Diary: John Denham's dismay over 'meddling ministers'

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The Independent Online

You might think that the University of Cambridge, its boss, Alison Richard, and Universities UK would be rather chuffed that higher education was splashed all over the front page of The Times last week during the vice-chancellors' annual residential conference. But no, the prevailing mood was dismay. That's because John Denham, the Secretary of State for Universities, was apoplectic when he saw the sub-head: "Vice-chancellor condemns 'meddling ministers'." The article itself was based on an interview with Richard, but was presented as if it was what she would say to the assembled vice-chancellors at the conference. Although many university chiefs whole-heartedly agree with that sentiment, they don't like to see it spelt out like that. In case you're wondering, university bosses don't care to call a spade a spade. But by the time Denham arrived in Cambridge to deliver his speech, he had calmed down and all was sweetness and light. You would never have known there was all this tension. They had ganged up to blame guess who? Why, those rascals on the newspapers, of course.

Perhaps Denham was so serene on arrival at Churchill College because it marked a defining moment in his career. For it was he, 30 years ago, who was refused entry to the very same college as a student.

Cambridge may be the centre of the hi-tech universe, the place where Sir Clive Sinclair (right) laid the foundation for Britain's computer-programming prowess, but no one attending the conference could get a signal on their mobile phones for long periods of time. Computers were down, too. In Churchill College itself there seemed to be a complete absence of television screens, newspapers, radios – indeed, any new-fangled medium of communication. Don't undergraduates at the university need to keep in touch with the big, bad world out there occasionally?

The water wars amongst the education unions are hotting up. At the recent Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival, the NUT and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) were handing out free bottled water to the masses. At the TUC in Brighton this week, it was the turn of the ATL to hand out the free stuff, although, we're reliably assured, TUC delegates are often in search of something slightly stronger.

Summer holidays may now be a distant memory, but we're sure they'll be catapulted right to the top of the news agenda with this press release from insurance firm More Th>n. "We shall work them from the beaches," screeches the email as it pings into our mailbox. Apparently, 3.6 million British workers are failing to recharge their batteries while on holiday, due to the constant barrage of work-related texts, emails and phone calls. What's worse, more than three-quarters of us have to put in extra hours in the weeks before and after our holidays. Such were the demands placed on the holidaying hordes that summer 2008 was "the biggest burnout ever", despite the fact that temperatures were anything but scorching.