Education+: Word of Mouth

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The Independent Online
Students at risk

Here's a postscript to last week's Dearing Report. In 1994-95 a total of 48 students "at risk of suicide" needed counselling at the University of Westminster. By the following year this figure had quadrupled to 197, according to the university's newsletter, Clarion. In 1994 there were 94 students at risk of dropping out. The following year, the figure more than doubled, to 200. "Worry about money undoubtedly affected the overall student experience," Clarion said. As many as 859 grant-related problems were processed by the advisers, including helping students to appeal against grant assessments and grant refusals. Ann Ileyno, head of Westminster's counselling service, described the situation as "pretty dire", and said it was part of a national trend. "Students up and down the country are experiencing greater financial stress and this is linked to a hopelessness about jobs," she said. Quite so. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa), financial problems caused more than 1,000 students to drop out of their courses last year; 32,865 left for "other reasons". Not so bad, when you consider that more than 242,000 successfully completed their courses. But what Hesa figures fail to reflect is the large number of students who are helped to face financial problems and overcome suicidal tendencies by on-the-spot counselling across the nation's campuses.

Half a million hits

And here's a second postscript. Dearing went electronic and could be read on Web pages. These were hosted by the University of Leeds and were a roaring success. Last Wednesday, the day the pounds 135 report was published, there were 226,330 "hits". The following day, when people were able to read summaries of the report in newspapers, the number of hits was reduced by a smidgin to 196,170, with more than 25,000 between 11am and noon alone. On Friday, there were still 92,859 "hits", though the weekend brought a radical reduction - 11,472 on Saturday and 10,566 on Sunday. Perhaps fewer people are on the Net on home computers. Or perhaps they don't want to be bothered with such things at the weekend. If you want to be among the "hitters", tap into:

A tonic for Barber

The vacancy left at the London University Institute of Education by Professor Michael Barber's defection to the Government as its education guru, has been filled by the woman who doubled as the Institute's European development officer and head of press relations. Toni Griffiths, expert at both, is now dean of new initiatives. The job could not have gone to a better woman. I best remember her as head of external relations for the National Union of Teachers, a task she carried out with distinction. Alas (for the NUT) she left in 1980 to tackle a number of projects for the European Commission, then went on to Warwick University as director of its Centre for Education and Industry. So what "new initiative" will she approach? Appropriately, top priority goes to developing the classroom of the future to provide teachers with the latest information technology. It's just what teachers need to help them regain some of the confidence they have lost following the unwise words of chief Ofsteder Chris Woodhead (known to many as Blockhead) - and a few ideas initiated by Prof Barber (known to some as the Demon Barber of Great Smith Street).

Don't cry for me ...

How many people know that 150 teachers have been on hunger strike in front of the Congreso (national parliament) of Argentina for the past three months? Or that teaching unions organised a national strike in June? More than 300,000 people signed a petition in support of the hunger strikers and Argentina's footballers carry banners in praise of teachers before the start of any match televised on Sundays. Why? Because the government wants to privatise education, cut teachers' salaries and introduce student tuition fees of - coincidence, coincidence - pounds 1,000 a year. According to my informant ("Word of Mouth" is more widely read on the Internet than I had imagined) "our constitution guarantees free education for every man, woman and child." When students accused the government of a breach of the constitution, mounted police rode into campuses. My informant asked me to mention no names "for obvious reasons". Clearly a fine democracy ...

Sir Keith Blunkett

Trust Chris Price to remember what I had long forgotten. The ex-MP and former vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University, who now edits The Stakeholder, the magazine dealing with standards and values in public life, recalls in its current issue that university tuition fees were abolished a mere 20 years ago by Fred Mulley, a Labour education minister. Until then, they were but a notional element of student grants. According to Price, who should know, since he was Mulley's PPS, it was the minister's attempt to "woo the middle-class vote". But the middle class was not impressed, and switched to Margaret Thatcher a few years later. It was she who, later still, brought in Sir Keith Joseph, who tried hard - and unsuccessfully - to bring tuition fees back. Chris Price says: "Blunkett looks set to succeed where Joseph failed."

Bobby's farewell

It was good to see Lady Rickett in a familiar setting last week. She returned to Middlesex University's Trent Park campus, surely the most attractive in Greater London, to be present at the retirement party of Bobby de Joia. Bobby gave 28 years of her life, first to Middlesex Polytechnic, then to the University, yet never mislaid her native American accent. As its head of external relations, she lifted it to its current prominence among the new (or "modern" as they prefer to be called) universities.

Middlesex's past and present heads owe her a great debt. This was readily recognised by Naomi Rickett, widow of Sir Raymond Rickett, who, as first director of Middlesex Polytechnic and twice chairman of the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics, was among the few responsible for achieving university status for the country's 38 polys. Ray died at Easter last year. And yet it seemed to me as if he were there, at his widow's side, to pay homage to the loyalty of this petite, 10,000-volt American woman.

And finally ...

"He admitted committing adultery - which seems to occur in Maidstone with increasing regularity" (from genuine divorce petition, New Law Journal, quoted by Wye Week, Wye College, University of Londonn