what their pal intends to do later that night. Whole conversations have been had via substituting tried and tested words with amusing smiley faces and pop culture symbols. However, perhaps we should think about the confusion an emoji exemplifying an issue as complex as Brexit could lead to. After all, ‘Brexit means Brexit’, but what does that really even mean, in itself? Does anybody know right now? No, not at all. The relentless ambiguity surrounding Brexit developments and discourses means that the proposed app will simply trivialise an issue that we need to take very seriously, given its potentially grave (or, if you’re a Brexiteer ‘incredible’) aftermath.

We also forget that emojis themselves can, believe it or not, come with a complete lack of context. Pair with this the idea that many of those who voted in the referendum sat passively in the middle of the leave-remain spectrum (a far cry from the nationalist bulldog or the EU superfan the app conveys) and a spell for disaster becomes apparent.

The European Collective (a group of Brexiteer Tory MPs) and the Remain Group (a cohort of Pro-EU MPs) have issued a joint statement to label the app plans as ‘divisive’ and ‘dangerous’, after they were leaked. ‘Dangerous’ may be a slight over-statement, but frankly, a fresh means to invoke divisiveness is the last thing that Britain’s chaotic political scene needs right now…

Companies will always play to current affairs, some opportunistically cashing in on political developments. Perhaps the emoji firm is making a great commercial decision. Perhaps they are simply responding to market desires. Former employee, Riccardo Nicoletti has even argued that political campaign groups would happily spend other peoples’ money to get an advantage, so why shouldn’t his previous employer?

Even so, what is arguably of greatest concern is that, if users do not wish to pay for the emojis, they can simply ‘share their political preferences’ with the firm in exchange… Hello? Have we not learned anything from the Cambridge Analytica Scandal? Exchanging one’s personal information in return for access to any kind of social media activity invokes significant vulnerabilities. Let us not forget that collated data sets on these desired ‘political preferences’ may be used by organisations a lot less amicable than one’s chosen emoji provider…

Making Schools Safe Worldwide: The UN Response

Anybody who knows me well will tell you where my passions lie. I love to write, of course. I really enjoy learning new languages. I simply love to learn. At the base of these interests, I have a clear underlying passion: education.

I don’t just mean educating and improving myself, either. I believe that quality education for all, regardless of whatever situation one is born into, is fundamental. In my opinion, to give each and every child in the world a solid educational foundation (and opportunities to pursue learning further) is key if we want humanity to develop to its full potential. More crucially, if we, as a global society, want to stand any kind of chance in defeating the socio-political, ecological, mammoth-sized challenges we face today (and will face tomorrow), we need change. We need a world where every child truly has access to a quality education. We need a world where everybody has access to tools which allow voices to be heard and true agency to be exerted.

This is why I was initially so sad to read an article by Diya Nijhowne in UN Special, recently. She spoke about how armed conflicts across the globe frequently lead to attacks on students, teachers and schools, whilst both state armed forces and non-state armed groups have been known to take over school buildings, transforming them into military bases and check points. Ultimately, the author brought what I already knew to the forefront of my mind: armed conflicts can destroy the education of millions, at the drop of a hat.

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Nijhowne’s article for UN Special was both moving and inspiring

The fact that this is a reality to so many children across the world (with UNESCO recently reporting that around 263 million children and youth are out of school) is tragic. Education has gotten many of us to where we are today and will take us to where we want to be in the future. The idea that more individuals than 4x the size of the entire British population are far from the very first step on the staircase to meeting their aspirations saddens but also motivates me. I want to make a difference.

The good news is, work is already being done to target the specific issue Nijhowne shares. Championed by Argentina and Norway, the Safe Schools Declaration (aimed at enhancing the protection of education during times of conflict) has been endorsed by 72 countries.

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The UN are working towards safer schools, in the face of armed conflict

What can we take from this? Primarily, a whole host of nations have committed to protecting learning during conflicts, whilst also pledging to limit the usage of educational infrastructure (schools, universities)  for military ends. Nijhowne says that progress is already being made, with nations such as Denmark and New Zealand demonstrating a clear enthusiasm for the Declaration. She also notes that the likes of Afghanistan, Sudan and Niger are already using the Declaration as a ‘framework’ for improving the safeguarding of education in times of armed conflict.

These observations are all, of course, very promising. Hopefully with the weight of such a range of nations behind the Declaration, children living in the midst of armed conflicts will gradually find their educational prospects restored. One can only hope.