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Why a university degree is still worth its weight in debt [Jul. 6th, 2010|07:52 pm]
James Dunn
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[Current Location |United Kingdom, Bicester]

              When I scrolled down the list of results my heart sank as I saw my name wasn’t within the 2:1 column, relegating my dreams. I was not alone with my 2:2 degree classification but it did little to subside the feeling that the last three years had been a waste. My degree in archaeology from Durham University seems unimpressive on paper, three years with a mountain of debt snowballing out of control and a degree that was not conducive to employment in journalism, a market that is furiously competitive out of recession let alone in it. This, however, is a gross misinterpretation as the common saying “Don’t let your degree get in the way of your education” rings very true in my case.

             I arrived at Durham with no direction for the future and no clue what I wanted out of life, seeing the next three years as merely a stop off point before the real world and by that time I would have life the universe and everything in it completely solved. I have always loved photography, from my first disposable camera to my 21st birthday present of a high tech digital SLR. The arrival of the camera was twinned with it a desire to have these photos showcased somehow; this came to fruition in the form of Palatinate Newspaper, Durham University’s student paper. After a year of taking the odd photo of Durham events and more artsy photographs I applied successfully to the position in my third year of Photography Editor, this is where I found the ‘direction’ I had been searching for.
            The role within the paper gave me the confidence to start writing articles, I had always been somewhat mocked for my dyslexia by teachers and fellow pupils alike as it resulted in bad spelling and my brief writing style that always condemned me to bad marks at school and university. However, this newfound outlet perfectly suited my dyslexia as sub-editors ironed out my atrocious spelling and my writing style fitted perfectly into the small spaces in the paper. I later moved on to other papers, writing for four separate student newspapers -locally and nationally- by the conclusion of my degree and I believed that this would be my future, my calling. However, my degree classification had not aided me with swift sail into a journalism job as many employers will see my grade and simply add it to the rejects pile, nearly eight out of 10 employers (78 per cent) have admitted to not even considering graduates without a 2:1 degree despite work experience and perhaps greater ability in the field.

          The squeeze in graduate jobs has forced hundreds of thousands of graduates to be far more intrepid with career choices. Instead of knocking on a close door for months and months I have decided to travel further afield in search of career opportunities. During my gap year and subsequent summers I worked in a Tibetan refugee camp in North-West India as a teacher and carer and I have always wanted to show the world the lives they have had, the hardships they have had escaping Chinese rule and living in exile. Therefore, since the UK media industry is closed for economic maintenance I have chosen to travel back to the refugee camp and write a book documenting the lives of individuals living out their lives as a forced refugee.
         Although I may never use my archaeological knowledge base and my 2:2 my forever haunt me, I wouldn’t have changed my decision in hindsight. My university education without a shadow of a doubt has created this future for me. My education in journalism may well have got in the way of my archaeology degree but it has prepared me better for life than any first could have ever done. So I urge those seeing the statistics today to not shy away from university life as it will give you far more in life than a few numbers on your CV will ever represent.
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My Interview with Charley Boorman [May. 11th, 2010|04:25 pm]
James Dunn
Date of interview: 15/09/09

