Work for us – Michaelmas 2011

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You know what we’ve read this summer? To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Growing up I believed there to be two sorts of people; those who saw Gregory Peck as the handsome, Vespa-driving journalist in Roman Holiday, and those who pictured him as the dignified, elderly Atticus Finch. As I grew older I eventually came to realise that this was complete bullshit. Regardless of the importance of Gregory Peck in our everyday lives it does however remain a fact that To Kill A Mockingbird has had, and still has, a profound influence which transcends the Atlantic. Timeless questions of tolerance and racial issues make it a book still widely read in schools and which maintains its educational value. This does however not mean that it isn’t a pleasant read.

A “pleasant read” may in fact be a slightly inadequate description of the reading experience, as it is a sometimes very disconcerting tale of human nature and relations. Taking the form of a coming of age tale picturing the childhood in the sleepy southern town Maycomb, it slowly evolves into a story which brings us to the very roots of human behaviour, as seen through the eyes of an innocent child.

The now classic story centres on Jean Louise “Scout” Finch who spends an untroubled childhood with her older brother and widowed father. Growing up an intelligent girl as well as a tomboy who never shies away from a fistfight, she never quite fits the criteria for a young lady of Maycomb standards. As her father is hired to defend a black man accused of having raped a white woman her temper is severely tested, as is her innocent perception of the people and workings in her surroundings. Through Scout’s narrative we are reminded how, although superficially shallow and flawed, a child’s vision and interpretation of its surrounding can be surprisingly acute. Along with her, the reader is taken on a journey teaching us to recognise humans’ potential for evil as well as our great capacity for goodness and compassion.

The story is so much more than one about a trial or a child growing up, and as the title suggests it is a tale to and of the many good people who have been injured by evil deeds. Every society has its own Boo Radley, and as he stands shyly in the corner of the Finch’s living room towards the end of the novel, only to disappear again, he presents a powerful symbol for the ease with which a promising human life can be ruined.

You know what we’ve read this summer? is an ongoing series of articles for OxStu Online, giving you our top tips on books of all shapes and sizes that we think you should be reading this summer.  Check out our last entry here, or come back soon for the next update, and if you have your own suggestions or opinions let us know in the comments!

One in five graduates earns less than the average school leaver

New data released by the Office for National Statistics shows that the pay gap between graduates and non-graduates has narrowed, raising concerns about the value of university education in the job market.

20% of graduates now earn less than £10 an hour, the average pay for those educated to A-level standard. Of these, 75% earn less than those educated only to GCSE level. While the average graduate still earns 85% more than someone with GCSE or equivalent qualifications, there has been a marked narrowing of the gap since 1993, when the figure stood at 95%. The pay gap between GCSE holders and those with A-level or other higher education qualifications has also narrowed.

However, Frances Cairncross, Rector of Exeter College, said that “given the very large rise in student numbers, it seems to me more remarkable that the graduate premium has declined so little”.

According to a recent survey carried out by Santander, two thirds of the companies involved stated that they would rather employ a school leaver with two years’ employment experience than a new graduate.

Graduates are also more likely to work in less highly skilled jobs today. In 1993, over two thirds of those with degrees worked in jobs in the highest skill group, such as managerial positions, engineers and accountants. This figure had fallen significantly to 57% by 2010.

The same eighteen year period has seen the number of university graduates more than double.  One quarter of the UK workforce now holds a degree, compared with less than an eighth in 1993. The latest data are likely to increase worries that the degrees are viewed less highly by employers today.

Universities have promised to maintain or increase the standard of their courses as fees increase from next year. The National Student Survey, released earlier this month, revealed that almost one tenth of final year university students are not satisfied with their courses.

The head of Universities UK, Nicola Dandridge, said: “Degree holders continue to earn considerably more than non-graduates over a working lifetime, and are also more likely to be in employment.

“Despite the exponential growth in the number people gaining a degree since 1993, there still remains a considerable pay premium for graduates.”

Cairncross suggested that the gap has narrowed for two reasons. Traditionally, university has “sort[ed] young people by ability and thus signal[led] to employers that they are highly likely to be brighter than non-graduates”. However, with an ever-increasing number of graduates, employers do no longer see a degree as a mark of intelligence. Secondly, the rise in popularity of ‘soft degrees’ has meant that employers, who have previously thought that “people learn all kinds of things at university that make them more useful”, are less attracted to graduates.

