Word of Mouth

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The Independent Online
Conferring in peace: The last time I stayed at Belfast's Europa Hotel, it was bombed. In fact, the Europa was bombed an astonishing 34 times during the Troubles. Yet last week, there it was, still standing tall and proud and comfortable. The ugly security fence in front of the building had gone and things felt like they might be returning to "normal". I had come for the conference of HEERA/CASE (Higher Education External Relations Association/ Council for the Advancement and Support of Education). This year's get-together was sponsored by The Independent. But not even this great newspaper could have forecast that the conference was to be the first held in a Belfast at peace - hopefully a lasting one. "You have come at a historic time," David Alderdice, the Lord Mayor, told delegates as they tucked into a gourmet gala dinner at the majestic City Hall last Saturday night. That very day, British troops had been withdrawn from the streets of Belfast, Antrim and Lisburn. A hopeful sign. Since their arrival, 654 soldiers had been killed and more than 6,000 injured.

Rich Push: One of the scores of seminars dealt with the plethora of existing student guides - and posed the question: "who reads 'em, who needs 'em?" Only five of the major publishers were there to shout their wares, including Mark Meek of The Independent, which publishes YOU CAN! in association with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. Unlike most guides, this is not simply a series of listings, but a glossy, colourful mag with the kinds of articles students find lastingly useful - such as what it is really like moving from A-levels to higher education, and what sex means to the single student. No wonder it is good - its editor is Wendy Berliner, the woman who has the unenviable task of editing me and this paper's Education section. Another panel member was Johnny Rich, managing editor of Push, a thick annual, which has been going for six years and is by students for students. Rich was student union president at Durham University when he first had the idea.

Dressing for crisis: So how does one manage a crisis when it strikes a university? Peter Reader, head of public affairs at Southampton University, knows the answer only too well. A couple of years ago, he had to cope with three campus deaths out of six cases of meningitis. He launched a major meningitis campaign and organised a round-the-clock helpline. Vice- chancellor Howard Newby went on television to report three confirmed and a fourth suspected case. Sometime later, a "shocked and stunned" vice- chancellor announced the first fatality. No one would envy Reader or Newby their tasks. But everyone working in the field of public relations must be aware of the meticulous preparations that need to be made for the eventuality of a crisis, even down to the clothes one wears.

It's no good being solemn in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. When the vice-chancellor went before the cameras, he wore a dark suit and, as it was early November, a single poppy. This kind of dress sense was discussed more fully at another crowded seminar by Julia Campion, an image consultant who runs a company called First Impressions and advises MBA students at Cranfield University on how to make an impression at interviews. The British, according to Campion, are among the poorest wardrobe spenders. Less than 10 per cent of incomes goes on clothes, compared with 20 per cent spent by the French and Germans and 40 per cent by the Italians and Japanese.

What crisis? Even while the Belfast conference was in full swing, Queen's University was undergoing its own crisis, as readers of this newspaper will be well aware. Staff are up in arms over attempts to cut one academic in 10 (107 altogether) from the pay roll. Yet very few delegates suspected anything amiss. Two alumni officers - Gerry Power of Queen's and Sue Rees of the University of Ulster - had organised the conference so smoothly and efficiently that any background rumblings went unnoticed.

And finally: Lord Smith of Clifton, vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster (Trevor Smith as was when senior vice-principal of Queen Mary and Westfield College, London University), delivered a splendid keynote. He lambasted the Russell Group of would-be Ivy League universities for being too large in its pretensions and proposed that schools, from nurseries to secondaries should be joined to universities. At the end, when he was thanked for so wide-ranging a speech, he quipped: "I'm also available for bar mitzvahs."