      I sat at my desk at 2pm for the scheduled phone interview with Charley Boorman, star of Long Way Round, Long Way Down, Race to Dakar and By Any Means. After twenty minutes of waiting for him to call me I got the call from a very embarrassed Charley. He was waiting for me to call him after not listening to his PA and he had begun editing his new show By Any Means 2 so we agreed to reschedule, Charley constantly apologising for the mix up. At 4pm I ring him back and got a very shouty Boorman with a loud siren in the background as he fought with his burglar alarm that his cleaner had recently set. We settled down and began to chat about his early work with Ewan McGregor; Long Way Round a motorbike trip from London to New York over land using a plane to just get them over the Bering Straight. On the early set back of getting rejected by KTM (major bike manufacturer) for the three bikes they needed for their trip Charley says “At the time it was a massive disappointment but looking back now I really don’t think it was. Ewan was always keen on the BMW bikes and the KTM’s had major flaws for a trip like ours, BMW did well out of us too with a 53% increase in the sales of the bikes we used (BMW R1150GS Adventure) after it went on air”. I asked him if there had been any bitterness between the team and KTM and unsurprisingly he sent them an email from Magadan after completing the hardest part of the journey that KTM pulled out of saying, “Ewan and I are having a great time and loving the BMW bikes” surprisingly KTM didn’t reply. He clearly struggles with leaving his family, his wife Olly and his kids (Doone and Kinvara). This is very obvious by the greetings he gets on his return from all his trips and as his children grow up they are evidently finding it harder too. “There is always a dark cloud to the silver lining of getting to travel”.
     All of a sudden there was a barrage of “shits and buggers” as he tires and fails to make a Latte one handed with his new coffee maker, resulting in a work table flooded with hot milk and a very sweary Charley. Charley has ridden over some of the toughest terrains in the world, but has never seriously wanted to pack in a trip and go home. “It’s very rare to feel like leaving, only when you feel sorry for yourself then I’ve only wanted to quit places not the actual trip. Like the Road of Bones in Siberia, you can’t complain because we made the route and we were never looking for the easy route”. In January 2006 Charley competed in the Dakar Rally a bike ride from Lisbon to Senegal. Sadly he only completed five days before being forced to pull out with broken bones in both hands after toppling over his bike, but is determined to compete again. “Definitely, 100% I’ve always got plans to try again and now its in South America the draw is massive”. At the beginning of Long Way Down, another motorbike trip from John O’Groats to Cape Town, Charley was ‘arrested’ by airport security staff at Gatwick for using the word bomb after a row with a member of staff. “Ah the bomb situation! In the context of the argument, she was being so unreasonable, complaining about my bag I’d left ‘unattended’ against a wall. There were only two other people in a lounge big enough for thirty, they also agreed how rude she was”. The result of the row meant that he missed his flight but it could have been far worse as he now sees and admits his own failings. “I didn’t help the situation at all getting angry, Colin (Ewan’s brother) was very disappointed that I wasn’t arrested he was eyeing up my place on the trip”
       Although his trips are epic in magnitude and miles, they tend to be tiny in their timescales; he takes a few months to do trips that have taken some people years. Of those months spent travelling he gets little time to himself only one afternoon from the 3 months of the new trip. “Of course you have to make the most of your time, I wish we could have more. But even if we did have more time I would still not have enough to see what I want. I met two Irish guys at the airport in Kathmandu who were arguing what to do with their last 6 months. They saw me laughing at them and they asked why; it was because we were having the same issue with only a month left!” Since leaving Ewan McGregor to his acting career Charley went solo. However he received worrying reviews prior to By Any Means being televised. The split happened because of Ewan’s film career taking up more and more of his time. “I had already done the Dakar Rally by myself and Russ (director/producer) pushed me towards the change. It changed the pace of everything and the dynamic change was really important. Ewan is still really up for the next trip it’s just finding the time”.
      Filming By Any Means involved a planned trip from the UK to Australia using as many forms of transport as possible, except planes, including a London bus, Rickshaw and of course a few motorbikes, racking up 112 forms of transport with varying success. However the route had to be changed to avoid Afghanistan and Tibet, as the Chinese closed the borders. “Missing Afghanistan was a major bugger as I wanted to meet the troops but would be too time consuming for the soldiers to look after me… sneaking into Tibet with a film crew would be too obvious and I wouldn’t do too well in prison, going in a virgin coming out something else!” He’s had a fair few set backs and break downs along the way, but, as he puts it, “breaking down is the journey”. His best memories of the trips are the difficult journeys from a boat breaking down in Borneo and “the crazy Indian roads”.
     His new adventure, aptly named By Any Means 2, in which Charley travels to Japan from Australia, is unsurprisingly done in the same vein as before as he island hoping his way to Japan via the Pacific Rim. He confesses that he used far more motorbikes for this By Any Means journey, as it his favourite form of transport and wants to share his love with the viewing public. Charley explains his interest in the Pacific Rim since childhood. “The Pacific Rim always interested me, Papa New Guinea especially. Cannibalism really drew me in. It’s such a new country it wasn’t until 4 August 1938, when Richard Archbold discovered 500,000 people living in the forests. Tokyo was such a contrast with a lot of aggression especially at night due too their low alcohol level tolerance. We’ve been drinking for ages!”
    After such a long and hard trip you would think Charley would want a year out, but he aims to do a trip every year for at least 10 years. His next dream trip (which he couldn’t confirm due to producing rights) would begoing from England to Tunisia, then up to Sicily by boat then back home. He wants to take his family and make it a food tour of the countries. Travelling with his family will of course relieve his fears of leaving his family for such long periods of times. However, with the arguments he tends to have with some of his fellow travellers, I hope that his family won’t drive him up the wall too because no one likes to watch an arguing family.
     We ended the call with Charley trying to get me thinking about my dream trip, encouraging myself and anyone else to think big when it comes to travelling and of course making the most out of the time you have in a country. Chatting to Charley left me with the impression of a warm and friendly man, which must be why his shows are so successful and I for one hope that he doesn’t stop travelling the long way round or by any means.
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My Interview with Jeremy Vine [May. 11th, 2010|04:20 pm]
James Dunn

