Rugby safety, and why not GAA?

Matt Perry and Allyson Pollock were on Today yesterday debating the dangers of rugby for school children. Well, I say debate, more like Allyson massacred Matt in an unsportsmanlike or, more accurately, professional manner on an issue that she has researched and campaigned on over the past decade.

I love rugby, I always have. There is always a danger when you have always liked something that you keep on loving it just because your old self tells you to. I came to this realisation recently when I tried out refereeing and realised it wasn’t for me. I started to question why I liked rugby, and I realised that it was when I played it that I truly loved it, and now that I don’t have the time (nor, increasingly, the body) I cannot love it in the same way except through my memories of playing. On the other hand, I can still regularly play indoor football, which I also like very much (note, I still don’t love indoor football!).

The safety aspect of rugby I have have often dismissed out-of-hand too, but the significance of a serious spinal injury is so immediate that it cannot be easily ignored. They so often get written off as freak accidents, even by those who receive them. The truth might be that they are freak accidents, but they shouldn’t be written off. The freakishness of them does not make them unpredictable statistically, and the statistics of serious injury occurrence can be compared with other sports.

Without citing all the articles, rugby has a relatively high prevalence rate of injury – higher than football and gaelic football in matches. More importantly though, for Allyson Pollock’s arguments, are the prevalence of serious head and spinal injuries, which are much higher than the other games. In Gaelic football they appear to be genuinely freak accidents, like the recent head injury to Ronan Clarke by hitting a post, and I suspect that is also true for football, although heading can’t help the likelihood of head clashes. In rugby, professional rugby concussion rates per 1000 playing hours seem to have never dropped below 3, and have risen in recent years to over 10. This compares with 17 for boxing apparently (alarming close really), and <0.3 all head injuries in gaelic football.

I know what sport i want to play in the future should I ever find enough time (other than indoor football of course), and although I used to always imagine myself coaching a childs’ rugby team, I know what sport I will try and encourage in the future: GAA

The funny thing is, even though I do love rugby, I think Gaelic Football is a better game overall and I really hope it can grow in the UK the way Beano has managed to help it grow (with many other of course!) in Europe… In the end, gaelic football skills can only help elite rugby anyway, if players choose to play rugby later on.

Fresh meat series 4 episode 2

I’ve enjoyed Fresh Meat’s puerile sense of humour for quite a while now (well as long as it’s been on for!). I also enjoyed Bad Education, but I think Fresh Meat’s story lines worked better because the storylines always seemed a little less contrived. When programmes are coming to an end, particularly after more than one or two series’, then you expect the material to get a bit thin. This expectation was, for me at least, blown out the water by this episode. In hindsight, episode 1 also marked a slight shift towards deeper sociological point-making than just stereotyping. Like any good observational comedy it isn’t really making anything up, just exposing the reality for the hilarity it really is…

In this case, the episode starts with some of the characters visiting the careers advisor (they are in their last year after all), and the gulf between their expectations of what job they will do (or what a job might involve) and the reality is clear. This may appear to be a cheap shot at students in general, but the arc of the whole episode demonstrates that the writers wanted to make a deeper point. The climax of the episode is the son of Kingsley’s new older girlfriend visiting their house for them to persuade why he should become a student, where he points out some very raw home truths which none of the students have been thinking – they can be summarised as, “what is the point of going to university to study a subject that isn’t relevant to your future career and come out with a debt that will take 30 years to pay off”. Obviously some students do study vocational degrees, but they are clearly in the minority, even now. As for the debt, students will take out loans for living costs (a maximum of £8200 per year when living away from permanent home, at a University outside London, £10702 per year at university in London!). This means that a poorer student will acquire debts of £17200 per year for ANY course if they were at Manchester like Fresh Meat’s characters…

A bit of simple maths shows that for a three year degree a student studying in England could acquire debts of £51600. Fifty one thousand six hundred pounds! How can any student afford that? Simple answer – they don’t know what they are letting themselves in for. Earlier in the episode, the careers advisor points out to JP that the average graduate starting salary in the UK is currently £22000 (and still in free-fall in real-terms). The government that brought this in – the apparently student-friendly Lib Dems and neoliberal-loving Tories – argued that this was fine as poorer student (who get the biggest debts) will actually pay less because they will never pay off their whole loan!! Well, at first glance, what a clever back-hand swipe for poorer students by Vince Cable, the U-turning Lib Dem in charge of this. But any more than a cursory thought exposes this comment for the spin it really is. For a start, any student who hasn’t paid it off in full in 30 years has either been earning too little to pay any back (contributions start at incomes of £21000), or has basically been paying a tax all that time, and may have paid make many times the original loan amount. The control the government has was highlighted just after the first of the Plan 2 graduates graduated in 2015, at the Autumn spending review where the Chancellor announced that the starting salary for repayment would be capped (hoping that inflation will make it a real-term drop, and increase income from it).

So, the debt is real, and it is worse for poor students. The really poignant aspect about the episode was how it highlighted the cluelessness of the students. All of them, whatever their background was. The worst was obviously Vod with her huge debts, and generally impossible situation, but the episode really highlighted how they had all just stumbled into lifetime-defining decisions not just with their eyes-closed, but having been hoodwinked into thinking it was the only option.

So, a puerile comedy that told a truth that I haven’t seen so well articulated anywhere. England now has the highest headline tuition fees of any public university system in the world, and the third-highest level of costs borne by students once various forms of support available are taken into account. This is unsustainable, and even the Telegraph recognizes that there is a problem.

The question is just a matter of when, not if, the system will need to be modified. Even if tuition fees rises are capped, there is a generation of students who first graduated last summer with enormous debts who will start to come to a collective realisation that they have been hoodwinked, like those in Fresh Meat. Maybe the Higher Education system will contract in the UK, or maybe government will increase funding to solve the problem. My bets would be on the former path, and the government’s lifting of a cap on the number of admissions universities could offer, for whatever reason, appears to be increasing the likelihood of university mergers via contrived free-marketeering. Our universities deserve better, and, more importantly, our country deserves better than leaving universities to “natural” neoliberal free market processes. However, if we do nothing, then the shell of a higher education system we could be left with in 10 years time will be what we deserve. Well done for pointing this out fresh meat, and well done Rosa’s son!