July 04, 2008

Sexing up and dumbing down?

Amidst claims of “dumbing down” in higher education, one institution has responded by distributing branded goodies to persuade bright young school-leavers to pursue a degree…


March 23, 2007

So much of the world yet to be explored..

March 02, 2007

Living the Life of a Salesman

What is the most unpopular job imaginable? Tax inspector? Traffic warden? Door-to-door salesman? Of these, perhaps only the stereotype of the pushy salesman provokes more annoyance in the average homeowner than does a religious canvasser with body odour. So why does anyone choose to work in this kind of job? This article explores a summer job which is becoming increasingly popular among students at Warwick.

Every summer between ten and twenty Warwick undergraduates travel to the United States in order to sell educational books. These students have been recruited by the Southwestern Company of Nashville, Tennessee. In Nashville they will attend an exhilarating week of training at ‘Sales School’ before departing for their individual sales locations which may be anywhere in the United States. On finding accommodation in their sales locality, they will begin the mammoth task of persuading the local populace to order from their selection of educational books.

The Southwestern programme begins with Sales School. Here students are asked to ‘suspend disbelief’ and are then treated to an impressive array of motivational speakers and inspiring sales advice. Mathematics undergraduate Rachael Smith, who sold books in Illinois, said that “Sales School is fantastic preparation for the challenges of the summer… it is a great way to start the programme which provides plenty of opportunities to put into practice everything learned in that first week”.

Despite the apparent value of Sales School, most of what students learn will be taught ‘in the field’. They will learn to work independently, to cope with rejection, to strive to meet goals and even a little about manipulating human psychology to their own advantage. In the meantime they stand to be compensated well for the trials and tribulations of being a salesman. While the average first year made around £320 a week in 2003, the top first year seller earned himself a gross profit of £1606 a week. Unlike most student jobs, sellers are not paid a fixed hourly rate and are instead considered to be running their own sales business. The most obvious consequence of this is that the profit they take home is directly related to their own hard work and resourcefulness. Successful students are additionally offered a holiday, paid for by the company, as a reward for their efforts. Previous ‘sizzler’ prizes have taken students to South America, Asia and to West Africa. Some students are further invited to return the following year having recruited their own team from which they earn a small sum for each book sold. In this way, one returning student in 2003 took home over £28,259 from his summer job.

The life of a salesman is not, however, all about working abroad, gaining transferable skills and amassing a substantial fortune in the process. In reality the work is often hard, lonely and thankless. Students who are ultimately successful on the Southwestern programme tend to be those who worked eighty hours for every week of the summer. Although students are paired together for accommodation purposes, they are essentially alone while on the job. This loneliness may be compounded by a feeling of rejection as so many people that they speak to will be trying to close the door on them. As one former seller put it, “there comes a point in the summer when you begin to wonder whether your own mother still loves you”. Furthermore, working for yourself in a strange country perhaps unsurprisingly raises all manner of obstacles which may prove difficult to overcome. Although Southwestern provides its sellers with solid practical advice, students are expected to organise not only their own sales but also their permits, book deliveries and accommodation. One Southwestern alumnus, Will Lau, warns that “students should think very carefully about exactly what the programme entails… it is certainly not a holiday”. Another former seller, Olivier Delpon de Vaux, said that “it’s the kind of job in which you have no other choice but to become resourceful… you find yourself having to achieve the impossible, but somehow you do”. Nevertheless, these obstacles go some way towards explaining why the Southwestern programme experiences a relatively high drop out rate compared to other student jobs. Quitting the programme, however, may prove costly as students will already have invested in paying for visas, flights and subsistence.

The Southwestern programme is not a typical student job and it is not suitable for everyone. Students working in sales stand to lose or gain much in terms of money, confidence and self-esteem. Successful sellers need to have vast reserves of motivation, determination and ambition to get the most out of a summer with the Southwestern Company. So why does anyone choose to work in this kind of job? For one, students who can claim that they successfully ran their own sales business in a foreign country for a summer will be left with a lot to talk about at job interviews. For example, Sean Russell, Director of the Careers Service, continues to be impressed at the “inventiveness and adaptability of students who embark on work experience of all kinds”. Employers are likely to take a similar view of candidates whose applications stand out in this way. The benefits of a successful summer, however, are likely to extend far beyond straightforward CV filling. According to Warwick undergraduate James Arthey, students who meet the challenges of the Southwestern programme leave with “a profound sense of self-belief that may spill out into academic work, extracurricular activities and into future career aspirations”. Quite simply, the Southwestern programme is character building. As James put it, “if you can succeed in a job like that… then you can do anything”.

September 07, 2006

Homeless in the face of plenty

If ever there were awards in the category of ‘Humour in the Face of Poverty’, the competition would have to be held here in Los Angeles. Nominations would include the homeless I have seen variously proclaiming “will work for marijuana” or “support your local wine-o”. Another likely nominee walks up and down the Venice Beach promenade happily singing “jingle bells jingle bells.. help me to get drunk”. I suppose everyone is entitled to a drink at Christmas.

