Word of Mouth

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The Independent Online
Madam Vice-Master

I SUPPOSE it had to happen. Having appointed Professor Tim O'Shea as Master of Birkbeck College, London University, to succeed Baroness Blackstone, our much loved Higher Education Minister, a woman had to be found to be vice-master. The new one is a professor of molecular sciences with an appropriately masculine name: Julia Goodfellow. She holds the chair of the college's crystallography department, which conducts internationally praised research into drug, vaccine and protein design. In welcoming the 47-year-old "exceptional scientist with an outstanding research pedigree" the Master reminded us that the first woman student was registered at Birkbeck in 1833, only 10 years after the college was founded. At a time when women were firmly placed in kitchens or hospital wards to be seen but rarely heard, that was quite revolutionary. Today Birkbeck has twice the national average of women profs - 17 per cent compared with 8.5 per cent. As for women vice-chancellors, there are five: Dr Anne Wright (Sunderland); Prof Gillian Slater (Bournemouth); Prof Janet Finch (Keele), Mrs Sandra Burslen (Manchester Metropolitan) and Prof Christine King (Staffordshire). From September, Prof Diana Green (Sheffield Hallam) will make it six.

Scientific women

IN ANSWER to a parliamentary question, Kim Howells, the Lifelong Learning Minister, said that the percentage of women gaining science degrees, including medicine, dentistry, engineering and technology, had risen by leaps and bounds over the past five years. Of doctorates awarded, 26 per cent went to women in 1992-93; by 1996-97 this had risen to 31 per cent. Masters degrees rose from 30 to 35 per cent over the same period, and first degrees from 34 to 41 per cent. In 1995-96 there were 280 women professors of science subjects. According to Dr Howells, this is "the latest year for which figures are available". You'd never believe they had computers. Why can't we have figures for 1997-98?

Women at (net)work

FROM THE above paragraphs, you might be forgiven for thinking that women have done more than reasonably well over the past few years. So why the need for a Women in Higher Education Network, which gathers together academics, administrators, students and support staff from all disciplines to "further the position of women in higher education and change the climate to one where women can realise their own potential"? The acronym, When, might be better expressed as Now (Network of Women). Details of this group appear in the current issue of AUT Woman, published by the Association of University Teachers. It also carries a letter from a mere man, Ron Atkinson, head of condensed matter physics at Queen's, Belfast, who asks why such a publication is needed. "Perhaps we should waste more resources and publish `AUT Man' " he writes.

Note on yobbos

I AM haunted by a televised picture of a weeping Frenchwoman in Marseilles standing outside her cafe, smashed up by groups of British yobbos. "Il faut les tuer; il faut les tuer," ("they should be killed") she sobbed. I understood her reaction, even if I could not go all the way with her sentence. The events that ruined the World Cup should be a grim reminder to us all - including Chris Woodhead and his Ofsted teams - that teachers are having to deal with these kind of morons on a day-to-day basis. Home Secretary Jack Straw was quick to praise the French police. What praise will he now give to Britain's teachers?

Alternative league

WHAT'S THIS? Another league table? Yes, but this time it's from the customers. More than 12,000 students from every university in the country gave their verdicts to Red Mole, for "alternative university ratings", now available on the Web. A dozen separate categories appear, from accommodation to relationship with locals. When it comes to the quality of teaching, students have spat against the wind of those "official" leagues, for Oxford comes in 26th, while Cambridge is even farther down, at 55. Lancaster University tops this particular division, with University of London Imperial College in second place, York University in third, University of Wales, Bangor, fourth and Durham fifth. I refuse to name and shame the bottom five, at 104 to 108. Leeds University is rated best for nightlife, with Northumbria the runner-up and Nottingham Trent third. Durham comes out as overall king of the castle, with best accommodation and architecture; Lancaster has not only the most attractive women but also the most handsome men, although it comes a cropper on accommodation and architecture. Loughborough, not surprisingly, has the best sporting facilities. Look out: voting for the 1998-99 rankings is threatened to start in September.

His word of mouth

THIS COLUMN has its uses. Remember that story "Too old for loans" (WoM, 21 May)? It was adult learners' week, and I chastised the Government for not allowing the over-50s to take out a loan, like younger students, to help pay for educational courses. And I said that half the Cabinet, including the Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett, 51 this month, wouldn't qualify for a loan the way the law stands. So what happened? Last week, Mr Blunkett announced a pounds 143m package to broaden access to higher education. And from the autumn of next year loans will be available to all aged 50 to 54 "who are planning to return to employment". Well, that is not quite what I had in mind, David. I was thinking of those planning to return to education. But still, it's a start, and Professor Derek Fraser, vice-chancellor of the University of Teesside, welcomed the "concession". "If any cabinet minister wants to put lifelong learning into practice, we'll happily enrol them. They can even use our new learning resource centre, which was opened by Mo Mowlam. She was very impressed by what she saw."

And finally ...

"The cleaning contractors receive a number of complaints about the shortage of toilet rolls in some areas. Staff are reminded that hot-air hand-dryers are provided by the school for hand-drying and toilet rolls are provided for an entirely different purpose. Use of either of these facilities for the opposite purpose will obviously lead to complications and should, therefore, be avoided" - from the newsletter of St George's Hospital Medical School, University of London.