Education Word of mouth - What's the price of language?

House of Straw

Poor old Jack Straw. Our beloved Home Secretary is smarting under a vicious blow from students at his Alma Mater. When the University of Leeds decided to present Straw, one of its many bright alumni, with an honorary doctorate of laws, it faced some surprising opposition from, of all places, the students' union. What could have caused such a protest? After all, Straw is not only a former president of the National Union of Students who, in his time, fought valiantly for better student conditions and higher grants, but he is also a senior member of a government that attracts general student support. That, as far as the Leeds students' union is concerned, is not the point.

Helen Aspell, on behalf of the union, said there were three major objections: first, it was "unacceptable" to award a degree to a serving politician. It inferred support and patronage by the awarding institution of a political party. Second, Straw's Immigration and Asylum Act is considered by race equality organisations as "racist and detrimental to race relations within Britain". And third, the Government's refusal to introduce a bill granting "equality to lesbian, gay and bisexual people... is consigning many people to continued discrimination". Leeds University, it appears, has many lesbian, gay and bisexual students and staff, so the award is considered "extremely insensitive".

I should have thought students had better causes to fight. I recall no objections when the university awarded honorary doctorates to Lord Carrington and Shirley Williams while they were in government. And they weren't even alumni. Anyway, the university assures me that the award had nothing to do with politics, but rested on dear Jack's personal achievements.

He'll get his doctorate, I'm sure, with far greater ease than Maggie Thatcher did. Her Alma Mater - Oxford University - tried hard, but in the end she was voted out of the honour, not by Oxford students, but by the very dons at whose feet she had studied. History remains the best judge of true worth.

Women survivors

When you are a serious researcher, you sometimes end up doing the strangest things. So when Danusia Malina, a senior lecturer in organisational development and behaviour at the University of Teesside, was conducting important research for the Marketing Education Group, she ended up in - wait for it - a San Francisco sex shop.

I don't think I'm slipping out of context in this instance when I say that Danusia, 36 last week, is an attractive blonde. Her project happened to focus on the sex industry, so a sex emporium in 'Frisco was just the right place. She then became an assistant in a London sex shop for women, and a party planner for the Ann Summers group. Well, research, like business, is research. It was all very serious. As, indeed, is the book, Surviving the Academy: Feminist Perspectives (Falmer Press, pounds 21.95), which Danusia has just co-edited with Sian Maslin-Prothero, a lecturer in health and nursing studies at the University of Nottingham. It comprises a collection of fascinating essays by women academics struggling against all the odds of a male-dominated environment and managing to survive. The idea for this book was conceived at a Women in Higher Education Network (WHEN) conference at the University of Central Lancashire in 1996.

Oxford barbarians

Last week, I had a go at a Cambridge theatre which insisted on a one- act play by Jean Genet being split by an interval so that a few extra bob could be earned at the bar. Today, it's Oxford's turn to show the unacceptable face of capitalism - the philistine proposal by the Oxford University Press to abandon the publication of modern poetry.

Poetry, particularly contemporary poetry, doesn't earn much money, and the OUP is a business. It is also the publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary and the supposed custodian of the English language. If the OUP abandons this silly proposition, as it now looks ready to do, it is mainly thanks to Arts Minister Alan Howarth, a King's College, Cambridge, history graduate. Howarth had the courage to cross the floor of the House of Commons, totally frustrated with his government's higher education cutbacks. Since he was a Tory junior education minister, his move earned him double points.

Earlier this month at an Oxford poets' evening, he launched a blistering attack on OUP's action. The OUP, he argued, had charitable status, formed part of a great university which the Government supported financially, and existed to develop and transmit our intellectual culture. The English faculty was always whingeing about the barbarians being at the gate. "But we don't expect the gatekeepers themselves, the custodians, to be barbarians," he declared. Would there were more like him.

Wagging the dog

Does giving a dog a bone make any difference to his learning? And what happens if, instead of a bone, you feed him with a tin of Waggalot? The effects of diet on canine learning are being studied at the University of Southampton's Anthrozoology Institute - and your Fido or Spot could "volunteer" to help, as long as they are older than two and younger than six years, and are not receiving treatment for a medical or behavioural problem. You and your dog may visit the biological sciences site at Boldrewood, where your pet's learning abilities will be assessed and a three-week feeding regime prescribed. Telephone Sally Taylor on 01703-594254, or e-mail:

Sir Ashley Bramall

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death at the age of 83 of Ashley Bramall. Sir Ashley will, I suppose, be best remembered as leader of the Inner London Education Authority, a position he held with flair and distinction from 1970 to 1981. As a practising barrister, he was never stuck for words, and used them effectively and, above all, correctly. I shall remember him with affection.

And finally...

Rarely does one need to coax students on the breadline to apply for cash. The University of Leeds, like others, keeps what is popularly known as a "hardship fund" but few students take advantage of it. So Reporter, its newsletter, published an appeal: "The University received almost pounds 720,000 for the fund this year - all of which must be spent." It advised students "struggling to make ends meet" to apply for help.