WORD OF MOUTH

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Loot-on accounted

The chartered accountants and management consultants Coopers & Lybrand have been called in to put the finances of Luton University to rights - not just to advise, as may be the norm when an institution finds itself in a spot of bother, but to take over and run the finance department. This, to say the least, is rare, But then, Luton, among the newest of the new universities, has been forced to apply a tourniquet ever since it discovered an expected pounds 1m surplus had turned into a pounds 1m deficit. The vice-chancellor, Tony Wood, immediately sacked the finance department's senior managers, not for any hanky-panky, but for "poor accounting", and claimed he had not known what was going on because he "had not been given the correct information". No fewer than 100 academics (out of 1,000) are to be made redundant as a result of the error Coopers & Lybrand are now trying to sort out. My sympathy to those about to be made jobless, and to the line managers who have to break the news to them.

Creating ox-tales

Spare a thought for the students and academics of Hong Kong who from midnight on Monday, in this Year of the Ox, after 150 years of British rule, will come under China's thumb. Many face the prospect philosophically. According to Profile, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University journal, HK is "the place to be right now" as it lies at the heart of Asia's "booming regional economy".

Academics speak of an ever-present "energy and atmosphere". Professor John Frazer, head of the Poly's School of Design, who taught at Cambridge and, more recently, at the University of Ulster, where he also held the chair of design, sees HK as the "international design hub". Well, dare any of them say any different, I ask myself, as I recall the despicable Tiananmen Square episode. At what price will academic freedom be sold? So spare a thought ...

Return of Patten

And while still with Hong Kong, what's to become of Governor Chris Patten? I understand that he was approached by Saxton Bampfylde International, the head-hunters retained by Durham University to net a replacement for Professor Evelyn Ebsworth, its vice-chancellor since 1990. The professor reaches the "magic age" next February, and will be a hard act to follow.

But Patten, a former Tory party chairman, has other fish to fry, and vice-chancellorship isn't one of them. He is almost certain to return to politics. Who knows? He may even end up challenging Hague the Vague.

Freedom for Oxford

Let me also disclose yet another rarity. Not many collectives are crowned with the freedom of cities. Oxford University is an exception. The city's public affairs committee has recommended that the freedom of the city be conferred on the entire university. Wow! Will it bring permission to march goats through traffic-laden streets? I was assured it was just an honour, for a university that has done so much for the community. It still has to be rubber-stamped by a meeting of the full council, but I can't see its being rejected. Last week the vice-chancellor, Peter North, brought a galaxy of dons, all oblivious to this news, to the Royal Society for Arts in London to mark the publication of the university's new Director of Experts, meant for the likes of me - hacks in need of a quick quote on any newsy subject. The assembly included such notables as Professor Vernon Bogdanor (Brasenose), the government and monarchy sage; Dr David Butler (Nuffield), without whom no general election punditry would be complete; Professor Jean Aitchison (Worcester), one of the top linguistics authorities; and many, many more.

Czech mate by Dip

Still on the subject of Oxford University, Vaclaw Havel, President of the Czech Republic, is to join a select bunch when he is awarded the degree of Doctor of Civil Law by Diploma. Now 60, he studied economics at the Prague Technical University but ended up in the theatre, first as a stagehand, later as a distinguished playwright. As co-founder of Charter 77, he courageously opposed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Others who have received Oxford's coveted Degree by Diploma include King Juan Carlos I of Spain (1986), President Mary Robinson of Ireland (1991), US President Bill Clinton (1994), South Africa's President Nelson Mandela (1996) and, most recently, President Herzog of Germany.

Earning respect

A recent memorial meeting to honour the multi-Oscared film director Fred Zinnemann, who died shortly before his 90th birthday, was attended by a constellation of stars, including Paul Scofield, whom he directed in A Man for All Seasons (1966), Vanessa Redgrave (Julia, 1977) and Edward Fox (The Day of the Jackal, 1973). All contributed poignant anecdotes of the great man. Sir Peter Ustinov, chancellor of Durham University, who is filming in Dublin, sent a special message, read by Tim Zinnemann (like Dad, a film director). Ustinov recommended Fred Z for an honorary doctorate two years ago, but the great man was too ill to travel to Durham and declined the honour. So Sir Peter, along with the university's registrar and its public orator, went to Zinnemann's London home, dressed in all the regalia, and enacted the ordination in his sitting-room. Afterwards Fred told his visitors: "I was born in Vienna in 1907. If you wanted to be someone in those days, you had to be a doctor. It made you respectable. Well, now at long last I've become respectable."

And finally ...

A discouraging note, with which I fully empathise, is contained in the consistently readable Wye Week, a simple two-pager from Wye College, London University's college of agriculture: You know you are getting older when you are tying your shoelaces and think "what else can I usefully do while I'm down here?"n

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