On a serious note, though, I have travelled through a lot of cities – including many in the third world – but have never before witnessed such a high degree of homelessness. To be sure, Rwandan children tried their luck with phrases such as “Mzungu! Give me pen!” or, more bizarrely, “Mzungu! Give me my money!”. I was, however, always confident that these children could return home – even if home was a mud hut – and that there they would have something to eat – even if that something was mpangwe. No such luck awaits the homeless of LA. With saturated private ownership of land, building something as simple as a mud hut would doubtless violate real estate legislation. This is perhaps unsurprising in a society where the very existence of beggars constitutes vagrancy and trespass. If there is anything fundamentally wrong with Western Capitalism, it is that it implicitly sabotages anyone trying to operate outside of the system.

Perhaps the award should, after due consideration, go to one beggar in particular. He is sat on the pavement, wrapped in blankets, behind a jar of dollar bills and a cardboard sign on which he has scrawled his fading message in felt tip pen. His message? “SAVING FOR A PORSCHE”. And the citation for his award? “The American Dream Lives”!

April 30, 2006

Scared of heights?

Scared of heights?

Having finished my finals, I find myself nosing through old photographs from my gap year. Now my memory has always claimed that I spent this year travelling, broadening my mind and doing good works. The photographs however tell a different story. Apparently I spent much of this time locked in mortal combat with gravity! Perhaps these offer a partial explanation as to why I am now so terrified of heights!

April 11, 2006

Next year

Following a long and demoralising admissions process, I am delighted to have accepted a place to study Medicine on the graduate entry course at Warwick in September. It looks like I really will one day join the ranks of that secretive and sinisterly benevolent order which calls itself the medical profession. So here's to ten more years of exams.. and to a lifetime of learning..

April 10, 2006


I went out for a drive this afternoon. Not that I needed to go anywhere in particular; I was just fed up with revision and, at the time, driving appeared as one of few acceptable alternatives. So I was driving through the countryside wondering where to find the motivation to pass finals when I was graced with a sign. A sign among a swathe of daffodils. Okay, so this wasn’t the burning bush of Moses but it probably was as miraculous an example of luminescent flora as one can hope to experience in this secular age. But what was remarkable was the way in which it anticipated my predicament: the sign was shaped like an arrow and bore a solitary inscription, “Motivation”.


The thought briefly crossed my mind that following the sign might lead to the source of motivation. Something perhaps akin to the fountain of eternal youth. Unable to resist such foolishness – and perhaps because the alternative was to drive home and study – I found myself obeying the arrow and searching for motivation in a form which I never imagined it might exist.

Having completed my adventure, I can happily relay that motivation is not only something that evades students around exam time. Motivation is also a charity working to improve the lives of people with mobility difficulties. Should you ever deign to visit their headquarters, at the end of a long winding country path in Somerset, just follow the sign marked “Motivation”. I hope you find it!

March 06, 2006

Never quit

Some time ago, in my first year at Warwick, I took employment with the Southwestern Company of Nashville, Tennessee. For those who don’t know, this unique company takes students from around the world and trains them to sell encyclopedias door-to-door in various locations across the United States. This kind of work proved to be as demoralising as Southwestern’s incredible style of training was exhilarating. As I prepare for my final exams, I recall a short poem from the Southwestern Sales School; the last verse of which I reproduce here if for no other reason than because I am bored of learning about fruitfly genetics.

Success is failure turned inside out,
The silver lining of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far,
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit
It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.

December 18, 2005

An unusual Christmas card

This year my brother received a Christmas card on the inside of which were found the words: "Hope Cards: this card was handmade by people in the slums of Bangkok".

This caused me some degree of surprise. When did it become fashionable for companies to use impoverished labour to produce their merchandise? I wonder how much the Thai creator of this card was actually paid for it.

Perhaps Nike will take up this marketing opportunity and stamp its clothes with "handmade by children in the slums of Indonesia". Go on Nike.. Just Do It.

December 17, 2005

A matter of principle

Provisional Driving Licenses in this country are issued in a neat plastic wallet. However when you exchange this document for a full driving license, the DVLA will withhold wallet in order to save postage costs. Should you be upset by this flagrant disregard for your property, this letter template might just serve a purpose. It worked for me anyway!

Thank you for issuing my full photocard driving license. Unfortunately the plastic wallet containing my Provisional Driving License was not returned. Instead, a small leaflet informed me that, in order to “minimise administrative costs”, my wallet had been confiscated!

No doubt an applicant who declined to submit his provisional license on the grounds that he wanted to ‘minimise costs’ would have had his application for a full license rejected.

The plastic wallet, license and photocard have now cost a total of £41. Assuming that a single sheet of paper and a piece of laminated cardboard cost less than a pound to produce, I am devoid of an extremely valuable wallet. I note that efforts to ‘minimise costs’ have not translated into reduced licensing fees.

Considering the value of the plastic wallet and the fact that it was sent to your office in good faith, I would be very much obliged if you would send me a replacement. Presumably there are a number of similar wallets floating around your Swansea office and so this request will prove simple to fulfil.

In the event that the DVLA is facing financial difficulties and that my £41 has been lost in some administrative black hole, I enclose a prepaid envelope in order to stave off bankruptcy for a little while longer.

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