     Since graduating from Durham in 1986, Jeremy Vine has gone from a lowly student to one of the BBC’s leading figure heads. He now hosts such shows as Panorama and The Jeremy Vine Show, some of the most well known shows in the UK. His reporting style is world renown and highly credited, it has taken him from his early days at the Coventry Evening Telegraph, to Africa and is now one of the key political and current affair’s presenters. So I caught up with Jeremy to see how his time at Durham University set him on his path to the media spot light.
     Jeremy arrived at Hatfield College in 1983 as a fresher from Epsom College and found the culture of Hatfield very daunting. At the time Hatfield was all male and had a serious rugby boozing culture. “They [Hatfield JCR] were campaigning to keep women out of College. Looking back now it was rather sexiest”. Hatfield’s rebellious streak at the time led to a very disastrous Hatfield Day that echoes that of St Chad’s Day of last year. However, Hatfield Day was so unhinged that it was banned after Jeremy’s first year. Jeremy recalls the fateful day. “Chicken drumsticks were thrown at the Master’s wife and someone dropped a boiled egg down one of the tubas of the local brass band from a balcony. That was appalling actually.”
     While at Durham, Jeremy became involved with Palatinate. During his third year (1985-1986) he took over the mantle of editor but explains that it was quite a different paper back in those days. The transformation from a quiet hub of a few students to a university wide contributed paper may seem a little boggling but Jeremy points out why. “Not many people at the time were thinking about jobs in the media. You won’t believe it, but there was a drive by papers to recruit people and I think there was a lack of people who were into the idea. The Palatinate office was tightly-packed with a very small number of obsessed, like me, but there wasn’t a crowd. We were the university squares. The media boom came later.” In comparison perhaps to our era, many of the team Jeremy worked with also went on to become leading figures of the media. “Jayne Morgan, she now runs a very successful podcast in South Africa, Adrian Wells who is now the head of Foreign News at Sky News and Judith O’Reilly who was a very successful blogger and is a best-selling author. Tim Burt worked at the Financial Times as their motor industry correspondent.” Their rise to media stardom from Palatinate may seem like a dream come true for all you budding journalists, but as Jeremy points out we aren’t going to be quite as lucky. “Happy days. We graduated into a boom. With the recession now it is much, much tougher. But at least the economy is not Armageddon. A year ago it looked like it might be.” Jeremy was editor twinned with being a radio DJ for Metro Radio, where he worked the graveyard shift once a week (2am-5am). He describes his degree as “50% vocational, although that would have been news to my tutors.” As he puts it, “my academic degree suffered” and he graduated with a 2.2 degree. Jeremy obviously misses his time at Durham, calling it the simple life. “I didn’t need a diary back then because I had nothing on, now my diary seems to be minute by minute. Back when I was at University we didn’t have the technology you do; now you can email, text, call and twitter. I used to just go and knock on a mate’s door and go for a pint.” I asked him what the best thing Jeremy had taken from his time at Durham. “Living within sight of the most beautiful building. You may be lodging with three students who haven’t learnt how to use the shower yet, but it doesn’t matter. You can see the Cathedral when you go out the front door, and that’s what matters.”
      After graduating Jeremy went straight into a journalism course with the Coventry Evening Telegraph, which is still being printed, although times are tougher. Within a year graduating he had already moved onto working for the BBC and by 1989 he had already become a regular reporter for The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4. During his time working for The Today Programme, Jeremy found a way of relaxing after his fifteen hour shifts by creating two graphic novels. These graphic novels (Forget Heaven, Just Kiss Me and The Whole World in My Hands) were set amidst the modern Church of England . They were clearly vents for his religious beliefs. However, he doesn’t look back on them with great glee. “I’m a bit embarrassed about them now. The publisher was crazy enough to print them. They will be no great footnote in my life.”
      In 1997 his journalist skills took him to warmer climates when he became the BBC’s Africa correspondent based in Johannesburg, travelling all over Africa. He undertook one of the last interviews by the BBC of Robert Mugabe and won critical acclaim with a piece about the brutality of the South African police force that led to suspensions of 22 policemen. Jeremy admits that those were the most special days of his career. “A reporter’s life is fundamentally what journalism is all about. Discovering things. Even presenters often wish they were back on the road, though their connection with the audience is a very special thing. But being in Africa was amazing. Sometimes, people I was interviewing had not seen a microphone before, let alone appeared on the radio.” His move to a more public role began in 1997 when he joined Jeremy Paxman and Kirsty Wark as one of the presenters of BBC2’s flagship Newsnight. However, his biggest challenge came in 2007, when he took over the helm of Panorama, the longest running current affairs documentary series in the world. The mantle also came with the extra pressure as it was moved to Mondays at Primetime, so it had to compete with the likes of Coronation Street. They came through the trial by fire of Monday nights and created the incredibly influential documentaries that Panorama is famous for. Jeremy’s proudest report is the documentary about the Matthew’s family. Karen Matthews was the mother who arranged the abduction of her own daughter, Shannon. Panorama had exclusive access to police records and got a great response. The show saw a huge rise in viewership of 5.6 million tuning into the hour long special. However, Jeremy isn’t proud of the ratings, he is more impressed by what it has achieved. “It was a discovery of a whole layer of Britain we didn’t know existed, or wanted to.” He also commented on a very recent Panorama (still on iplayer) about racism in a Bristol housing estate and the topics power to shock. “It makes you think bloody hell is this what’s happening.”
     Jeremy’s religion is a very personal thing to him and it is obvious from his answers that he is careful to not offend anyone. He is an open Anglican but it is very clear that his religious leaning should not effect his reporting. “Presenting must be professional. The key thing is to be real as much as you can but without putting individual views on the table. Once they are out there they cant be taken back.” He has been quoted on occasions worrying about the extent to which people can discuss faith openly without being pilloried. In a country where political correctness has taken over sense, Jeremy is very firm that he is not attacking the BBC, merely the change in public opinion. The Daily Telegraph reporter George Pitcher ran an article in January of this year calling for Jeremy to become Archbishop. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw that online. I had breakfast with George recently and I was too embarrassed to bring it up. I don’t think I would fit the bill though.”
    Talking to Jeremy I was so impressed that even though he had started journalism early he still has such love for the job and his effect of his work has not diminished. Jeremy’s final statement is very conclusive as to why he still loves reporting and why others would too. “Journalists must have a great sense of mission, but must always question everything around them.”

