WORD OF MOUTH

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The Independent Online
Another university?

Unless the Blessed Sir Ron cries with Macbeth, "Hold, enough!", we may shortly have another university to add to the country's 115. Nene College of Higher Education, which lies in a leafy suburb of Northampton and stands on one of the most attractive and best-kept campuses in the Midlands, is campaigning for the title University of Northamptonshire.

Not only have just about all the great and the good joined its charter board, including the county's Lord Lieutenant, a variety of mayors and the Bishop of Peterborough, but more than 200 schools, banks, colleges and companies have become corporate members of the campaign. Now the trustees of the late, lamented Kenneth Horne (yes, he of Much Binding in the Marsh and Round The Horne) have donated a cool pounds 1m to the college so that it may build a senate house in anticipation of university status. With almost 8,000 full-time and 3,000 part-time students, and more than 400 degree and higher-degree programmes, as well as an impressive research profile, the college meets the criteria for such a title.

Ghost at the Natfeast

Up at Scarborough, college lecturers spent the holiday weekend in some confusion. The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe), at the Spa for their annual conference, had just sacked their general secretary, John Akker, for alleged inefficiency (later cushioned as "early retirement", a pay-off in the region of pounds 80K, and a gagging clause). Yet there he was at the Spa, no illusion, like Banquo's ghost. Natfhe had also invited the Baroness Blackstone, our new Higher Education Minister, to address delegates. Tessa, astute as ever, decided not to face them. Yet there she was at the Spa - but she was an illusion. She had sent a video. It at least allowed heckling without upsetting Birkbeck College's former Master. Akker, who is taking legal advice, came up brandishing his membership card - not of Natfhe but of the National Union of Journalists. Some wonder whether he has been made a scapegoat for Natfhe's 10,000 membership losses through redundancies in the FE sector over the past four years. The gagging clause, forbidding Akker to speak to his NUJ colleagues, is typical of a union which is the first to cry "academic freedom" when vice- chancellors and principals try a similar ploy on Natfhe members.

Round-the-clock help:

The Association of University Teachers, which had a perfectly sensible conference at the Spa a week earlier, is to launch a help-line counselling service. From next Monday, any AUT member (and there are 38,000 of them) who is under threat of redundancy or suffers from sleeplessness, the strain of increased student numbers, overcrowded lecture theatres, lack of funds, or criticism for concentrating on students instead of research, may pick up the phone, day or night, all year round, and dial a dedicated 0990 number at standard rate for an instant sympathetic ear and the friendly advice of trained nurses. Alas, I predict many hundreds of callers. Isn't it tragic that this nation's once proud and revered higher-education service should be forced into such a situation?

Goal for Warwick

It's amazing to what extent people will go these days to land a decent job. Take Karren Brady (left), the managing director of Birmingham City Football club, for instance. Originally she wanted to get into advertising, and when interviewed for Saatchis' graduate training scheme more than 10 years ago, she told them she had studied at Warwick University. "I once visited a friend who studied there, so what did I have to lose?" She was offered the job. But her National Insurance card revealed her real age and she had to confess that she had never been to university. And what d'you know? It didn't matter! I suppose the story tells us more about Warwick's high reputation than Ms Brady's.

A taste of academe

Following the clear success of London University's summer schools, well tried and tested over six years, Oxford University is now trying to follow suit. Entrepreneur Peter Lampl, a graduate of Corpus Christi College (1970, chemistry) made a generous donation, believed to be in the region of pounds 100K, so Oxford could go ahead. The university approached 300 state schools, asked each to nominate two "suitable pupils", and finally selected 60 of the brightest. This, of course, bears no comparison with the London University scheme, which offers 63 courses, including medicine and law, at universities throughout Greater London, not just the Senate House federation, and is conducted on a non-selective, first-come-first-served basis. Its aim: to give youngsters who might never have dreamed of going to a university a mental kick-start. They might even try harder at A-levels. The original brainwave, piloted in 1991, came from Professor John Ashworth, who now heads the British Library after the LSE dispensed with his services as director. Since its launch, more than 13,000 youngsters have tasted freely the fruits of university life. Perhaps Oxford's scheme will show a similar all-embracing development.

And finally...

Sir Ron Dearing is invited to address more higher education conferences than anyone else, including the Secretary of State. Everyone hopes he will drop the odd pre-publication hint of what that long-awaited report contains. I am grateful to the Higher Education Funding Council for England briefing journal for the following pre-conference story. Sir Ron was asked how he could possibly speak for 20 minutes with saying anything at all about the report. His reply: "But I've been a civil servant for 50 years!"n

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