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Oxbridge strike back

It was, of course, bound to happen. Neither Oxford nor Cambridge university was going to take the united onslaught on their funding (an extra pounds 2,000 per student to help preserve the tutorial system) lying down.Not only did their leaders chew the ears of their peers in the Lords yesterday, but Colin Lucas, Oxford's vice-chancellor, also sent a letter to the Higher Education Council for England in which he has provided a few blinding statistics to support the case that Oxbridge gives "excellent value for public money". For example, Oxford's average A-level admissions score is 29 points, compared with a national average of 18.8. Its "wastage rate" (drop-outs) is a mere 5 per cent compared with a national average of 17.18 per cent. And, surprise, surprise, only 2.6 per cent of Oxbridge students are still jobless six months after graduating, compared with an average of 8 per cent nationally. For good measure, Dr Lucas added that a large proportion of dons at other universities hold Oxbridge degrees, and that the average annual tuition cost for an undergraduate is pounds 6,000 - a drop in the ocean when compared with Harvard, Stanford or MIT where it is pounds 14,000-plus. But then, Oxbridge still lags behind everyone else in providing wider access to state school and mature students. Dr Lucas admits this, and is doing his best to light a metaphorical fuse under those dreaming spires.

Essex leisure for pleasure

It is ages since I last set foot on the University of Essex campus. When I did, nearly 30 years ago, its students were revolting - and I couldn't blame them. Colchester was more than a brisk walk away (and didn't provide many attractions) and the halls of residence were tower blocks of quite remarkable ugliness. I'm sure all this will have changed, and even Colchester must have been spruced up. Or perhaps not, for the university is masterminding a major 22-acre development close to the town. It is to provide 500 new jobs, a 12-screen cinema with 2,500 seats, a leisure centre with eight tennis courts, a 10-pin bowling alley and a family entertainment centre, to say nothing of pubs, restaurants, a night-club and a cheapo hotel. Professor Ivor Crewe, the vice-chancellor, feels this will "greatly enhance the social facilities of our students and staff." I bet it will.

A general to mourn

As I recalled the student "troubles" all those years ago, I could not help thinking of General Sir John Hackett. He was principal of King's College, University of London, from 1968 until 1975, and died a few weeks ago, aged 86. Harold Wilson was reluctant to rubber-stamp his appointment. Damn it, the man had been commander-in-chief of Nato North and the British forces in Germany. Put him in charge of a crowd of revolting students, and he'd probably have them shot at dawn ... But Hackett proved as great a leader of a campus as of a camp. And in 1974, armed with nothing more than a furled umbrella, he marched at the head of an army of students, demonstrating with them against dwindling grants. Were he still alive, he'd tell Messrs Blair and Blunkett in no uncertain terms that the pounds 1,000 students' levy is a counter-productive nonsense; that graduates stand to earn better salaries than those without qualifications; that higher salaries produce higher taxes - and that, in time, these would more than repay our measly investment in further and higher education. Sir John was a great character, whose passing should be mourned by students past and present.

Staffs staff feel insecure

Normally I take no notice of anonymous letters. But one I've just received from someone claiming to speak on behalf of the staff of Staffordshire University deserves discussion. The letter objects to the opening of a university art gallery in New York (see my story, 2 October) and calls it "crass mismanagement", and a threat to the university's financial health. Staffordshire, the letter states, is eighth from the bottom of the varsity league table; it claims that recruitment has been poor and that redundancies are in the air. So an art gallery in the Big Apple is the last thing that's needed. Is my nameless correspondent right? Frankly, I can think of no more positive advertisement for the university. If the gallery is properly handled, its recruitment potential in dollars should easily outweigh its running costs. The university already has firm ties with American colleges. As for league tables, it's time their measurement methods - and the information supplied by some universities - were treated to an in-depth analysis.

And finally ...

"Dr Dafydd Evans, senior lecturer at the University of Dundee Dental School, was horrified to learn that bad backs are the major cause of early retirement for dentists. However, his plans for a course to help dental students improve their working postures ran into teething problems ..." (From a University of Dundee press release.)