Thursday, July 05, 2007

Oxford Uni: Getting Exam Results

Sometimes Oxford University just completely baffles me. Two examples come to mind, both concerning exams. Firstly Oxford, pretty much uniquely in the country, strives to deny students access to exam feedback, including their exam scripts. According to the article, Data Protection law requires that comments on exam scripts be made available on request, but to get around this Oxford ensures that all scripts are shredded as soon as the results are officially announced. No-one else does this, and it seems to be a ridiculous practice. Perhaps there is little real point to demanding feedback for your last exams, but there certainly is for prior exams, allowing one to prepare better in future. Oxford claims that since examiners do not always write comments, allowing access would give "uneven levels of feedback to individuals." Well, read the article and decide for yourselves what you think of the policy.

More clear cut, I feel, is the next example. Oxford appears anxious to prevent exam results going up on the internet. As you can see, the Online Exam Results website, which has in previous years put up photos of the exam result listings, now has a disclaimer stating "For a variety of reasons, including threats of a legal challenge from the university, we are unable to publish results for 2007..."

Why? If there was actually any concern about maintaining the privacy of students, I might be sympathetic. But not only are the lists published in the Exam Schools, they are also up in college lodges across Oxford, most of which are often open to the public anyway! It would seem that if someone were to write down what is on the lists (or alternatively get them from the university site) then type them up on the internet this behaviour would be unchallengable. But the university has threatened legal action for putting photos of these publically available lists up. Absurd!

As for the university site, the apparently preferred method for students to get hold of results, this is only available from within Oxford, and so is completely useless for the vast majority of students who will already have left. If it also available for those few who have set up a Virtual Private Network which, as far as I know, can only be set up within Oxford. So why deny the useful service provided by Online Exam Results? What possible good can it serve? Honestly, I sometimes wonder what goes through the heads of those who run this ancient and revered university.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Smoking Ban: Hopes and Fears

Well in one way, a big hooray for the ban on smoking in enclosed public places, which came into force today. For all the misinformation and twittering going around, it should be re-stated that the purpose of the ban is to protect workers who would otherwise have to work in smoky environments. Even if secondary smoke does not adversely affect health (a proposition which appears increasingly absurd), it makes breathing more difficult and disgusting, causes clothes and body to smell and leads to general discomfort. To anyone who suggests that an employee can simply choose not to work in a place where people smoke, I point to the similar situation of workers who are assaulted and maltreated by customers, but told that they could seek employment elsewhere. It should be the legal duty of employers to prevent workers from being subjected to such behaviour, and that applies equally in the smoking case.

So I am in favour of the ban on that ground, and I also must admit much joy on the grounds of not having to endure smoky atmospheres when out in pubs, clubs and restaurants. Nevertheless, the ban also leaves me with deep worries which only intensify when I read things like this, arguing for further and further restrictions of tobacco. In short, I'm worried that the intentions underlying the ban are not limited by the harm principle.

Consider the following from the article:

"Ministers are believed to be considering a range of options to reduce the number of smokers. These include testing pregnant women for carbon monoxide levels and referring smokers for treatment..."

"Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) wants a ban on tobacco products being displayed in shops or sold in vending machines. It also wants an end to brand names, logos and colours so that all cigarettes are sold in the same kind of packaging - an idea that the tobacco industry, predictably, opposes fiercely.

The Department of Health is, however, finalising proposals for the introduction of graphic picture warnings on tobacco packs, which are expected to come into force next year... Officials are looking into a ban on the display of tobacco products behind shop counters. The age at which cigarettes can be bought legally will rise from 16 to 18 this autumn. The move will be accompanied by a nationwide advertising campaign that will target teenagers."

Okay. As a liberal, I'm starting to sweat here: What kind of movement have I been supporting?

Firstly, let's consider the measures on parents with children. I wholeheartedly agree with attempting to reduce the number of children (particularly young children) exposed to tobacco smoke, which when done in knowledge of the risks I can agree is a kind of child abuse. But you have to be careful about this kind of thing. Where you have mandatory tests on pregnant women which may lead to their punishment, you discourage them from coming in for any tests at all, a retrograde step.

Secondly, moving the age for buying cigarettes from 16 to 18 makes sense given that it is the age for buying alcohol and other things. I still think it absurd that compulsory education ends at 16, leaving many teenagers to get careers, pay tax and possibly get married, without allowing them access to 'grown up' substances and the right to vote. But maybe this is an argument for another time.

What really, really worries me is the rest. A ban on display behind counters, and graphic warnings on packets potentially followed, if ASH gets its way by bans on sale from vending machines and on 'brand names, logos and colours.' This is getting insane. Of course a crucial function of government is to give information to allow consumers to make better decisions, even forcing manufacturers to give that information if necessary. But cigarette packets already include massive warnings. These measures do not inform. They are purely to make it more and more difficult for the tobacco industry - without even taking money from it which can be plowed back into healthcare, as taxation does - forcing them to drive up prices to limit people's options to buy cigarettes.

I will say again, driving up prices to pay for the extra healthcare required by smokers or to inform smokers of the risks is fine and already done. Simply trying to have cigarettes priced out of the means of smokers is paternalistic, suggesting that it is only one step along the line to a full ban, with tobacco lining up with all the other illegal drugs. Once again free choice will be sacrificed in the name of the government knowing best.

I hate having any agreement with those miserable souls who seem to insist on an absolute right to poison whoever is around them with second hand smoke, but here I will stand with them. It is not for the government to take choices from us 'for our own good,' where it is not harming others. Loathsome as cigarettes are, private abuse of our own health must remain a matter for the self.

I still support the current ban, because it protects workers and others from second hand smoke. But I think we need to be very careful where we go from here. We need to curb paternalistic urges and draw a line in sand, reaffirming the rights of people privately, when it is *not* harming other people, to be absolute idiots.