The Jeremy Vine Show is on weekdays 12 till 2 on BBC Radio 2
Panorama is on Mondays at 8:30pm on BBC1
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Starbucks emerges from the recession [May. 11th, 2010|04:16 pm]
James Dunn
     Article from February 2010

      The coffee shop giant, Starbucks has declared a rescue in its fortunes this week, with a tripling of its profits for the recent quarter. In the three months ending in December it recorded a net profit of $241.5 million (£148 million) compared to $64.3 million in the previous year. In the last two years Starbucks has been ruthless in its attempts to keeps to keep its dwindling profits afloat, they slashed thousands of jobs and closed swathes of underperforming outlets worldwide as recession hit shoppers cut out their regular caffeine fixes. This triumphant turnaround was led by founder of Starbucks; Howard Schultz who returned as chief executive in January 2008 to endeavour to save his company, with his heavy handed but highly successful methods. At the time he confessed Starbucks has expanded too quickly resulting in an inevitable downturn in profit, as Schultz admitted "The big issue I think was that growth is not a strategy, it is a tactic, and if growth becomes a strategy I don't think it is an enduring one. I think growth covers up mistakes."
      As well as closing over 900 of its coffee shops worldwide, Starbucks employed many other ambitious strategies to try and beat the recession. In July 2009, the first unbranded Starbucks was opened in Seattle, the home of Starbucks. 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea was completely absent of Starbucks logos, customers had to search hard to discover its true identity, with “inspired by Starbucks” in small print on the menus. After almost 40 years since it began plastering their logo all over its stores – now 16,000 worldwide – Starbucks was attempting to escape its own brand name. The ‘Stealth Starbucks’ represented everything that its regular coffee shops aren’t with one of a kind furnishings, customers asked to play their own music on the stereo system as well as their own pet social cause. Senior vice-president, Tim Pfeiffer explained that unlike its usual cloning of a single template “This one is definitely a little neighbourhood coffee shop”. This change has also begun this side of the pond, a recent Starbucks opened in London’s Conduit Street was furnished with second hand mid-century modern furniture, in an attempt to individualise stores. Schultz stated in his recent visit to England that the new store "is a reflection of realising that the relationship we want to have with our customers should harken back to this sense of community, this unique store environment". His plan is to refit 100 outlets in a similar vain by the end of the year.
      With their average spending per customers reduced they identified that people still wanted coffee but at a cheaper price, thus they introduced a credit crunch coffee, Via. This instant coffee in sachets has proved to be this company’s unexpected saviour. Via was rolled out in September – in its thin orange and brown sachets – to Starbucks stores across the US and Canada. “We expected a contribution from Via, but it was even more than we expected” said Chief financial Officer Troy Alstead “ We knew it fir perfectly for people on the go, but there was much bigger single serve, at-home usage than we anticipated or hoped we could get”. Stores saw a 4% rise in sales in the US and 3.9% in the UK, which the company has attributed mostly to Via. However Via has not been a completely problem free product, during a press conference, at which Howard Schultz, was present, Starbucks had openly claimed that it had been expressly told by the Food Standards Agency not to describe Via as instant coffee because the quality of the coffee was better than other products, including brands such as Kenco and Nescafé. It later issued a statement admitting that the claim was false and the Food Standards Agency had not said anything about the product.
      However, now that they have rebounded from the brink Starbucks has no plans on taking it easy, with plans of epic proportions for 2010. They recently announced a partnering with the fast food sandwich chain Subway to place branded outlets of Starbucks into 9,00 Subway stores throughout the US by the end of the year. It also aims to break into the Chinese market with massive expansion plans, the end goal to making China Starbucks the second largest market after the US. If these rather risqué expansions are successful as well as the continuing success they are seeing Starbucks seems to be the cat that got the cream, and then made a Frappuccino out of it.
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Help for Heroes has become the charity du jour [May. 11th, 2010|04:12 pm]
James Dunn
    This month saw the safe return of soldiers from their tour in Afghanistan after some of the bloodiest fighting in post war history. Many took part in the frontline on Operation Panther’s Claw, one of the most ambitious and some consider foolish pushes into Taliban strongholds. However, almost all of the people returning have experienced the bereavement of losing members of their regiment who become like family, entrusting their lives to one another throughout the six months.
    During the operation a massive percentage were injured, with almost half of the frontline troops requiring significant medical treatment (according to a Guardian reporter who received this information from a senior military source). These casualties were sustained during intense fighting, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or the massive strain of being in theatre. The single most astonishing aspect of this fighting is how those who were injured have coped and how positive they have been in the face of a life altering event.
My brother was serving with the Light Dragoons in Helmand during Operation Panther’s Claw. He was lucky to escape with only minor injuries after his tank drove over an IED and my family know how different the outlook could have been. As the recently retired Colonel of the Regiment, Lieutenant General Sir Roderick Cordy Simpson put it, “lucky for Charlie he is built like a brick shit house and wasn’t badly hurt”.
