The Izbicki Report

News From The Front Line of Education
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Sarah's other voice

This happens to be Stroke Awareness Week, and you ought to know that this paralysing attack on the brain does not recognise age. Of the 100,000 or so people who suffer strokes each year, about 300 are under the age of 14. Now, I didn't know that until I learned about Sarah Chandler, 11, who was deprived of speech by two strokes when she was seven. Today she has given her name to a system that helps her communicate. However much we curse British Telecom when our lines get crossed or the bill arrives, it deserves praise for designing Scap - the Sarah Chandler Access Project. It has been installed at one of the Shaftesbury Society schools, the Victoria Education Centre, in Poole, Dorset, where Sarah is the only stroke victim among 110 bright pupils with physical or mental difficulties.

The system is not complicated. A synthesised girl's voice speaks a selection of phrases, from which Sarah may choose with a specially adapted keyboard. With its help, Sarah can not only see her parents at home in Oxford and "talk" with them over a live Internet link, but she can even play games with Ben, her seven-year-old brother. So congratulations to the engineers Richard Incoll, Mick Robson and Stephen Turner, all of BT, who invented Scap with the help of Simon Forman, a research student at the computer science department of York University and the Aiding Communication in Education Trust Centre, in Oxford.

Experts online

The University of Northumbria, in Newcastle, is taking full and lucrative advantage of the Internet by selling its know-how on such matters as travel and tourism and law, as well as business and management, online. "Universities have been selling their expertise to the business community for years," says Tony Dickson, Northumbria's deputy vice-chancellor. "This initiative merely takes that provision a stage further by entering the electronic era." You can sign on for free, then purchase up-to-the-minute information and research for prices starting at $5. Dollars? Why not pounds - or euros? Because the US dollar, I'm assured, remains the one currency understood in all parts of the world.

What's a university worth?

Governments are constantly blathering on about how much cash they are pouring into our universities. Why don't they ever tell us how much money universities are providing to their communities? Now Southampton City Council has helped to sponsor research showing that its two higher education institutions - the Southampton Institute and the University of Southampton - with an income of pounds 230m between them, provide more than 9,000 local jobs and, along with their students, spend pounds 215m a year in the community. That doesn't even touch on the wider benefits that both institutions provide through their research or the longer-term advantages provided nationally by the thousands of graduates they churn out between them. Now multiply all that by about 115 universities and 80 higher education colleges, and the result is staggering. It's perhaps time that David Blunkett and the Higher Education Funding Council recognised that it's not so much what they are doing for higher education as what higher education is doing for the nation.

Which is your Third Man?

I was delighted to see that David Lean had no fewer than three films in last week's top five (out of the top 100 best British movies ever made). But top was Carol Reed's masterpiece The Third Man. Was it your favourite film? If not, which one do you rate? What, indeed, makes a great film? That's the question you are asked to answer in a new essay competition open to all secondary school students in Britain and Ireland and set by the University of Wales, Bangor. First prize is pounds 300 and there are further prizes of films and books. All that's wanted is an essay of 1,000 words, typed if possible, on one side of the paper. Closing date: Christmas Eve. Please do not send them to me but to: Film Studies, Department of English, University of Wales, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2DG. Good luck.

And finally...

Strange goings on at London University's Royal Veterinary College on Monday night. It started with the usual super-dooper procession of academics and dignitaries making its solemn way to the stage. Taking up the rear, Professor Lance Lanyon, RVC Principal, leading on guest speaker Professor Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer. Suddenly, oops - Professor Donaldson slips and falls down the steps, almost dragging Lanyon with him. Says Principal Lanyon to Donaldson: "I suppose you'll be sending in the Health and Safety Executive!"

The principal kicks off his introductory speech: "It has been a very quiet year." A mobile phone in the audience blasts out a shrill ring. Then, just as Professor Donaldson begins his address, the lights go up. Then they go down - and out. They then go up again - er, down again. And, would you believe, out once more. As if that were not enough, the sound system comes out in sympathy. Not to be outdone, Donaldson plods on with his speech: "We have many common problems." Hm. He could say that again. Perhaps the vets should start operating on gremlins.