Grammar ain't wot it uster be:

Are you as disgruntled as I am at the evaporation of grammar from our beautiful language? We could once model ourselves on the BBC for the correctly spoken word but even its news readers have become slipshod.For nearly 30 years, from the "permissive" Sixties, grammar almost disappeared from state schools. It was considered "boring" and some academics conjured up bits and pieces of evidence dating back to 1906 to "prove" its teaching to be useless, even harmful. Another academic now claims such evidence to be worthless. Professor John Honey, formerly Dean of Education at De Montfort University and, until recently, Professor of English at Osaka International University, Japan, is to be applauded for his latest opus, Language is Power - the story of Standard English and its Enemies (Faber & Faber, pounds 8.99). It reveals some "scandalous hanky-panky in high places" and alleges that history has been systematically falsified. There have been attempts to ban the book and prevent its sale and some of the academics who have come in for a Honey-roasting took revenge by penning scathing reviews. On Saturday , the Queen's English Society will stage a conference at the University of London Institute of Education at which Professor Honey is to speak. I understand he intends to have a go at Tony Blair's ungrammatical way of talking. It should be an enjoyably bumpy meeting.

Boating in the Garden:

What comes to mind when you hear the mention of a boat race? Oxford v Cambridge, natch. "Oh, he was a Cambridge rowing blue, dontcha know?" Yes, yes, but how many of those Oxbridge rowers made their names in, say, the Olympics? Or the Royal Regatta at Henley? Oxbridge seem to get all the hype, yet the University of London Boat Club, which rarely hits the headlines, is surely the creme de la creme, with Olympic and Commonwealth Games successes to their credit. Tomorrow week, the Club will abandon the more familiar waters of the Thames for dry Covent Garden. Not to sing opera but to row - for charity, in a round-the-clock Ergothon on rowing machines normally used as part of their training. For 24 hours, each club member will take part in this remarkable relay. Among those attending will be Olympic gold and bronze medalists Greg Searle and Rupert Obholzer; and world champion rower Tim Foster, along with other members of the British Four. And the charities the club will support: Children In Need, Stoke Mandeville Hospital... and the club itself, which needs the cash to fund a place in California's Long Beach Regatta.

Dressing Down for VAT:

It seems academics have discovered a new tax dodge. Writing in the University of Leeds staff journal, Reporter, Dr Vic Rodgers of the School of Textile Industries has snitched on his colleagues. They have, he says (I imagine with tongue firmly in cheek) been tempted to pose as students to obtain a zero-VAT-rated lunch in the refectory. And he helps "scrutineers" distinguish academics from students. Academics are those with a "a tendency to talk about `restructuring', university funding or early retirement; anyone in a suit that actually fits, especially if with tie, or wearing a suit so old that it is in fashion again; anyone in `sensible' shoes and any female not wearing faded jeans and big boots." Funny, in universities I frequent, academics rarely wear ties - or suits. Faded jeans, some torn at the knee and bum, seem to be "in" with female students and staff alike.

Making for the exits:

Earlier this month I named vice-chancellors on the verge of retirement, early or otherwise, and forecast that others were likely to join the queue erelong. Gordon Conway is one of them. Professor Conway, 59, a world authority on agricultural ecology, has been vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex for only five years. He departs next March, but not into obscurity, for he has been appointed president of the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation - the first non-American to hold this important post. The Foundation dispenses pounds 135m a year among worthwhile causes, mainly in the fields of biotechnology, agriculture, the environment and health sciences. Professor Conway is clearly the right man for he used to be the Ford Foundation representative in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka and chairs the Runneymede Trust commission whose report on British Muslims and Islamophobia is expected this month. Among others to collect their P45s are Tony Wood, V-C of the University of Luton, who retires next August. At 58, this is indeed early retirement but then, he has been in charge of Luton for 14 years. He became director of Luton College of Higher Education in 1985 and led it to university designation just eight years later. And then there's Professor Stan Mason, 64, who has left Glasgow Caledonian University under a decidedly stormy cloud, accused of abusing his authority as principal, due to a bit of old-fashioned nepotism. He was Scotland's highest paid principal, with last year's salary exceeding pounds 123,000. His successor, according to advertisements for the post, may expect a mere pounds 90K. Excuse me while I get my hanky.

Baroness Blackstone, who used to be Master of Birkbeck College and is now our higher education minister, has at last been replaced at Birkbeck , a constituent college of the University of London, by Professor Tim O'Shea, a 48 year-old professor of information technology, and Pro Vice Chancellor at the Open University. An appropriate choice by Birkbeck governors, for a position he will fill from next January, as both the OU and Birkbeck pioneered open access part time higher education for adults.

Oxford college gets a Butler:

Oxford's oldest college has elected a new Master. The Fellows of University College, founded in 1249, have chosen Sir Robin Butler, Secretary of the Cabinet and head of the civil service for the past 10 years. Sir Robin knows the place well. He is an alumnus, having taken a double first in Mods and Greats, and was twice a rugger blue. He has served three Prime Ministers - private secretary to Ted (now Sir Edward) Heath and the late Harold (later Lord) Wilson; and principal private secretary to Maggie (now Baroness) Thatcher. He succeeds Professor John Albery, Master since 1989, who moves to London to take up the Barrer Fellowship at Imperial College. Again a return, for he used to be Imperial's staff orator and professor of physical chemistry.

And finally..

Can you imagine a bunch of students turning down the offer of free booze? No, neither can I. But it's true. Leicester University freshers were invited to join an organised walk which would take in some of the city's best pubs, with a free drink thrown in. The tour was carefully prepared by the city council's Leicester Promotions, which produced colourful posters throughout Freshers' Week to advertise it. Came the day, not a single student turned up. Not one. Clearly, Leicester freshers represent a new breed of student. It was the first time the council had drawn up such a programme. And probably the last...