WORD OF MOUTH

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The Independent Online
New Mafia: The stranglehold that Oxford and Cambridge universities have had on Cabinets through the ages appears to have been severed. Only the Prime Minister himself and The Lord Richard, Lord Privy Seal, are Oxford graduates, while Chris Smith (National Heritage) and Lord Irvine (Lord Chancellor) were at Cambridge.

Durham University now equals that score, with Mo Mowlam (Northern Ireland) and Jack Cunningham (Agriculture). If a new Mafia there be, it hails from north of the border, with three Edinburgh University alumni - Robin Cook (Foreign Secretary), Gordon Brown (Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Gavin Strang (Transport). Then there's Donald Dewar, the Scottish Secretary, a graduate from Glasgow; Alistair Darling, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, from Aberdeen; and George Robertson, who will look after Britain's defence, from Dundee. The remaining Cabinet comprises: Clare Short (International Development) - Keele; Frank Dobson (Health) - LSE; and David Clark (Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster) - appropriately Manchester. Five Cabinet members graduated from Yorkshire universities: John Prescott, Deputy PM, was at Hull; Harriet Harman, Social Security - York; David Blunkett, Education - Sheffield; Ann Taylor, Leader of the Commons - Bradford; and the Home Secretary, Jack Straw - Leeds. You'll note quite a few redbricks - but only one from a new university. Could Ron Davies (Wales), who went to Portsmouth Poly, now Portsmouth University, be the very first "modern university" Cabinet minister? Possibly. But then Margaret Beckett (President, Board of Trade) graduated from the Manchester College of Science and Technology to join the then rare breed of women engineers.

StaMPeded:

It was only to be expected. After my few examples of successfully elected academics and alumni last week, I was almost knocked down in the stampede of universities wanting me to know of their chaps and chapesses now in the House. Space forbids, etc ... suffice it to say that the University of Durham tops my personal list with 16 former students and two former members of staff now in the House. It is also able to boast a fairly close link with the PM, whose father, Leo Blair, was a lecturer in law. The University of Bradford has nine current MPs, including a Cabinet member (Ann Taylor) among its alumni. No doubt I shall shortly be told of others. But please, only if you can beat the Durham figure.

The Birkbeck Shuffle:

At Birkbeck College one detects a mixture of elation and frustration. The Prime Minister's appointment of Baroness Blackstone as Minister for Education and Employment has left Birkbeck with a problem that even this week's emergency meeting of the college governors could not immediately resolve. It is10 years since Tessa Blackstone was elevated to a life peerage and Master of Birkbeck. Of course she had to resign. But on Bank Holiday Monday! Professor Richard Evans, the distinguished historian and Birkbeck's Vice-Master, was immediately asked to step in as Acting Master. No reason why he should not stop acting, but even he admits that finding a successor won't be easy.

Vis-a-vis Rudi:

Unlike Minister Blackstone, one newly elected Labour MP has found it difficult to tear himself away from his job. Dr Rudolph Vis, an economics lecturer at the University of East London, unseated John Marshall, Baroness Thatcher's successor at her beloved Finchley (now re-drawn as Finchley and Golders Green). Rudi felt it unfair to leave his students in the lurch and has insisted on meeting his commitments. He still has 12 hours of lecturing plus a number of tutorials, and will fit them in as best he can. Lucky students to have so keen a tutor.

Booking for books:

Adult learners, whose "week" it is next week, are in for a treat. The University of London is opening its library, among the finest in Europe, as part of ALW activities. Visitors may take a rare peek at some of the two million works in the library's collection. Exhibitions and lectures include the history of the book and London through the eyes of Dickens. Evening programmes are on 20, 21 and 22 May from 6pm to 8pm. And it's all free - even the refreshments. But one must book in advance. Just phone librarian Sarah Harris on 0171-636 8000, ext 5098. The Library, which already caters for 48,000 registered users, is at the university's Senate House, in the heart of Bloomsbury (nearest Tubes: Russell Square or Goodge Street).

And finally....

Among the great and the good who flocked to The Times Educational Supplement editor Patricia Rowan's retirement party at the Reform Club last week (a veritable Who's Who and Who Was Who in education) was Sir Ron Dearing, whose mammoth report on higher education is due out this summer. What was he most looking forward to, I asked. "Both my wife and I want me to retire," he said. The saintly Sir Ron will be 67 on 27 July, an ideal date for the report's publication. And (if they let him) his retirement.

Frankly, I can't see either Patricia Rowan or Sir Ron, both of whom have contributed so much to education, fade into their gardens.

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