Education Word of Mouth: Obstacles to ability

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The Independent Online
TABLED LAST week and due to be rubber-stamped by Parliament any day now, a new regulation that deals with the country's disabled might have been composed by Ebenezer Scrooge himself.

The regulation dictates that those unfortunate enough to be blind or lame or otherwise handicapped will no longer be eligible for a disabled student's allowance (DSA) from next autumn.

This will effectively bar mature handicapped people from studying. So much for the Government's much-hyped campaign for lifelong learning. Now I suppose it's "You're never too old to learn - unless you're disabled".

Baroness Blackstone, who, you may recall, is in charge of Britain's higher education system, almost pirouetted through the roof when she spotted this piece of governmental twaddle. Her voice is said to have spread to all four corners of Sanctuary House as she threatened to tear up the regulation and its author. Neither course is easy. According to Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, only 93 people aged 55-plus (0.5 per cent of all disabled UCAS applicants) sought a DSA in the academic year 1997-98. So the allowance can't be a great threat to Treasury coffers.

But there's worse: those aged 50 to 55 (just 90 handicapped applicants fell into this category last year) may study and apply for a DSA - but are required to furnish proof that they will have a full-time job at the end of their course. Even physically fit 18-year-olds need not provide such proof. Who dreamt up so insensitive a regulation? Surely not our blind, much-loved 51-year-old Education and Employment Secretary, David Blunkett?

Creation of wealth

WHEN STEPHEN Byers recently declared that the creation of wealth was more important than its distribution, he must have had a list of vice- chancellor salaries before him. There he would have found some of the country's best examples of wealth creation. The most highly paid academic at the London Business School is on a salary of pounds 220,000 - that's pounds 13,000 more than the school's boss receives. Three other LBS staff members take home more than pounds 150,000 a year, less tax, of course, and another 11 get more than pounds 100,000 each.

I'm sure the news will gladden the hearts of the many thousands of academics throughout the country on salaries ranging from pounds 20,000 to pounds 32,000 a year. Most vice-chancellors have this year enjoyed salary boosts ranging from a tiny 0.6 per cent (Brian Roper, University of North London, now on pounds 114,164, including pension) to 24.7 per cent (George Bain, the new chap at Queen's University, Belfast, and, incidentally, the former Dean of the LBS).

Most V-C increases have been well above the rate of inflation, averaging 4.8 per cent, but some poor chaps had a wage freeze (such as Neil Buxton at the University of Hertfordshire, on pounds 118,000), and a few even suffered salary cuts, such as Alexandra Burslem, the new V-C of Manchester Metropolitan, who is on pounds 102,550 - 27.3 per cent less than her predecessor, Sir Kenneth Green.

There are some other perks enjoyed by a large number of V-Cs, which are not included in their salaries. These include chauffeur-driven cars, and recruiting trips or award ceremonies in the Far East which are rewarded by a few extra days in the sun.

But I suppose that all that just comes under "wealth distribution".

The people's gala

MY LATE uncle Harry was a copper and became police chief at Shirebrook. He was also a very keen musician and played the cornet in t'local band. He would have been proud to hear that the Shirebrook Colliery Brass Band will be among the highlights of next Saturday's gala to celebrate the centenary of Ruskin College, Oxford. It was at Oxford Town Hall, on 20 February 1899, that lifelong learning was conceived.

Some 77 years later, in October 1976, James Callaghan, then prime minister, came to Ruskin to open a hall of residence and delivered his best-ever speech. He called for a Great Debate on educational standards and launched a campaign to introduce a core curriculum.

On Saturday, current students will re-enact the first, historic meeting and read from the founders' speeches. The afternoon's celebrations will conclude at 6pm with a march through Oxford, with colourful banners carried high. Long may Ruskin continue to thrive.

Enlightened years

LAST NIGHT I joined those celebrating another major anniversary - the sesquicentenary of Bedford College. Yes, 150 years ago this college, dedicated to the higher education of women, was founded in the face of huge opposition. The Baroness Warnock, former Mistress of Girton College, Oxford, delivered a lecture on "150 years of enlightenment" at Senate House.

Victorian Colonel Blimps believed opening universities to "the fair sex" was going against the laws of nature and that women "lacked rational capacity". I am indebted to Professor Penelope Corfield of the Royal Holloway College, country campus of the University of London, for reminding me that it was not until 1880 that the first four women graduated (from University College), followed a year later by four from Bedford College.

So it took 31 years for women to make their mark and prove John Stuart Mill's forecast in 1859 that allowing them to graduate would double the nation's intellectual capital at a stroke. I still regret Bedford's departure from Regent's Park nearly 15 years ago to merge with Royal Holloway, which celebrated its own centenary three years ago. Its magnificent chateau was, after all, opened by an excellently tutored woman - Queen Victoria.

Searching Mayan gods

A GROUP of nine London students have just taken off for Mexico and will backpack their way by bus and cart to Palenque, heart of the Maya country, and from there to a secluded village on the edge of the rain forest. I recall a Mexican holiday where I learned that the difference between an ordinary and a "luxury" air-conditioned bus was that the latter had windows that opened. Unlike my little trip, this venture is all hard work.

These University of East London students are reading archaeological and environmental sciences and surveying, and all will be conducting a major survey of a 1,200-year-old Mayan temple covering seven square kilometres of mature forest. The project, never previously attempted by archaeologists, has the financial backing of National Geographic magazine, UEL and the university's student union. I wonder how Rupinder Dhillon (third year, environmental science) will get on. Not only is she a veggie; she's a vegan. Chicken appears to be the staple diet - and possibly snakes. I look forward to hearing of her diet.

And finally...

STUDENT TEACHERS from Uruguay admitted they could have gone to study at American universities, especially after all they had heard about our rotten cooking. But they changed their minds after a visit to Britain and enrolled at Wolverhampton University. What had caused this change of mind? They had fallen in love with British beer - and Yorkshire pudding.