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Quality takes time

Setting up that new Quality Agency (see this column, 12 December) is taking time and a few yawns. A company has now been set up and a chairman appointed. He is Christopher Kenyon, a Cheshire businessman who chairs Manchester University's council and sits on the board of the Higher Education Quality Council. The HEQC, along with the quality audit sections of the country's four higher education funding councils, will, if you recall the intricacies, eventually be replaced by the newly proposed body. Complicated? As Al Jolson used to say: you ain't hoid nothin' yet! The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has now called in an expert to set the new quality machinery a-grinding. He is Geoffrey Penzer, who runs Penzer & Allen Associates at Sevenoaks. Never heard of him? That's your fault. He's no newcomer, just a silent mover. He trains assessors for the Welsh Funding Council and has helped the CVCP in its pounds 5.5m move (due around Easter) from Tavistock Square to Woburn House, just across the road. He even masterminded the British Council move to Manchester. The slow-cooking quality agency is now unlikely to be set up before 1998. By that time it might even have a chief executive, a post by the way, which has still to be advertised.

All for the sake of art

What do the following have in common? An Irish nun, a Swiss poet, a supermodel (left), a Danish housewife, one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, a Venezuelan architect, an English disc jockey, a French graphic designer and an American gynaecologist. Believe it or not, all were among the 323 students who converged on the Slade School of Fine Art from 42 countries last July for its exciting and highly lucrative summer school to draw, etch, paint and sculpt for anything from one to 10 weeks. The school, part of University College London, has been going for 10 years and looks set to continue well into the 21st century.

Who needs professors?

A remarkable attack on professorial titles has come from the pen of one Jonathan Ree, who sports the mere title of "Reader". His onslaught appears in North Circular, Middlesex University's bright newsletter. In the Seventies and early Eighties, says Reader Ree, Middlesex, then still a poly, possessed a proud "cultural democracy" where students and staff were involved as equals. Then, along with the university title, came such words as campus, once known more simply as site. "Big cheeses were converted into professors". Such titles, says Ree, create resentment, conceit and derision among academic staff, and should be abolished forthwith, along with the "fancy dress ceremonies that go with it". Hmm ... Is Mr. Ree right? Or do I detect the odd sour grape?

Learning revolution

So what can be done about those overcrowded theatres, under-stocked libraries, overworked and underpaid academics? One might well consider giving students lectures on video or audio tape or a do-it-yourself book, thus freeing dons to work with smaller groups. The Open Learning Foundation, originally known as the Open Polytechnic, was established for this very purpose and is making rapid progress. It produces teaching and learning materials that allow students to work alone and at their own pace. David Hardy, OLF chief executive, tells me last year's sale of 8,000 workbooks has quadrupled to more than 30,000 and one of them, Managing People and Activities, had to be reprinted after just a few weeks. Twenty-six "modern" universities, as they now appear to be calling themselves, are OLF members. But other colleges and the "old" (though not necessarily "ancient") universities have also jumped onto this speeding bandwagon.

Best cards dealt

Of the many seasonal greeting cards I received from universities throughout the country this year, three stood out: one, from Napier University, Edinburgh, showed a skier racing down a white slope which takes up half the diagonally divided card, the other half being red, all of which reflects admirably the university's logo. A card from Birkbeck College, University of London, had a very simple Picasso drawing of a winged man and woman. Not any old Picasso, but the very mural he produced in England - at the London home of his fellow peace-campaigner, Desmond Bernal, Birkbeck's Professor of Physics from 1938-63. When the house was demolished in the late Sixties, the drawing was carefully removed and given to the Institute of Contemporary Arts. And then the card from Brighton University, a photograph by Roger Bamber, showed delightfully happy youngsters at Vosloorus, which forms part of the university's South Africa Scholarship project.

And finally...

I am indebted to Hannah Steinberg, Visiting Professor in the School of Psychology, Middlesex University, for the following letter from the CVCP. Here are some excerpts: "Universities are already running heavy deficits and simply cannot afford further unplanned and unexpected cuts in income ... at the very time when, with the Government's encouragement, we have been coping with the steadily rising number of 18-year-olds seeking entry to universities. Unless standards are to fall further, more students must mean more resources ..." It was written to Mark (now Lord) Carlisle, the Education Secretary - in 1979. Plus ca change.