With the growth of new universities over the period, it is unclear whether these data are an accurate reflection of the situation for graduates of older establishments like Oxford. Cairncross predicted that “the number of graduates Oxford produces, especially in the most employable subjects, has risen much more slowly than the demand for their services”.

Nevertheless, she believed there was reason for optimism as Oxford graduates have traditionally earned roughly double the average graduate, and suggested that this figure may even have risen in recent years.

Human rights lawyer to tackle Scottish tuition fees

A leading human rights lawyer is preparing a case to challenge the Scottish government over its policy on tuition fees.

Phil Shiner claims that Scotland’s current higher education policy, which pays for Scottish nationals while charging other UK students up to £2,895 per annum, is illegal.

“It is unlawful to charge fees to English students studying in Scotland,” he said at a recent press conference. Shiner also believes the policy breaches the European Convention of Human Rights on nationality grounds, in addition to a possible breach of Britain’s Equality Act.

A spokesperson for the Scottish government said: “We are clear that the proposals set out are lawful …the arrangements are based on ordinary domicile not on nationality…the priority is to protect opportunities for Scottish students to study at Scottish institutions by providing free education north of the border.” They were quick to clarify that in the midst of £9000 fees in English Universities from 2012 onwards, Scottish students studying in England will continue to receive support from the Scottish government through loans, bursaries and similar schemes.

Moreover the Scottish universities still intend to charge up to £9,000 a year for students from other parts of the UK from 2012. Some Government officials feel that they are doing more than the Coalition Government to encourage and support further education.

However, those studying in Scottish and Welsh institutions from parts of the EU other than the UK will be treated the same as “local” students; they will not have to pay the higher fees.
Yet this is a moot point for many students. One University College second-year said: “Why should mere geographical distance cause that kind of massive financial difference?”

A New College 2nd year said: “There are proportionately fewer institutions in Scotland, so there’s no way the Coalition government here would be able to subsidise English students fully where there are far more Universities … if the fees had been capped at 3,250 quid a year, I wouldn’t have a problem with the different systems, however with the rise in fees, the question of fairness compared to the Scottish system is put into question.”

One 3rd year at the University of Aberdeen said: “ I don’t feel any resentment whatsoever… a lot of the students in Scotland come from England anyway, so it isn’t brought up a lot by anyone, it’s understandable… I feel nobody should pay, but that won’t happen anytime soon.”

Shiner’s legal challenge has  led Labour peer Lord Foulkes, a former Scottish MP and MSP, to put forward a bid in the House of Lords to make it illegal for Scottish universities to charge only English students full tuition fee costs. The bid is to be issued soon. Lord Foulkes argues that the bid should help towards settling an “injustice which unfairly discriminates against the English”.

Two stark solutions are similar funding from Westminster or blanket fees for all students in the UK.  The latter view has been taken by 19-year old Jennifer Watts, the founder of campaign group Make Uni Fees Equal. She said: “it is only fair that either we all pay or no one pays.” Other campaign groups suspect devolution to be source of disparity In University fees.

Beirut: The Rip Tide

Now based in Brooklyn, Beirut has developed from Condon’s bedroom recordings as a teenager into a full band effort; in 2006, debut album Gulag Orkestar channelled the influences of Balkan folk music following a trip to France where Condon discovered a Parisian fascination with gypsy folk. The following year, The Flying Club Cup reflected Condon’s passion for French chanson. On The Rip Tide, Beirut loses the conceptual approach of their prior releases, but none of their distinct sound.

Having fallen from a bridge as a young child, Condon is unable to play the guitar, and instead favours the trumpet and ukulele. Condon’s distinct voice, undoubtedly influenced by his hero and fellow-ukulele player Stephin Merritt (The Magnetic Fields), turns pop songs into ballads, whilst the accordion of Perrin Cloutier maintains their folk credentials.

Bringing their tried-and-tested formula to The Rip Tide sees them operating in comfortable territory. East Harlem, the third track and first single from the album, is a catchy and upbeat number, and Santa Fe is in a similar vein. Both seem to celebrate their respective geographies, whilst Goshen and The Peacock display a much more mellow sound. The former is driven by a three-chord piano pattern whereas the latter is held together by a simple accordion drone. Both tracks allow Condon’s powerful voice to be made clear, but lyrically he is left somewhat exposed. Condon has said in interviews that he dislikes writing song lyrics, much preferring the creation of a song and melody to the lyrical content, and this is quite obvious. His lyrics are simple and short, but this is far from a criticism – Condon praises the gibberish vocals of Sigur Rós as a method to provide melody without implicit meaning. For Beirut, it is the flourish of his trumpet that is left to do the talking, and the record is all the better for it. Where he selects a sparser sound however, as on Goshen, the songs are weaker without the brass section. Album-closer Port of Call proves a highlight and returns to their upbeat trademark sound, allowing the melody to linger long after the nine tracks conclude.

