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Hi, this is Gerry, and this is my News Digest for Friday 2nd March, 2018. On today’s show, my main story is about foreign aid  and a scandal that has hit one of our biggest overseas  charities . Before that I’m going to talk about how much it costs to go to university here, and I’m going to finish with news of a new form of socially useful physical exercise. Thanks to Irina and Sister Raphaela for their messages. Irina asked about the notice in the lift. Was it really wrong? I think the truth is that it wasn’t completely clear. If you want to read more about this, there’s a reply from me on the website.
The number of young people in Britain, aged 18-24, in full-time education has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. Mr Blair, when he was Prime Minister, wanted to see half of all young people going to university, and that is now close to the truth. A modern economy needs more people with a better education than in the past – that’s the reason. In order to achieve  this growth, we needed both to open new universities and to expand the older ones. My local university used to have about 2,000 students in the 1970s when I was there; it now has nearly 11,000. This expansion has cost a lot of money, so who’s paid for it? To begin with, it was the government, but it was costing more and more. The top universities – like Oxford and Cambridge and the best university colleges in London – began to worry about their funding . They argued that the money was being spread thinner  and thinner amongst all the different universities. Other people argued that university students should contribute directly to the cost of their education because graduates , people with a university education, generally end up earning more than people without. Why not have a system of student loans , such as they have in America?
And that indeed is the system we now have. Young people today have to pay about £9,000 per year in fees  to cover the cost of their education – that’s before they start to pay their living costs. They can borrow the money from the government and they have to start paying it back, with interest , once they begin to earn over a certain amount – about £20,000 at the moment. On average a young person leaving university today and starting work, will already have over £50,000 of debt. Americans are used to this sort of system but Europeans are not, and British fees are much higher than in any other European country. On the other hand, British and American universities tend to dominate the world university league tables.
At the last election here in 2015 the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn promised to scrap  student fees, and this was, understandably, a very popular policy with younger voters. Since then the Conservative party has also been wondering what to do about these fees. When they were first introduced, the government announced a maximum that universities could charge. It was expected that there would be a free market, and only the top universities would be able to charge the top price. It didn’t work out like that. Every university course in England (because the other British nations have slightly different systems) costs the same. This is something that Mrs May would like to change, but she’s still committed to  the principle of fees. She’s just announced a review into the funding of our universities. This will take a year to report. After that, who knows?
There’s an old English proverb that says “Charity  begins at home”, and you hear it quoted quite often these days. What does it mean? Well, most people use this expression to mean that you should look after your family and people close to you before you worry about people you don’t know. (It could also mean that we learn charity at home, in the sense of learning to love and care for people.) Anyway, the reason we hear this expression a lot at the moment has to do with our foreign aid programme. The United Kingdom has a law that says that our foreign aid budget is fixed at 0.7% of national income . This figure was set as a goal by the EU in 2005 but not many countries have actually met that goal yet. The UK is one of the biggest foreign aid donors in the world, and this doesn’t please some people who feel that we could be spending the money better on our own health and social care system, for example. There are criticisms both of the amount that we give and also of what the money is spent on. There are accusations that too much of the money ends up in the pockets of corrupt politicians and government employees in the countries we are trying to help. So far, all the big political parties, apart from UKIP, have nevertheless supported the current level of foreign aid, but a recent scandal will perhaps threaten this consensus.
The scandal started with Oxfam, one of the best known international charities. A British newspaper reported that employees of Oxfam working in Haiti following the earthquake there in 2010 used prostitutes and were guilty of sexually inappropriate  behaviour. Prostitution is illegal in Haiti for a start and it would also have been a misuse  of Oxfam funds if paid for by Oxfam; and, of course, it would be seen as morally corrupt and an exploitation  of the local population. Oxfam management found out about what had happened: the people involved were either sacked  or moved on, but it wasn’t reported to the Haitian or British authorities.
As I speak to you this week, the story is still developing. Other global charities have had similar problems and they have probably dealt with them in a similar way. Over a third of Oxfam’s operations are paid for out of the UK government’s foreign aid budget, and other public monies . The big NGOs , like Oxfam, do relief work  on behalf of  national governments and supranational organisations like the UN. All UK government funding for Oxfam has now been suspended. And what about all the private donors  – all of us who give money to organisations like Oxfam? We provide two-thirds of Oxfam’s income. Will we stop giving? It’s difficult to say at the moment.
It seems to me that working in places like Haiti in 2010, or in the refugee camps of Europe or East Africa or Bangladesh, is extremely stressful, and difficult to manage. Not only that: these places attract a whole range of people with all sorts of motivations. I think that there will always be some bad apples , as we say. But what you can’t do, is cover up scandals any longer.
Finally today, here’s a fitness tip for you. This is a way to improve your fitness while doing something socially useful. Well that’s what it said in the newspaper article I read. The article was recommending something called “plogging”. The word comes from Swedish apparently and the idea from Sweden. It’s a form of jogging but you take a rubbish bag with you when you go and you pick up litter  from the streets or the parks where you go running. I can imagine that this form of exercise is probably more enjoyable when the weather is not too cold, so perhaps you’d better form your plogging group in the spring.
To comment on my stories, please write via the PodClub website (podclub.ch) or on Twitter under the address @Gerrypod. And don’t forget the PodClub app with its extra features. I’ll be back with my next News Digest on March 29th – a day early because of Easter. Till then, take care!