WORD OF MOUTH

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The Independent Online
One mistaken Virgin

Let me confess here and now that I've always had a soft spot for Richard Branson, entrepreneur extraordinary. But he might have bitten off more than even he can chew, for he has now infiltrated the holy of holies - university campuses. His Virgin Alternative Guide to British Universities has gone on sale at numerous outlets and has shaken the odd ivory tower. The entry for Cranfield University is particularly critical - and inaccurate. Its School of Management is confused with its School of Agriculture and its superb College of Aeronautics has been moved from its Bedfordshire home to deepest Oxfordshire. Cranfield's reputation for research and scholarship is such that it has never needed to shout its wares from the marketplace. With 2,238 post-graduates, 747 undergraduates and 1,734 staff, it is proud of its student-staff ratio of 2:1 (among the country's best). So why did Virgin's guide put it at 9:1? As for the tone of the entry, it could only be described as carping. When I contacted Cranfield's spokeschap, Revel Barker, to ask for his thoughts, he disclosed that "letters had been exchanged" but that the university would not resort to its learned friends, Grabbit & Run. He could not see any malicious intent behind the errors and, indeed, nor could I. The amicable links existing between British Airways and Cranfield (the only university with its own airfield) and staff interconnections between the two organisations - why, BA even named one of its Boeings after the university last year - cannot possibly have the slightest bearing. Anyway, I understand virginal apologies have been profuse.

Postgraduate record

One could, I suppose, always ask whether social science is actually a science. Whatever it is, it's doing extremely well according to a study conducted by Warwick University's Institute for Employment Research. Universities are spawning an ever-increasing number of postgraduate social scientists - and all bar two or three out of 100 land decent, well-paid jobs. "Significant employment growth to the end of this decade is anticipated in areas where postgraduate social scientists are already in demand," the study states. Most social science postgraduates take master's degrees in business and management studies, with economics, politics and education next in popularity. Some universities, particularly the "new" ones, find it difficult to persuade recently qualified social science postgrads to take up teaching. Perhaps they had second thoughts after listening to that little band of teacher-bashers.

Open University sensorship

The Open University, which has always been two steps ahead of the rest of the field, has joined the "new generation of low energy buildings". This, in English, means that just about everything reacts to sensors so that rooms are naturally heated and lit. When it was opened nearly 30 years ago (how time doth fly!) the OU was made up of Walton Hall at Bletchley and a few prefabs. Today, although the venue hasn't changed, its address is the more snooty Milton Keynes and the "campus" has expanded beyond recognition.

There's a brand new futuristic building whose windows open of their own accord once the room begins to feel a bit stuffy and overheated and whose blinds automatically come down if the sun's glare is too intense. It's all done by sensors and a computer. No need for air conditioning as the flow of air is regulated. Office lights are also "sensored" and dimmers raise or lower them. Architect Andrew Theobold of the Fielden Clegg Partnership - which produces the office of the future at the Buildings Research Establishment - explained the intricacies of the OU's Berrill Building (named after Sir Kenneth Berrill, the Open's Pro-Chancellor). But what if some workers don't want windows open or blinds drawn? Well, on the walls there are little old-fashioned things called switches ...

Woodhead strikes again

There are times when Chris Woodhead, our beloved Chief Inspector of Schools, richly deserves his nicknames: Blockhead and Woodentop. Having denigrated and demoralised the teaching profession, he now seems to have set his sights on academics. The other day he described a large number of vocational degree courses as "an indefensible confusion of purposes which undermine higher education". And he was quoted as saying that Caribbean studies, caring services, creative therapies and animation, to name but a few on his list, were "Noddy degree courses". Come, come, Chris. They form just a small part (or module) within a degree. Caring services are part of nursing degrees; creative therapies refer, I suppose, to art and music therapies, which are used extensively in mental health care, and so on ...

Even such "ancients" as St Andrews and Bradford offer Caribbean studies. And why on Earth shouldn't they? Cambridge, Edinburgh and Aberdeen are among the many to offer Celtic studies. Are they so very different? Woodhead's latest salvo was fired during a useful University of Warwick debate on the current state of education. He advocated the preservation of A-levels and degrees "for those who will benefit from the opportunity to study a small number of subjects in depth". And this from the man who upheld the "progressive" methods of the permissive Sixties.

Right number

Universities really are moving into the 21st century with a vengeance. If I wanted to telephone my parents or my girlfriend, I had to brave the elements and queue at a phone box. Now residential students are to be given their very own phones in their very own rooms. The University of York is just one example. By the end of this month the first personal student phones will be fully operational. Internal calls ("Meet-me-in- the-bar-in-five-minutes" type of calls) are free and for pounds 30 a year students can receive incoming calls and voicemail. For outgoing calls, they may open accounts with ACC Telecom. Numerous other establishments are jumping on the bandwagon, including the universities of Keele, Cranfield and North London. It's a sign of the times. This additional service is bound to increase conference bookings. But is it all too late? Lots of students now sport mobiles - and many a lecture room door displays the notice "Switch off your mobile before entering."

And finally....

Asked one Friday whether he had received an e-mail message, a senior member of staff in information technology replied seriously: "Oh, I never log-on Fridays!" (reported in Pelican, the University of East London's entertaining magazine).

Michael Goldstein

In my column last week a transmission error changed the sense of the headline on the piece about the appointment of Michael Goldstein, Vice- Chancellor of Coventry University, as chairman of UCAS. The headline should have read: "All that glitters is Goldstein". Apologies for any offence caused.

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