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Gatecrashing Russell

When the British Council arranged for the creme de la creme to represent British universities in China this month and jaw-jaw with the presidents of that country's top 20 universities, it naturally picked members of the Russell Group. They form a small elitist section of "old" universities who think the removal of the binary line (ie naming polytechnics universities) might lead to some sort of Armageddon. Their strength is their research, of which all 17 Russell members feel justifiably proud.They hold their cabals at The Hotel Russell in London, hence their name (the ex-polys also formed a little network, the McDonald Group which, I expect, meets over burgers and chips). Anyway, 10 top vice-chancellors were duly chosen. But the British Council in its infinite wisdom noted that, although Scotland was represented (Edinburgh and Glasgow universities), Wales was not. That is how Professor Brian Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Wales Cardiff, and no Russellite, not only became a member of the party but also delivered the keynote speech on managing research in higher education at a summit conference at Peking. And why not? His university richly deserves Ivy League status. In the most recent independent research assessment exercise (RAF), Cardiff came 15th out of the 103 universities covered, and 12 of its departments were awarded the highest (Grade 5) rating.

Little concert

What has a one-time vicar of Emmerdale Farm in common with a 1757 wooden Guadagnini violin, and could the answer make even a little difference to Bradford University? Now there's a question for Round Britain Quiz. No? Well, I'll tell you. The vicar was played by actor George Little whose daughter, Tasmin Little, has appeared in each of the Henry Wood proms since 1990. She is, of course, the distinguished violinist, trained at the Yehudi Menuhin School, and is a Delius specialist (Channel Four recently showed her study of the Bradford-born composer's Florida love trysts). Tasmin was also brought up in Bradford, and the university honoured her with a doctorate last December. No wonder she likes to return whenever she gets the chance - like on 23 September when she will give a concert (in the Cathedral) of work by Mozart, Bach, Beethoven - but, would you believe, no Delius. Oh, and she plays a 1757 Guadagnini violin...

Penny worth pounds

Any university that has still not got its equal opportunities act together had better watch out for Penny Holloway, newly elected president of the 40,000 strong Association of University Teachers. She is described as "red hot" on equal opps issues. But that's not all. At last week's inauguration she also showed herself to be highly articulate and capable of calling a spade a shovel. For instance, she told the Government in no uncertain terms that it was "unthinkable that money raised to enhance quality in higher education should be siphoned off for some other purpose" - a reference to reports that the Government intends to pocket student fees, until now paid by local authorities direct to universities. Somehow I get the feeling Penny will win a few battles. Born in Merseyside, brought up in Wales, educated in Northern Ireland - is there a better combination? She took a history degree at the New University of Ulster and a diploma in library studies at Queen's University, Belfast. She is now librarian (unusual, to say the least, for an AUT president) at the University of Ulster, (formerly a poly) so she has experienced the problems of both sides of the binary. And because all members of the former Association of University and College Lecturers are now full members of the AUT, she will, for the first time in the AUT's 78-year history, represent members in institutions right across the higher education spectrum. I wish her luck.

New Husband for Campus

A few years before Margaret Thatcher asked John Ashworth, then Chief Scientist to save the seriously ailing Salford University (which he did) I visited another ailing university. Essex University was not in any financial trouble but, like most others at the time, was being manipulated by revolting students. Albert Sloman was vice-chancellor and when he led me into his study, we were followed by about 30 chanting (expletive deleted) students. We were held under siege for more than two hours. Now I can say - and, no doubt, Sir Albert will agree in retrospect - that it was a most enjoyable experience and, once the noise had died down, a sensible discussion on education ensued. Things have changed considerably since then. Essex is peaceful and Salford still has Campus, the Campaign to Promote the University of Salford, set up by Dr Ashworth. And on 21 October the Campus Directors' Dinner will have as its guest speaker Professor Michael Harloe, pro-vice- chancellor of Essex University and Salford's new vice-chancellor. He succeeds Professor Tom Husband, who retires after seven years in the post.

Just taste the shortage

London schools can't recruit enough qualified staff in shortage subjects. Thanks to the consistent attack on teachers these days, some schools are finding it tough to recruit teachers in any subject. Well now, the University of London Institute of Education has, as Baldric would say, come up with a cunning plan: it is offering "taster courses" in five subjects to adults courageous enough to consider a new career in teaching. All are considered shortage subjects in secondary schools: physics and broad science, maths, modern languages, design and technology and religious education. These may all be "tasted" for three days each between 13 October and 6 November. For further information, contact Deborah Harper on 0171-612 6591.

And finally...

Now you'd think Hoverspeed would welcome a bit of praise from a truly satisfied customer. Far from it, judging from the reply received by a secretary at Cranfield University. She and her partner were so impressed with their crossing from Dover to Calais last month, she decided to write to the company, heaping praise on Seacat, the "clean, cool terminals" and the courtesy of the staff. "It will be a pleasure to recommend your service to friends and family," she enthused and concluded with congratulations all round. Ten days later came the reply from Hoverspeed's customer co- ordinator: "Sorry to learn that you experienced some difficulties whilst travelling with Hoverspeed [sic]. I can assure you I will give your complaint my earliest attention and contact you as soon as I have reached a satisfactory conclusion." There's clearly a moral in this somewheren