At little over 33 minutes, this is certainly a short and fleeting album, without the same temporal development that their previous albums possessed, let alone the conceptual. More so than their previous releases, The Rip Tide is an album channeling the baroque pop feel of artists like Sufjan Stevens whilst maintaing a world music flavour. Having experimented with Balkan and French influences this is Beirut at their most honest, drawing ideas from closer to home. A solid effort, but much easier forgotten than their earlier efforts, and with less internal cohesion than their more developed preceding albums.

3/5, Ashley Cooke

The fusion of elements of folk roots with the sensibilities of “21st Century Indie” has become increasingly popular of late, giving rise to such acts as the Decemberists and Fleet Foxes, and catapulting previously little known acts such as Iron and Wine into the public consciousness. The third album from Beirut (essentially an alias under which singer-songwriter Zac Condon channels his creative output) is firmly, and perhaps doggedly, set into this mould.

It certainly appears that Beirut have further settled into the faux-folk, eastern-tinged indie groove that was introduced in their previous two albums. The Rip Tide is a rather more upbeat affair than its predecessors, whilst at the same time retaining the melancholy and angst of Condon’s strong yet warbling vocals. There is little variation between the tracks, which all follow the same blueprint – an often-marching drumbeat underneath lush (if unambitious) layers of piano and horns.

Whilst the inclusion in every song of that oh-so-familiar trumpetry does begin to wear after about 15 minutes, some tracks undeniably stand out. The catchy synth-led Santa Fe, is almost impossible not to take a fancy to, and the yearning horn hook that characterizes the single East Harlem is reminiscent, like all the best Beirut tracks, of bygone times in foreign, sepia-tinged countries. And in Goshen, we glimpse the influence of sweet McCartney-esque rock balladry, before the inevitable horn-drum hooks make their persistent return.

The record is introspective both lyrically and in its arrangements. When, on The Peacock, Condon sings ‘He’s the only one who knows the words’, it might as well refer to himself, the lyrical turns being bemusing and sometimes too obscure. The production and arrangement is understated and organic, with the vocals buried deep in a simple mix that, whilst in the spirit of the album as a whole, often masks the lyrics.

There is enough here to distinguish The Rip Tide from its musical colleagues – the wistful romanticism, the distinctive and expressive vocals, the continental tinges. As popular music goes, this is classy, quality stuff. However, it remains conservative in refusing to evolve in style from Beirut’s earlier albums – in fact, it regresses a touch, eschewing some of the french elements that made the previous effort, The Flying Club Cup, stand out. In conclusion: a sure bet, but hard to get too excited about!

3.5/5, Tom Blackburn

Jericho sausage restaurant to “go out with a bang”

The Big Bang restaurant, Jericho’s famous sausage eatery, has announced its closure after seven years of lucrative trading.

The restaurant, a popular destination for crew dates, will be demolished to make way for six new shops and extra student accommodation. It is among five independent traders based in Jericho which are set to close due to a steep climb in rent prices.

Others shops expected to close include Bottega, Liscious, CowboyMod Emporium and The Last Bookshop.

Big Bang owner Maxwell Mason blamed the “greed of landlords and colleges” for the restaurant’s closure, lamenting that the economic climate was “too capitalist” to provide further financial support. The Big Bang premises are currently owned by University College, which leases them through a London-based rental company.

Mason also criticized Oxford City Council as “weak” due to what he perceives as a failure to cooperate with small, local businesses.

“Oxford is the most natural theme park in the world,” he said, “throw the doors open and people will come.”

However, when asked if the recent economic crisis had affected business, Mason said the area had been doing “better than ever”. He speculated that a large chain or supermarket may be the next occupier of the premises, citing Jericho’s recent growth in population.

One 2nd year English student was “outraged” by news of the closure.

“It’s a great place to eat, with fantastic, helpful staff. I suppose you could say it was the heart of Jericho, and I’m very sorry to see it go. I think a vast number of students and Jericho residents will certainly feel the same way. Not to mention the fact that it was used all the time for crew dates – Jamal’s must be feeling pretty smug about it.”

Nonetheless, Mason’s restaurant will be “Going out with a bang!” at a Jericho street party planned for Tuesday 23rd August.

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