      Many members of his regiment were not as fortunate; the Light Dragoons suffered one of the highest numbers of wounded and fatalities during their time on tour. These losses were not only felt through the regiment but throughout the UK as the faces of the deceased were plastered in every tabloid and news programme. In comparison, however, the number and faces of those injured remained somewhat of a mystery. This is where Help for Heroes has stepped in, to care for those who are to an extent away from the public eye but who desperately need support in picking themselves up from the brink to recover a fraction of a normal life.
     Since being formed in September 2007, Help for Heroes (H4H) has sky rocketed into the public spotlight and raised over £33 million. The Ministry of Defence was very quick to jump on the band wagon and by the 1st October it had formally shown its support. Bryn Parry (founder of Help for Heroes) made the purposes of his charity clear: “Help for Heroes was formed to raise money to support our wounded in their long battles towards rehabilitation and with rebuilding their lives,” he said. “The money raised will enable our service charities to provide facilities which are today beyond their means.” The charity’s rise begun very early and by Christmas it had attracted support from national newspapers, such as The Sun and The Sunday Times who made it one of the beneficiaries of their Christmas appeal in 2007.
     But the real leap to a household name came a year later, when two very public events took place. The first was the Help for Heroes rugby match that took place at Twickenham, featuring top rugby players from around the world. It raised £1.1m and was televised live. The most public fundraiser occurred a week later when the ‘unforgettable’ stars of the 2008 X-Factor brought out their rendition of Mariah Carey’s song Hero. The government saw this as a PR opportunity and Alistair Darling announced that he would effectively waive VAT on the single, so that more profit would be made. In the first week of its release it went straight to number 1 and sold 313,244 copies, more than the rest of the top ten combined.
     So how did a charity started by a husband and wife raise on average £1 million a month? With charities already in existence that offer similar support it is very surprising that Help for Heroes is capable of being so successful. The Royal British Legion was founded in 1921 and sets out to provide financial, social and emotional support to millions who have served or who are currently serving in the British Armed Forces, and their dependents. In my view Help for Heroes has triumphed because it focuses on the younger generations. The poppy appeal is associated with the elderly veterans while newer charities like Help for Heroes resonate more with the current front liners. The H4H’s patrons show very clearly the focus on younger people, with Jeremy Clarkson, James Blunt and Ross Kemp heading up the list.
      The extreme media attention surrounding the Iraq and Afghanistan war has also created mass sympathy for soldiers serving as their day to day struggle is beamed through all media by journalists posted out there. With the horror stories of the injured soldiers shown on screen in such documentaries as Wounded and Dispatches, H4H has become the outlet for those feeling helpless about the government’s treatment of our men and women.
     Critics of Help for Heroes say its media attention and its fashionable status means that other charities suffer. However, the Royal British Legion’s financial statements show a 9.4% increase from 2007 to 2008 and the poppy appeal for last year raised an incredible £31 million. Within Durham the Poppy appeal fundraising increased from £1,412 in 2007-2008 and £1,887 in 2008-2009. So even though Help for Heroes raised such a massive sum others have not suffered, pointing towards the general public simply giving more to military charities then ever before.
     The H4H website shows where the money is going; the most impressive would be the building of new facilities at Headley Court. Headley Court provides specialist medical officers, remedial instructors, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech and language therapists and those working on the building of prosthetic limbs. Not only does the centre deal with patients with new physical disabilities, but it also deals with patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They have donated £8 million to the building of a swimming pool and other buildings. In previous years they have had to use the public swimming pool in Leatherhead, which has not been ideal. In November 2007, soldiers were working on their physiotherapy when they were jeered at by onlookers, two women even demanding that they be removed because it would scare their children. The soldiers no doubt suffered a massive hit in confidence as they try and fit back into society. So H4H’s money is allowing them to recover in state of the art facilities and away from disrespectful morons.
      H4H’s fashionable success has also reached into the Durham bubble with members of Hatfield College raising almost £13000 this term alone. Even if you don’t like Hatfield (as many of the chants at 2am will show) they still should be appreciated for their contribution to ensuring these men and women can have normal lives.
      To conclude by showing how the money is spent on individuals: early this year Lt Guy Disney, 27, a family friend, lost his leg from below the knee to a rocket propelled grenade when his armoured reconnaissance vehicle was engaged by the Taliban. Since returning to the UK in July he has undergone surgery and rehabilitation at Headley Court and now he is able to walk, run, horse ride and last week he was able to march with his regiment and collect his medal.
      Our soldiers should get the best. They give more, risk more, sacrifice more, and they should be given more. We can give them more. Even if you don’t agree with war, there’s a difference between supporting the troops and supporting the war. So I urge you to follow the example of Hatfield and make Help for Heroes a Durham wide fashion.

