WORD OF MOUTH

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Hard Labour

My late father was wont to echo old Polonius in Hamlet: "Neither a borrower nor a lender be." I know I should never have made it to Nottingham University had I not received a grant, then from Manchester City Council. We had too much pride to borrow money and would sooner have gone without food (and, on many an occasion, did). I can only thank my lucky stars that I became of (university) age under a Labour government. Clem Attlee was in charge at the time and George Tomlinson (elementary school and evening class-educated and a former Lancashire cotton mill worker) was education minister. Unfortunately, Tony Blair's current Tory government appears to have forgotten that Britain's only true natural assets are its brains. If a country fails to invest in them, it can only slide further into ignorance. Yesterday's Dearing report was, I thought, perfectly clear on that issue at least. Having already managed to discourage and demoralise the nation's teachers, the Old Tories of Westminster are now antagonising its students. Who, I wonder, is next to come under fire in "education, education, education"?

Barking up a throne

If there is one thing which continues to set "new" universities apart from the "old", it is chancellors. Most of the new believe it is enough to make do with no more than a vice-chancellor. What do they think "vice" - in that connotation - means? There are a few exceptions, such as Staffordshire University, whose chancellor is Lord Ashley of Stoke, and the University of Portsmouth (Lord Palumbo). The latest to be represented by someone universally trusted and admired is the University of East London, which last week installed Lord Rix as its first chancellor. As Brian Rix, the former Bevin Boy coal miner turned actor-manager gave us those splendid Whitehall farces and successful films such as Reluctant Heroes (1951, just four years before I appeared in the play in, of all places, the Canal Zone of Egypt). In 1980 he decided to "go straight" and ran the Royal Society for Mentally Handicapped Children (Mencap) which he now chairs. He is just the man to front a university whose register includes more than 500 students with disabilities. Oh, and before the Higher Education Funding Council and other government meanies start screaming about costs, the grand throne on which Lord Rix was installed was borrowed (for free) for the occasion from the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.

Luton celebrates

Those who follow this column will know the University of Luton is in the red. So it was with some surprise that I learned that the university's management had taken itself and guests to its splendid mansion at Putteridge Bury in Hertfordshire (I believe it's as near as dammit a replica of Chequers) for a celebratory dinner last week. That was to mark the university's fourth anniversary. To be fair, I understand governors paid for their own meal. Ironically, all this took place on Bastille Day and, while the great and the good were wining and dining, some 40 of their serfs sat on the lawns, muttering epithets. I dare say some might have even been knitting, but there was no sign of a tumbrel. The peasants, sorry, academics, had come to protest (peacefully, I'm told) against the decision to eliminate 100 or so colleagues through redundancy or early retirement. The demo was organised by Natfhe and Unison, the two staff unions. A ballot for strike action was lost in a two-to-one vote, though "action short of a strike" was passed by about the same proportion. There was also a vote of no confidence in Luton's management, which proved too much for the governors, who thought it "ill considered". Unions responded bluntly: staff had to take the brunt of other people's errors and subsequent cuts in funding. The vote of no confidence could not be ignored, they said, and called for a "more open style of management".

Now that's smart

The Bank of Scotland and Edinburgh University have teamed up to produce a multi-function swipe card that is free to all its 25,000 students and staff. It will bear the owner's photograph and may be used not only as a matriculation and library card but also to gain access to the university's secure areas. It is also an "electronic purse" to pay for photocopying, laser printing, telephone calls and small purchases in cafeterias, bars and shops. The scheme should catch on, though I feel it in my bones that one or two other universities will now tell me they have had such a smart card for ages.

Binary coffin nailed

At last a meaningful merger. The Association of University Teachers, with nearly 40,000 members, predominantly in the "old" universities, has become the most powerful single TUC-affiliated union within the university sector. It follows this month's 98 per cent pro-merger vote by the Association of University and College Lecturers, whose 3,000 members are mainly in the "new" universities and colleges of higher education. It means that from 1 September, the AUT may recruit right across the higher sector. Bad news for the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe) which recently blamed its general secretary, John Akker, for a declining membership and forced him to "resign". It now looks as if, without Akker, they could lose still more. Although the AUT has promised to abide by TUC rules and forgo a recruitment war, it has already taken over Natfhe branches at Salford Institute of Technology and Brunel's West London Institute. Two new universities in Scotland - Glasgow Caledonian and Abertay - have set up AUT branches and, I understand, one or two new university vice-chancellors have applied for AUT membership. And there are still a couple of months before the September kick-off.

And finally...

Originally, Sir Ron Dearing's mammoth report was to have been out just after the general election. The task proved too big and time too short. Publication was moved to late June, then to 17 July ... As early as 15 May, I forecast publication would coincide with the week of Sir Ron's 67th birthday (next Sunday). He had told me that all he wanted to do was to retire. I think congratulations are due all round, even if yesterday's report cannot please everyone. Happy birthday - and a long retirement, Ronn

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