WORD OF MOUTH

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The Independent Online
France's age-old problem:

If you're of a "certain age" and are invited to deliver a guest lecture at a French university, my advice is: don't. Look what happened to Bill Holdsworth, a well-known environmental engineer and writer who lives and works in the Netherlands. After Holdsworth had wound up a symposium on ecological design at Kingston University in May last year, a professor from the Universite de Franche Comte at Besancon was so impressed that she begged him to speak in France. He agreed. He was later told he would be the keynote speaker at an international "colloque" and that two hours were programmed. Besancon is not the easiest place to reach from Bill's home. After four trains, a metro and taxi, he arrived at the grotty hotel the university had booked for him and in the morning made his own way to the university. Other (French) professors spoke for about half an hour each. Bill's session was a resounding success. After his return home, he grappled with the (French) expenses form that had been thrust at him and (foolishly) filled in his date of birth. Back came a Non to taxi; Non to trains (too many); Non to his faxes; and Non to fee. Why, then, had all the other professors been paid to the hilt? Bill was over 65 - and could not be "employed" by a French university. In the end, and after much argy-bargy, a total of pounds 305 came to his English bank account ... mysteriously from the Bank of Ireland, by order of the French Embassy in London. You have been warned!

Passing the Buck:

I always thought a royal invitation to HM's annual series of garden parties at Buck House was a personal affair. Not that the Queen sits down and goes through her contacts book - "Ah, that nice vice-chancellor at Poppleton University - we've put three asterisks against his name. We shall ask him. Well, that's one. Only 3,049 to go." No, the various government departments are cajoled into providing a list of the great and good. And they're all personal, aren't they? Well, I thought so. Until I read the Anglia Polytechnic University's Bulletin (hasn't APU found a new name yet?). It announced that, following a draw, Angie Arthur of the ASA Office and Georgina Martin at the University Secretary's Office had been nominated to attend one of HM's garden parties this year. Short straws, perhaps? As I recall, those parties serve the tiniest cucumber sandwiches and even tinier strawberry tartlets ever, and there are long queues for the portable loos. Oh, and you can't even get close to the hostess.

Discus throw:

Those who have not won more than the odd tenner with the National Lottery (that's most of us) might like to learn that two senior lecturers at Coventry University have come up with a system - well, not so much a system as a computer program which calculates the probability of a Lottery win. The software, conveniently called Discus (an acronym for Discovering Important Statistical Concepts Using Spreadsheets), has sold like hot lottery numbers in countries as far apart as New Zealand and Germany. Schools and universities have ordered this teaching aid, including Coventry's rival, Leicester University, the Institute of Education at Warwick University, and the University of Central England in Birmingham. It is the brainchild of Dr Neville Hunt and Sidney Tyrrell to help them to teach statistics to A- level students and first-year undergraduates. This is how it works: the student enters six numbers into the computer, which then selects random numbers many hundreds of times in quick succession, simulating, in just a couple of minutes, years of twice-a-week Lottery draws. For statistics, great - but has the Hunt-Tyrrell partnership won anything? No. But then the idea is to show how statistically tough it is to win a jackpot. Like one in 40,000,000 ...

Glasgow's own lottery:

While on lotteries, those fat cats at the National Lottery had better look to their cream. They have rivals north of the border. A monthly lottery, launched by the University of Strathclyde way back in 1991, has made many a member of the university staff happy. Entries are pounds 1 a throw, and the finance office prints all participating names on slips, which go into a drum. A senior officer or distinguished visitor performs the monthly draw. Half the total prize money is divided: 75 per cent for the first prize, 10 per cent for the second, and the remainder split four ways. The first prize, pounds 410 when the lottery started in 1991, has more than doubled, to pounds 880. Did I hear a murmur about what happens to the other half of the prize money? That's the beauty of it. It doesn't provide even a drop of milk for Strathclyde's scraggy kittens, but goes to good causes. Since it began, the lottery has raised more than pounds 56,000 for the University Foundation.

And finally ...

A good case for postponing higher education until one is, er, more mature is put by Nicholas Pritchard, a graduate of the University of Kent at Canterbury. In a letter to Kent Bulletin, this teacher of 27 years' standing confessed he went to university "at the wrong emotional age". He would have applied himself academically had he waited until he was 25. "I spent much of my time at Kent falling in love with totally unsuitable women," he cries. He adds: "This, I believe, is putting the heart before the course."

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