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29 August 2011

University Education - What are the Scots up to?

I didn't go to University. When I was at school I never felt the need, nor did I perform well enough to make the grade anyway. I put things right after I'd left school and finished up with a professional qualification which, I was happy to hear, was described as a "Degree Equivalent".

Notwithstanding my teenage antipathy towards University Education I soon learned to appreciate that if our Country is to keep its head above water it needs well educated young people, especially in mathematics, engineering and science.

I am therefore greatly annoyed by the decision of both this government and its predecessors in deciding to make university students in England pay up to £9,000 per year for their university tuition. Education is so important that any half-civilized country should pay for it out of taxes. No-one should begrudge paying the tax because we all benefit from a well-educated society and a vibrant economy.

The fact that young people now have to start their lives with debts of up to £27,000 (or £36,000 in the case of four-year courses) round their necks is a disgrace. I have been, therefore, heartened by the fact that the devolved government of Scotland (currently led by the Scottish National Party) has maintained the principle of education free at the point of use.

But recently my admiration has turned to anger as they have now decided that English students attending Scottish Universities will have to pay for their tuition, whereas (in an act of breathtaking stupidity) they permit European students to attend free of charge. They mutter something about this being because they are members of the European Union.

Last time I looked, England (as part of the United Kingdom) was also a member of the European Union. I understand a group of students are going to Law to challenge the Scottish administration over this. I wish them all the luck in the world.

06 August 2011

Complimenting Gas & Oil Companies

For the past 33 years we've had oil-fired central heating in our house. The other week our 2700-litre oil tank sprung a leak. We had no trouble in getting our Shell oil distributor (EMO Oil) to come out and recover the contents of the tank. They recovered 2400 litres of oil, deducted the cost of the operation from the value of the oil and paid the difference straight into my bank account.

We made a snap decision to switch from oil to gas, spurred on by the knowledge that our boiler was 33 years old and might soon need replacing, a new oil storage tank would have to be purchased, and during the past couple of years or so we have paying about £1,000 a year for oil.

I went on-line to the British Gas Website and booked an appointment for a Heating Advisor to visit us within two days. He turned up with a colleague and surveyed the house and its existing heating and plumbing system. Without going into the details, suffice to say that our house was equipped with an unorthodox and somewhat mad system. After a couple of hours of investigation and discussion they came up with a scheme for ripping out the old oil burner, installing a new gas-fired condensing boiler in a new location, re-organisation of the pipework, draining down and flushing the system, dosing with anti-corrosive chemical, fitting thermostatic radiator valves, and fitting a magnetic particle filter. They give us a fixed-price quote, guaranteed not to be exceeded irrespective of any extra work that might eventually be deemed necessary.

So far so good, but then we had the first and the last glitch in the process. We were given an installation date (in a week) but then we had a phone call asking if we would mind extending this by a few days. We said that was OK. But then the installer turned up anyway on the original date and we had to send him away as we had arranged to be elsewhere on that day. Then the process went into a black hole for a couple of weeks, and we had no idea when work would start.

I than found myself testing the British Gas Complaints Department (bear in mind the company had recently been fined millions of pounds for failing to comply with minimum standards of customer service). I spoke to a lady who couldn't have been more helpful, giving me her name and her contact number, and she promised she would get a senior engineer to phone me by tea time.

Did he phone? No.

He turned up in person on the doorstep. He gave us an installation date - 28th July - and the job would take two days.

On 28th July two British Gas vans turned up outside the house at 8 am, and a team of two men and a woman laid out dust sheets all over the place, and then worked like demented beavers until 6 pm without a taking a lunch break. Having turned the house upside down and inside out by the time they left that night the place had been cleaned up, dust sheets removed and carpets replaced.

On Day Two the woman turned up on her own at 8.15 am to complete everything that needed doing to bring the job to a conclusion. There was also a visit by a British Gas electrician to do the necessary wiring. She worked tirelessly, again without a lunch break; by the time she had commissioned the system and explained to us how everything worked, it was 8 pm.

Again, everything was cleaned up again, by the time she had gone there was no sign that anyone had been here (except of course the sight of some new pipes and a new boiler!)

Throughout the two days, these people were a joy to be with, watching them work efficiently and in good humour for longer hours than I would have thought reasonable.

We all have reason to complain about utility companies from time to time, but I think it is important to acknowledge freely when they get things right and to compliment them accordingly.

So thank you, British Gas, and thank you Emo Oil.