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My Interview with David Cameron [May. 11th, 2010|04:02 pm]
James Dunn
      Article from 6th October 2009

    Since becoming the Conservative leader in 2005, David Cameron has attempted to re-invent his party to be a kinder face to politics with his ‘Hoodie Hugging’ and the prim and proper appearance trying to cast off the memories of the harsher Thatcher years.
      In the current economic climate Cameron has also attempted to turn the Conservatives into an economic Messiah, promising redemption for the UK. So can this Eton and Oxford boy offer real solutions to us, the cash strapped student population of the UK going into one of the toughest employment markets in recent history, or offer more hollow promises, just from a different party? I got a chance to find out.
With Tuition fees seeing another rise this academic year, meaning that students are facing even bigger debts at the end of university or stretching further their already highly stretched purse strings. I asked Cameron how the Conservatives would intend to ease the financial strain on an already financially troubled student body. “I know how difficult some students find the financial burden placed on them by going to university. We have been calling for an independent review of the entire student finance system for the past two years. It is imperative that the end result of this review is that barriers to people from disadvantaged backgrounds entering universities are removed. We also need to use the review to ensure that any change in fees results in both widening of access and an improved student experience. The review mustn’t simply be about fees, but also about enhancing the student experience, changes in the patterns of teaching, and a fair deal for students.”
      With unemployment hitting an all time high for 13 years and increasing rapidly to 7.9% from 7.2% in 3 months (April to July 09), current figures from July show 2.47 million unemployed. This shift has meant that young people have suffered badly from this recession. However, Cameron’s upper class upbringing meant that he had an easy flow into employment, making him an enviable figure at this hard time. It also meant that he had easy access to work experience through his family, first as a researcher for Tim Rathbone, Conservative MP for Lewes and his godfather. Through his father, he was then employed for a further three months in Hong Kong. All of us wish to be that lucky at landing useful work experience rather then working nights at Tesco just to pay the rent. We now have the highest youth unemployment rate in the European Union and the number of graduate jobs on offer is down by over a quarter for young people. I asked what Cameron would put in place to care for those graduating. “We must do all we can to help new graduates find work as soon as possible. We would invest in improving career advice services, so that every graduate looking for work has access to personalised careers advice. We would also like to encourage postgraduate qualifications. For example, before the last budget, we urged the Government to create 25,000 additional Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) places.”
    One thing that Cameron is very firm on is retaining the tuition fees which all students must pay. In his first statement on the educational policy of his new Conservative party back in January 2006, Cameron stated that “You want to go to universities that are well-funded, [with] good tutors, good facilities and I want as many people who think they're going to benefit from university to be able to go. If you want those things and as you also know we've also got to keep taxes down in this country the money's got to come from somewhere.” He said in the same speech that “students are going to have to make a contribution.” This decision has been criticized by the general public and the Liberal Democrats, although they have recently done a U-turn on their promise to abolish tuition fees saying that it is simply not feasible in the current economic climate. This comes as the Labour and Conservative parties row over the slightest use of the ‘c-word’ (which doesn’t stand for what you might think, but rather cuts in public spending). On the other hand the Liberal Democrats instead intend to U-turn on their promises and savagely cut public spending. The use of the ‘c-word’ has become a massive thorn in the side of all the major parties and is becoming a significant factor in peoples voting. A recent survey done by Newsnight of 1050 adults showed that 39% trusted Cameron to make the right choice in cuts to public spending where as only 24% believe in Brown and 17% in Clegg. These results line up very well with peoples voting habits.
      Durham University offers one of the most generous financial support packages in the country with its Durham Grant Scheme. Last year 1760 Durham students were awarded grants. This may be a relief to many. However, Durham with more students entering Durham this year and more undergraduates staying on the percentage of students receiving these grants in likely to decrease. Fewer parents are able to help their students financially. Cameron’s responds that “People studying should not have to suffer from financial hardship and people from disadvantaged backgrounds should not be put off studying because of financial pressures”. This however, is easier said then done with education becoming more costly as the years go by. However, Cameron thinks that this could be solved by a new look bursary scheme. “The bursary system needs to be reformed to ensure that those really in need are helped. We need to ensure that the independent review of student finance that we are calling for is focused on easing financial pressures on students.”
       One way of dodging the increasingly short supply of jobs is to join the army, which a high percentage of Durham students decide to do. The Army Scholarship is offered to 250 students who intend to enter into Sandhurst after an undergraduate degree of their choice to be trained as an army officer. I questioned Cameron on the ethical implications that come with the vast financial incentives that this offers, perhaps leading them to ignore the 3 years mandatory service by the giant golden carrot of £9000 for a 3 year undergraduate course. “We should be extremely grateful that there are numbers of talented young men and women in this country who are willing to join the Armed Forces and make sacrifices to protect our security.They do a magnificent job, and under the military covenant, they should be properly supported.” With many families experiencing losses due to the increasing magnitude and violence of the war in Afghanistan I questioned Cameron about why the numbers of injured soldiers remain somewhat of a mystery to the general public, whereas the number of killed soldiers are plastered on every paper daily. “Clearly there have been and are issues with the statistics and with the MOD's data keeping in this area. I believe that it is always best to be straight with people about the sacrifices that our servicemen and women are making. The MOD should be doing more to provide the public with detailed information.”
     As I moved on to a lighter note with Cameron we discussed his time at Oxford. While there he freely admits to being a member of drinking clubs, notorious for their bad behaviour. This however did not seem to hinder him as he graduated with a first in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. So I asked Cameron what the best thing that he had learnt from his years studying “How to organise a good argument.” So any budding politicians, the conclusion is simple: that you shouldn’t cut student finance, only review how the money is spent, make sure that the public is kept in the know and get down to the Union Society for some organising of arguments.
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Dark days for Democracy [May. 11th, 2010|03:49 pm]
James Dunn
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Is Usefulstudents.com unhelpful to students? [May. 11th, 2010|03:44 pm]
James Dunn
      A Student recruitment site has come under fire from the National Students Union (NUS) who have labeled
their business methods as “contemptible”. Two recent graduates from Edinburgh University who as they put it “identified a student need” started Usefulstudents.com only two months ago. They’re unique and controversial techniques are how students apply for jobs, students post their personal statement and how much they are willing to be paid. This secret bidding process has created much skepticism as it could lead to students being encouraged to offer very low rates in any attempt to get any job. With unemployment reaching an all time high this year, any part-time jobs that become available are immediately snatched up, usefulstudents.com offers a flawed lifeline.

