Word of Mouth

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Heaps better grades

Are standards really slipping as much as we are constantly being urged to believe? Thirty years ago, when I was a chief education correspondent, I recall a youngish man asking to see me. I promised to read the crumpled manuscript he had pressed into my hands, and took it home for the weekend. In the weekly column I used to pen in those days, I later wrote: "This is likely to become the Michelin Guide of university entry..."

The man was Brian Heap, then a careers teacher at a Preston school. His manuscript was Degree Course Offers. It listed just about every subject under the academic sun and gave prospective students the A-level grades different universities and polytechnics sought.

The book has become a little money-spinner and Heap soon chucked in teaching and turned to consultancy. He has been in great demand ever since - although universities resented this upstart divulging admission guidelines. Today, of course, they are all at it. Huge tomes, and/or CD- roms and websites, give grade requirements.

But have entry requirements changed? Just compare this small selection of average grades required in 1969 with 1999/2000.

If you wanted to be a lawyer, you could get into a pretty decent law course on a B and two Cs or three Cs 30 years ago. Today, you'd need two As and a B or three Bs. Dentistry? Why, it was a snitch, with three Es or Ds, compared with the two As and a B or one A and two Bs now. Popular business studies needed a B and two Cs, instead of three Bs today. A- levels at BCC would get you into an English course (today ABB or BBC); French, then BBC, now needs ABB; politics, too, has gone from three Cs to three Bs; veterinary science, always oversubscribed, was BBC against three As or AAB today.

And so it goes on.

And why are some applicants rejected? Oxford University last year gave the thumbs down to one biology candidate for being "boring". Dentistry applicants were found by another university to display poor manual dexterity and a lack of knowledge of the subject. A social admin applicant "lacked awareness of current social issues". A German candidate was said to have an "unstable personality" and a would-be accountant lacked interest in the subject and had "poor English". Other reasons included lack of motivation, commitment and enthusiasm, lack of clear reasons for course choices, and poor communication skills.

The 30th edition of Degree Course Offers - that's added such items as subject differences, gap-year advice, how to fill in a Ucas form, and graduate employment - is published by Andy Trotman (12 Hill Rise, Richmond, Surrey TW10 6UA). The 30th edition is pounds 18.99. The first, now a collectors' item, cost just pounds 2.

Doyen stands aside

And here's another 30-year landmark. Michael Shattock, who joined the University of Warwick as its deputy registrar in 1969 and became registrar 14 years later, is to retire in September. He has seen three vice-chancellors come and two go (Jack, now Lord, Butterworth, 1965-85; Dr Clark Brundin, 1985-92; and Professor Sir Brian Follett, there since 1993).

The Committee of University Chairmen, dealing with effectively running governing bodies, will lose one of the best secretaries it's had since it arose when the Committee of Chairmen of ("old") University Councils merged with the Standing Conference of the Chairmen of the Boards of ("new") Universities.

Shattock's been a consultant and adviser to so many bodies, they'd fill this column, but they included the parliamentary select committee on education, science and the arts, the British Council, the OECD and the World Bank. What next? Write another book? Perhaps. But he'll also take up a visiting professorship at the University of London's Institute of Education.

University teachers go Euro

A historic document is to be signed at the University of Kassel, almost in the centre of Germany. For the first time, academics all over Europe - and that, of course, includes our lot - are not only to share their problems, but will agree to help each other overcome them.

David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, will add his signature - with that of Gerd Kohler, his German counterpart, and other union leaders - to a document binding EU academics closer together. Until Saturday, they will discuss employment and working conditions - sharing joint problems such as the rapid decline of academic status, the constant squeeze on resources, student-staff ratios, cuts in research funding, and the attempted control over working hours, holidays, salaries and contracts by managers who don't even bother to consult their staffs.

Oh, sure, there are chunks of dead wood, as well as academics who have a cushy time and work as little as possible, but they fall into a small minority, and vice-chancellors should know that they cannot run successful institutions if their academics remain demoralised. That counts as much in the UK as it does in Germany, France or Spain.

Mandela scholars

Soon after Nelson Mandela initiated the miracle of a new South Africa, the University of North London proposed a series of scholarships for students from the republic. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office stated that it was interested in chipping in some cash, but a third sponsor was needed.

Only one of the richer South African companies contacted -and it was by no means the richest - offered to help fund a scholarship.

On Tuesday, Unilever threw a lunch at the House of Lords, hosted by Lady Chalker, the former overseas development minister, to celebrate setting up its own Nelson Mandela scholarships for SA postgraduates to study here. The first entered UK universities last September. It's never too late.

And finally...

Glasgow University students seem to be avid EastEnders fans. They've elected Ross Kemp (who plays Grant Mitchell in the soap) as their 117th rector; he beat Ian Hamilton, the Scottish Nationalists' candidate, on a turnout of just 11 per cent.

Last year Richard (Victor Meldrew) Wilson led the poll, which drew 17.6 per cent of the students.

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