Word Of Mouth

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Swan song

Old Mertonians - that's those who graduated from Merton College, Oxford - were surprised to receive a letter from Dr Jessica Rawson, the warden, inviting them to a tour of the Levant on board the good ship Minerva. As alumni, they would receive a 10 per cent discount on normal cruise prices. And what's more, Merton would benefit by a further 10 per cent - a donation from the cruise organisers, Swan Hellenic. Swan Hellenic is not your knees-up, Butlins-on-sea stuff. It's far more esoteric, with real live dons acting as guides to ancient sites and conducting lectures on board. Indeed, one of Merton's own chaps, honorary fellow Patrick Wright, will be among the lecturers on the 17-day Levant trip, sailing on 29 March. But don't think Merton has been singled out. Alumni groups from 30 "key universities" took part in Swan cruises last year. This year the number has doubled. They include Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, Pembroke College, Oxford, Trinity College, Dublin and the universities of Leicester and Manchester. I hear the average group attracts some 16 bookings, which brings in about pounds 4,000 for their alma mater.

No longer

Browned off

Some people invariably fall on their feet, none more so than Roger Brown.Those with long memories may recall him scribbling extensive notes as secretary of the epic inquiry into the William Tyndale School. After a variety of Whitehall departments, he turned up as chief executive of the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics. Having nudged that sector to university status, he went on to head the Higher Education Quality Council. But he was outflanked when the HEQC was replaced by the Quality Assurance Agency. Now he has landed his best job yet, as principal of the Southampton Institute of Higher Education, whose 15,000 students make it bigger than many universities. He faces a tough task. David Leyland, the last man in charge, took early retirement last summer following two years of appallingly low staff morale and rumpus on campus. There were votes of no confidence in the Institute's management and calls for the leading governors to resign. My advice to Southampton Institute is to batten down the hatches. Dr Brown does not suffer fools gladly and will be tough on the bridge. Yet within a year, I bet he'll have this ship sailing a straight course.

Teesside bellies

Whoever would have imagined Egyptian-style belly dancing might become all the rage up north. Well, I've got news for you. There's a senior lecturer at the Darlington Memorial Hospital education centre who has made this dance an essential part of learning for University of Teesside School of Health students. Karen Edmenson claims that the frantic wobble helps in coming to grips with learning disabilities. "Belly dancing is ideal when you're teaching a non-nursing skill such as stress management," she says. Believe it or not, none of her students have turned their backs on their bellies. "Even the men dance willingly," says Karen, a former nursing matron.

Trots wha hae!

History, I suppose, was made last week at the University of London Institute of Education. Not only was a lively debate between Baroness Blackstone and Stephen Dorrell on the student fees/ grants issue disrupted by a group of Socialist Workers Party students waving a Kingsway College of Further Education banner, but they even sided with Dorrell. Admittedly, listening to the two main speakers you might have been forgiven for thinking that dear Mr Dorrell had crossed the floor of the House and joined the Labour ranks,while Lady B had turned towards Hague the Vague. Tessa is, of course, the Government's Minister for Higher Education, while Stephen is an aviator when he's not shadow Education Secretary. The debate was held up to allow the youngsters to shout their well-rehearsed slogans (who, I have always wondered, writes them?): "Tax the rich, make them pay; less champagne and save the day ..." But to hear them urge the audience to vote for a Tory who claimed that the government's policy on student funding was an attack on the poor and would never help to expand higher education, was almost too much to bear. Even Stephen Dorrell (who argued his case brilliantly) looked embarrassed.

Footnote: Baroness Blackstone, former Master ("I'm nobody's mistress") of Birkbeck College, is to have her portrait unveiled at the college next Wednesday. The artist, Peter Edwards, has shown her standing in front of a fireplace, wearing a red dress. Perhaps it should have been blue. All kinds of celebs have been invited to the unveiling, including Dame Diana Rigg, Joanna Lumley, Felicity Kendal, Ben Kingsley and Stephen Fry.

And finally ...

It's clearly dial-a-drink time at Nottingham University. Its campus telephone directory has a paragraph on mobile phones: "The Telephone Services Help Line can arrange a long-term supply of mobiles at discounted rates; we also have a number of phones available for short-term loan on an add hock basis."