Word of Mouth: Principals and princes put themselves in the hot seat

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In need of a chair

The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) got off to a slightly shaky start this millennium year. Ever since the resignation of Mike Fitzgerald, the colourful Vice-chancellor of Thames Valley University, following a damning report on its progress from the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the CVCP has suffered a spate of hiccups. Dr Fitzgerald was also vice-chairman of the CVCP at the time of his departure, and might well have been in line for the chair. A new and equally good vice-chairman was easily found in the shape of Roderick Floud, Provost of London Guildhall University, and former Professor of Modern History at Birkbeck College, London University. Then came the quest for a chairman to succeed Professor Martin Harris, the Vice-chancellor of Manchester University. Two other vice-chairmen were already in situ: Professor Sir John Arbuthnott, Principal of the University of Strathclyde; and Professor Howard Newby, Vice-chancellor of Southampton University.

Both were nominated for the unenviable post, and one or t'other should have been elected chairman for 1999-2000 without much fuss this spring. Yet, suddenly, both decided to withdraw from the race. Why? Good question. One explanation was that the CVCP is to "review its structure in the light of the devolution processes under way in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland". No, honest, it's true. They have even set up a special working party (academics are great at setting up committees, sub-committees and working parties) to work out such a new structure. It is to be chaired by Dr Kenneth Edwards, Vice-chancellor of Leicester University, and I can only wish him luck. In light of all this to-ing and fro-ing, a postponement of the chairmanship election is to be sought following the CVCP's main committee meeting in March.


Meanwhile, back at Thames Valley University, Bill Taylor has settled in nicely as a caretaker V-C to put the university back on a firm footing, following publication of that dreadful QAA report. If anyone can do it, Sir William can. He it was, as I'm sure you will all recall, who performed such a miracle for Huddersfield University after its own Vice-chancellor (Professor Kenneth Durrands) was asked to pack his bags two or three years ago. In fact, Sir William is rapidly becoming the country's higher education troubleshooter extraordinary. Not bad for a chap who has retired and is in his 69th year. Oh, and here's an afterthought to ponder: who assures the quality of the Quality Assurance Agency?

The Prince of Wales's women

There is a remarkable story told in Nottingham circles of how the Prince of Wales supped beer at a local pub while one of his paramours was left twiddling her dainty thumbs in the back seat of his car. Before anyone thinks I am suffering from Sun-stroke, let me assure you that this Prince of Wales was not Charles, but Edward, and the year was not the present, but 1927. The story, recounted in the University of Nottingham's fine newsletter, notes that Edward owned Grove Farm (later the university's sports field) for six years, and had, it is said, a number of trysts in that part of the world, including one with Freda Dudley Ward, daughter of Charles Birkin, a Nottingham lace maker. That particular liaison lasted 16 years - well before his abdication from the throne to marry Mrs Simpson.

According to Stephen Zaleski,editor of the Lenton Times, a local Nottingham magazine, local residents often saw the prince "travelling to and from the farm in the company of various ladies". And Herbert Robinson, a Lenton resident, recalls Edward's visit to the White Hart, which was the students' local in my days there. The prince asked him what he was drinking and Mr Robinson said Hanson's Special Mild. HRH immediately ordered a bottle and drank it "before buying everyone a second round". When Mr Robinson left "for a call of nature", he saw the prince's car, a black Daimler, parked outside. In the back seat an "elegant, very well dressed blonde woman" sat patiently waiting. Only after Edward had downed his second pint did he wave everyone farewell and drive off in the direction of Grove Farm. Oh, there is many a skeleton in the royal cupboard.

Another marriage

Two colleges, both part of the University of London, are to merge. It is a strange marriage, for the two are about as far apart in distance and ethos as one might imagine, but I am assured it will be properly consummated; John Prescott has promised all concerned that this will be a splendid partnership, and who am I to argue with him? No, no, not our dear Deputy Prime Minister, but Professor John Prescott, principal of Wye College, that super agricultural establishment at Ashford in Kent. And the new partner? None other than Imperial College, which dominates Knightsbridge in the heart of London. All is set for August next year - if, the necessary bill manages to pass through the Houses of Parliament in time.

And finally...

Why not stay with Wye College? It's the only college I know that manages to say all there is to be said on two sides of its A4 newsletter, which recently celebrated a decade of weekly publications. Ten years was enough for Tom Hill, the editor and the college's assistant director of administration, so he passed the editor's mantle to Wendy Raeside, who has kept up the tradition of producing funny tailpieces. Here are a few of them:

From insurance form statements: "In my attempt to hit a fly, I drove into a telegraph pole"; "An invisible car came out of nowhere, struck my vehicle and vanished". Noticeboard: "Low Self-Esteem Group will meet Thursday at 7pm. Please use the back door"; "Weight Watchers will meet at 7pm at the First Presbyterian Church. Please use large double door at side entrance". And finally: "The associate minister unveiled the church's new tithing campaign slogan last Sunday: `I upped my pledge - Up Yours!'"