Education: Word of Mouth - I'm dreaming of a fright Christmas

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Free speech comes dear

An extraordinary 180-word letter has appeared in the pre-Christmas pay packets of all staff at Middlesex University. Penned by Michael Driscoll, its vice-chancellor, and signed with simple bonhomie "Michael", it is anything but bon.

In fact, it sounds remarkably like an extract from Brave New World. "Dear Colleague" it kicks off, then launches an attack on all who fail to toe the university line. "Policies and procedures have been developed to prevent legal challenge, external scrutiny, or other damage being done to the University," Professor Driscoll says, and instructs "all colleagues to abide by these procedures." Failure to do so could "lead to disciplinary action being taken against you". If a breach is serious enough "this could be considered as gross misconduct".

What on earth could have triggered such a stiff ultimatum? And since when have universities - particularly former polys - shied away from "external scrutiny"? Did not the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) provide just such regular scrutiny of degree courses and administration? Could the outburst have anything to do with the recent resignation from the board of governors of Jonathan Ree, after 25 years on the staff, and more than two years as staff governor? Ree had written an article attacking the "culture of fearful conformity" on campus, for the university's once excellent newsletter, North Circular. It was heavily censored by senior management; North Circular was barred from out-of-campus distribution, and its editor, Suzi Clark, was suspended.

The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe), the university's main academic union, has published an emergency bulletin, headlined "How Dare He?", and has demanded an explanation and an apology "for [Prof Driscoll's] threatening letter". And this is supposed to be the season of goodwill!

Meaning of mature

London Transport has produced a travel card that gives students a discount. Nothing wrong with that. Except that, by LT's definition, "student" means someone aged between 18 and 24. The fact that there are now more mature students at universities and colleges than sixth-form leavers has escaped LT's muffled brain cells.

Paul Taggart, mature student officer at the University of East London, was justifiably peeved at this clear piece of ageist discrimination. The university's communications chief, Christine Hodgson, approached London Transport's press office for an explanation. "It's actually costing us money to do this," she was told in no uncertain terms. The scheme, launched in September after being piloted at Queen Mary and Westfield College, was designed for students with the "most serious financial pressures", and came with the following piece of wisdom: "If you catch 'em young, they'll stay public transport users all their lives."

LT could do with a kick up its proverbial tunnel. But it is not alone in producing this kind of claptrap. Only the other day, Baroness (Tessa) Blackstone, Higher Education Minister, told her fellow peers that mature students had no age limit - then added that they could even qualify for a grant, if they were under 55. This would disqualify 69-year-old Bob Boughey, who studies fine art at Staffordshire University, and Frank Mellor, who has just accepted a place for a BSc Honours degree in complementary medicine at Salford University. He is a dazzling 78, and will be 81 when he graduates in 2001.

Lifelong boost

Thank goodness Brussels seems to be more on the ball when it comes to lifelong learning than our own lot who put only a little lolly where their big mouths are. The European Social Fund has coughed up more than pounds 550,000 to allow the University of Derby's Centre for Access and Lifelong Learning to meet the training needs of some 60 small- and medium-sized businesses over the next two years. The cash has been given as part of a University for Industry initiative and will allow the university and the Derbyshire Regional Network, comprising a number of colleges in the region, to develop curriculum materials to promote lifelong learning.

The UfI is already making its presence felt. Its chief executive, Dr Anne Wright, former vice-chancellor of Sunderland University, delivered what may well have been her maiden speech about this virtual reality university at a recent dinner to commemorate the 175th anniversary of Birkbeck College, University of London. She was closely watched by two other women in the room: one was the beautiful Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, Birkbeck's first woman professor (of botany), who became Commandant of the women's section of the Air Force in World War One. Competing for attention was another portrait - of Birkbeck's former Master, Baroness ("I'm nobody's mistress") Blackstone.

RE-aligned

You wouldn't think that any headteacher of a failed school - failed, that is, by Ofsted's standards, so I would be suspicious of that for a start - would be chosen by that very same body to inspect another school. Or would you?

Take Margaret Ryan, head of St George's Roman Catholic School in Maida Vale, London, for instance. St George's, you will recall, is the school whose previous head, Philip Lawrence, met a violent and tragic death a few years ago at the hands of a young thug. It recently failed its Ofsted inspection and has been placed on special measures (which means it has been instructed to pull its academic socks up). Despite this, Ms Ryan was invited to join an Ofsted team to inspect the religious education (RE) provision at another Catholic school towards the end of next month. She accepted, but has now done a U-turn and withdrawn. Reason? In the very week she was meant to conduct her RE investigation, her own school is having its first follow-up visit by Her Majesty's Inspectorate.

Out of focus

What on earth has gone wrong at University College London? It used to understand the meaning of good public relations; but no longer, judging from a letter just received by The Independent.

In response to a request for a picture to illustrate an article likely to enhance UCL's image, two colour slides arrived - one a general view of the college, the other of dear old Jeremy Bentham, whose mummified presence still makes itself felt when students drag him out once a year. A letter from UCL's "Development" office stated bluntly: "The slides are loaned to you for a period of one week from the postmarked date and must be returned within this time. Failure to return the slides within the time specified may result in your organisation being invoiced up to a maximum of pounds 250 plus VAT for each day the slides is [sic] overdue. This is a measure we have to, reluctantly, [sic, or perhaps even sick] enforce recently [sic] after many of our photographs were lost or mislaid." Tut- tut.

And finally

Word of Mouth is taking a break until 4 January, when it returns, ready for the pre-Millennium year. I send seasonal greetings to all faithful readers in universities, colleges and schools - as well as the many outside the education sector.

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