Word Of Mouth

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The Independent Online
Woolf whistle

If you are in a spot of bother, don't bother rushing to seek the help of lawyers. That appeared to be the message from Britain's top lawyer, Lord Woolf, when he blew the whistle on his profession during a seminar at the University of Essex Law School. The good Lord, who is Master of the Rolls and chairman of the University of London council, said that litigation should take less time, be less complex and cost less. He illustrated his thesis with two stories. The first referred to the row over a few feet of land by two neighbours, whose legal costs were so great that they ended up having to sell their houses. The other was of two parties who had commissioned expert reports to settle damages. The two sums recommended differed greatly, and the parties agreed on a compromise. They exchanged reports - both of which had been written by the same legal expert, Lord Woolf.

Lingua non franca

The French are not the polyglots they make themselves out to be. Indeed, a French national survey has just concluded that they are not much better than we are at mastering a foreign language. More than 54 per cent of those aged 15-plus could not take part in a conversation in anything other than French - nor could they attempt to write a letter or read a foreign newspaper, even a simple tabloid. On the positive side (positive, that is, for the many Brits who are too lazy to learn anything other than English, and even have difficulties speaking that) English is the language best spoken by those Frenchmen and women who have taken the trouble to listen to their teachers. In second place comes German and in third, Spanish. As one commentator put it in France Soir, which reported the survey in some detail last week while I was over there: "The French managed to export le French kiss throughout the world, but still have a lot of progress to make." Mind you, I still prefer the English of Charles Boyer and Maurice Chevalier to the French of Ted Heath.

Master's voice

For years, Oxbridge colleges have been embarrassed by their failure to attract more state school students. The situation is still not good enough. Cambridge, for example, wants to raise the proportion of its comprehensive school intake from the current 48 per cent to 65 per cent - the very proportion of state school pupils with three A-levels at grade A. Trinity College's new master, Amartya Sen, has added his distinguished voice to the college's own Target Schools campaign and has signed a letter inviting state schools to send their sixth-formers to a free two-day conference at this, one of the university's oldest and richest colleges. Its objective: to dispel the many myths that cast a shroud of prejudice over Trinity and create a reluctance among state sixth-formers to apply. The college also runs an ambassadorial word-of-mouth promotion scheme, sending undergraduates into local state schools to dispel any fears in the minds of youngsters about to complete those dreaded UCAS forms. Trish Garner, Trinity's Target Schools' officer, denied that Cambridge was on the verge of closing its doors to independent school students. "Our campaign is about opening doors to everyone in order to get the best applicants. State school pupils still fear they won't get in, won't fit in or won't be able to cope once they are in. Such fears are quite unjustifiable."

White flow the dons

And while we're on the subject of too few state school chaps and chapesses, how about the little matter of too few black lecturers and professors at our higher ed institutions? This thought has long troubled the Association of University Teachers which, after much lobbying, managed to rope in the support of unions and employers alike. Today the AUT, as well as the Committee of Vice-Chancellors, the Commission for Racial Equality, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education and the English and Scottish funding councils (Hefce and Shefc) meet to decide which of three shortlisted organisations should undertake the first research of its kind: how many black dons there are, and why they comprise not more than about 1 per cent of the academic workforce. The project will cost around pounds 27,000 and will be completed shortly after Christmas. Worth every penny.

And finally...

If you hear shrieks of terror from Woburn House, the Tavistock Square HQ of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, don't dial 999. It's only some poor, terrified member of staff jumping on to a chair. The CVCP has become infested with an assortment of mice, big and small. The pest controllers have been called in and poison has been carefully placed in nooks and crannies. It never used to be like this when the Chief Rabbi and the Jewish Board of Deputies had their offices there, and the CVCP was housed across the road. Mercifully, rats - of the four-legged variety, that is - have not yet appeared on the scene.