Word of Mouth

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The Independent Online
University challenge

Nicosia was buzzing with activity at the weekend. The Brits had arrived at the British Education Fair, a lucrative event for UK universities, to shout

their wares and attract as many students as possible in just three days.

According to the British Council, Cyprus ranks as Britain's sixth biggest non-EU provider of students, falling just behind Malaysia, America, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. And until Cyprus joins the EU, students pay us full fees, making them even more attractive. If you saw the report by my colleague, Lucy Hodges, a couple of weeks ago on the steep drop in applications to our universities (old as well as new universities face this dilemma), you'll understand why overseas recruiting has become more frenzied than ever.

I have additionally bad news for our vice-chancellors. I flew to Cyprus and paid a quick visit to an important newcomer to the higher education scene - one that is likely to have a rather disturbing effect on the annual harvest of more than 3,250 Cypriots to British campuses. The University of Cyprus is barely seven years old and already has four faculties (humanities and social sciences; pure and applied sciences; economics and management; and the arts). It plans shortly to add engineering, medicine and law.

There are 2,300 students (104 of them at postgraduate level) and by 2009, the rapidly expanding campus will accommodate 4,500 students. That's not bad for a country with a population of little more than 700,000. The first cohort of graduates has come through with flying colours and I must say, their caps and gowns are the most beautiful I have seen (see right). Tuition fees - 2,000 Cypriot pounds (about pounds 2,450) - are paid by the government, which also hands out maintenance grants of about pounds 600 a head. Why, I kept wondering while I was there, should any ambitious Cypriot want to desert that beautifully sunny clime for expensive Britain? Recruiting at Nicosia's education fairs is likely to become tougher by the year.

The great wall of Lempa:

Driving across Cyprus can be an exhilarating experience. There are surprises around virtually every corner. Going north from Paphos, the unsuspecting traveller could stumble upon a peaceful, former Turkish village called Lempa. Circling its former school is a wall, described as "outrageous" by the Rough Guide, the traveller's bible. It is certainly controversial, for it displays a hotchpotch of sculptures, ranging from pop art to statues of immense proportions.

This is the Cyprus College of Art, run by a Cypriot, Stass Paraskos, whose son, Michael, is an art lecturer at Scarborough University College. Stass was 66 yesterday (St Patrick's Day) and his college is patronised almost exclusively by Brits. His assistant, Graham Parry, graduated from West Surrey College of Art and came to take a postgraduate diploma at the college 20 years ago. He never left. Another student, Kathy Bowdich, took an HND in sculpture at the Carmarthen College of Art; Caroline Burr studied at Cardiff and Brenda Money, a Cornish lady with six grandchildren, decided to enrol after taking a BA in fine art at Falmouth College. All are now working on their diplomas. I was shown round the studios, hives of happy activity and original work. And guess what? Not a single computer in the entire place. "We're decidedly low- tech," Graham Parry told me. Costly? Far from it. The seven-month postgrad diploma (November to June) costs pounds 1,200 - including basic accommodation. And there's a series of four-week summer schools from July to September (for students over 18 with no formal art qualifications), for only pounds 150 - also including simple accommodation. But you must supply your own carving tools.

Land of milk and money:

While I was in Limassol, I thought I'd pop over to Israel for the day.

Nothing simpler. I joined a three-day cruise which took in, not only the Holy Land, but Egypt to boot. Now, the in-thing to do, if you happen to be an Israeli with a gift for languages, is to enrol as a tour guide. Although cut and polished diamonds happen to be the country's top export (strange, since Israel possesses not a single diamond mine), tourism is not far behind. Three Schools of Tourism have developed and flourished - in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They manage to produce 100 graduates a year. My coach to Bethlehem and Jerusalem was crammed with Russians as well as British (Russians are rapidly replacing Germans as universal gad-abouts), but this presented no problem to Rita Lubarsky, our guide. Her parents were Russian immigrants and Rita spoke both languages fluently and without the use of notes.

DisCERNing collaboration:

All this week, sixth-formers from London's Cranford Community School have been getting together with their counterparts from Skarholmen Gymnasium, one of Stockholm's leading grammar schools. The young Brits and Swedes joined forces at Geneva's European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) to experience some real-life laboratory work and prove that you don't need to be capped and gowned before you can demonstrate true international collaboration. It might also provide science, one of our most seriously neglected subjects, with a much-needed boost.

And finally...

While I was in Cyprus, the island's education committee met behind closed doors to discuss "problem teachers". It reported that 172 "psychologically unstable" teachers were working in state high schools. Quoth a spokesman for the Secondary School Teachers' Union: "Of the 172, only 17 cases are of a serious nature." And all this without the collective nervous breakdowns that precede a Chris Woodhead inspection.