    The NUS has raised its concerns with the website’s ethics, Wes Streeting, NUS president, told The National Student “ Given that students are graduating with record levels of debt, and job prospects are at an all time low, it is no surprise that many are having to take on part-time work that can sometimes adversely effect their studies”

“This site encourages a disturbing race to the bottom of the wage pile. For many students, part –time work constitutes a crucial part of their income, and it is contemptible that this should be taken advantage of in this way”

    In reply to the amassing criticism the company has received, Andre Howes, co-founder of usefulstudents.com stated “There is no requirement for students to use our services if they don’t like the concept or feel that they are being taken advantage of; they are intelligent people, they are free to choose and there are many other sources of work”

“There is no assumption that students need to bid low and no requirement for job providers to accept the lowest bid as there are other factors. Students can bid high if they believe that their particular skills or experience justify a premium”

      Employers specify a maximum they are prepared to pay, and students post if they will work for equal or lower than the employer’s outlay. The employers then evaluate the quotes and the student’s feedback, to then come to a decision. One employer who used usefulstudents.com commented “I had the option of choosing a student at £4.00/hr but then choose a student at £7.00/hr because they had superior credentials.” The NUS’ and many other’s critics have not been taken lightly by usefulstudents.com, Andrew Howes attempted to reassure both students and employers, by evaluating their current position “to identify any necessary improvements and to make changes where necessary so that we can be confident rolling it out nationally and responsibly in due course”
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The return of Tony Blair: a lucky charm or a bad omen? [May. 11th, 2010|03:36 pm]
James Dunn
Article from 30th March 2010

      The former Prime Minister, Tony Blair returned to the political spotlight yesterday to put his political clout behind his successor, Gordon Brown. The speech was held in his former constituency of Sedgefield, County Durham under a flurry of political and media fervour. In a speech clearly aimed at the ever important floating voters he highlighted Gordon Brown as a man of “experience, judgment and boldness.” adding that the financial crisis “required leadership. Gordon Brown supplied it”. This clearly glowing character reference comes in stark contrast to their relationship while Blair was in office, an article in June of last year revealed his true thoughts

“Tony Blair believes Gordon Brown's political future is doomed because of 'the darkness in his heart' and his 'lies' - and feels Mr Brown has no one to blame but himself.” Daily Mail 7 June 2009

     Blair used the time to criticise the Conservative party accusing them of being “confused” on key policy issues including the economy, law and order and the NHS, adding that "That's not a confusion, actually; that's a strategy and the British people deserve to have that strategy exposed before polling day."
    The Conservative along with the majority of other parties have come out in damning the return of Blair to party politics, Shadow Treasury minister Greg Hands said he was writing to the Commons Business Advisory Committee to ask it to investigate whether Mr Blair has breached any of the rules for former ministers. Tory leader David Cameron said he was "not at all" worried about Mr Blair's entry to the campaign, quipping: "It is nice to see him making a speech that no-one is paying for." Mr Blair has been able to command huge fees as one of the stars of the global speaking circuit since leaving office. The Scottish National party (SNP) suggested the reappearance of the former Prime Minister should embarrass Brown, "Tony Blair has cast a long shadow over Gordon Brown's time as prime minister and now he is coming back to do the same in the election campaign," SNP Westminster Leader Angus Robertson said "Bringing back a man who faced police questioning over cash for honours and is widely reviled for taking the country into an illegal war in Iraq at a time when we need to rebuild trust in politics is a disastrous move for Labour.".
With the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war still in the spotlight it has been seen as a surprising move to bring Blair back in to the political frontline, a Liberal Democrat MP told me “His return simply gives us more political ammunition to highlight the corruptness and desperation of the Labour party”.
      This is not the first time a former Prime Minister has been used in a build up to an election, in the build up to the elections in 2001 Margaret Thatcher was used by William Hague in his failed attempt to overthrow Labour, she strongly attacked Blair, calling his Labour Party "rootless, empty and artificial" and accusing him of destroying her legacy. This heavily backfired, as she was a publicly vilified figure, her closing of the mines and other policies still very much in living memory. With Blair’s murky past still in the media spot light, both the Iraq war and his vast expenses it is yet to be seen if his return will be a talisman for Brown or the beginning of the end for Labour.
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Student Accommodation Costs Skyrocket [May. 11th, 2010|03:32 pm]
James Dunn

        A recent survey has discovered a sharp national increase of 22% on student accommodation payments since 2006-07. The review, undertaken by the National Union of Students (NUS) and Unipol Student Homes reveals an unprecedented increase, a rental rise 13% above the average rate of inflation. The report released this month expresses both the concern at the snowballing rental costs and what needs to be done. Wes Streeting, president of NUS concludes a gloomy prospect for students should the rise be allowed to continue “Students are already graduating with tens of thousands of pounds of debt, and soaring accommodation costs will only make the situation worse. With graduate job prospects at an all time low, things are looking very bleak for many students.”
      However, with a 23% swell in applicants for university places this year, according to UCAS, this increase seems unlikely to cease. Wooster and Stock, a leading estate agent based in South East London that caters for students have seen this rush to secure housing at any cost. Jenny Holland, Head of Lettings at Wooster & Stock, explains: “The number of university applicants has had a significant knock-on effect for the rental market. Since house prices picked up in January many landlords are selling their properties, and this shortage coupled with the sharp rise in demand for student housing will see rents increase even further. For many undergraduates, securing rental accommodation is becoming extremely difficult and the potential consequences are terrible.” At a recent Goldsmiths University Open Day they experienced the shortage first hand, with 11 groups of tenants for every four bedroom properties available to rent.
      Students throughout the UK have suffered as a result of these price increases, Katharine Clissold a second year student from Exeter said “We looked at one place that was above a fish and chip shop that smelt badly of fat and had tiny rooms and was £85 a week without bills” and Morgan Lewis a third year archaeology student from Durham told me “Last year I lived in a house that was £79 a week, this year the same house with no changes costs £85 a week”.
     Both NUS and Unipol agree that to avoid plunging students further into debt, educational institutes must step in and put their weight behind a change in rental schemes for students. Martin Blakey, Chief Executive of Unipol stated in the report: “Whilst high quality student accommodation is to be welcomed, it is of concern that lower priced accommodation is no longer available” adding that "Educational institutions must make sure that they maintain a range of accommodation types at a price that all of their students can afford." Wes Streeting stated, scathingly "It is remarkable that, despite the fact that students are already incurring huge costs in order to obtain a degree, some vice chancellors and private providers think it is acceptable to both argue for higher tuition fees and slam students with excessive rent prices. Students simply cannot afford to be hit with this double whammy."
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