John Walsh: Tales of the City

‘Should we be all snotty about the news that McDonald’s will have the power to award its own A-levels?’
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The Independent Online

It's a little vieux chapeau these days to brag about where you got your degree. Surely it doesn't matter, as long as you picked up one years ago without being busted for drugs along the way? And we have now, surely, got over that knee-jerk snobbery that once made us stiffen with annoyance on hearing the words, "I'm at Oxford Brookes University," and seethe in reply, "You mean Oxford Poly. It's a polytechnic. It's not a real university."

We no longer would dream of saying, "I got rather a good Second in Greats at Cambridge, actually." Just too, too smug. It's quite rare to see someone addressed, on an envelope, as "Mr Norman Ordinary, BA (Oxon), PhD (Leeds)" any more. We don't bother much with honorifics, unless we're Austrian and have to call business associates "Herr Ubermanager", or we're Bob Geldof, festooned with campaign medals. And really, who the hell really cares where it was you studied for your GCSEs and A-levels, provided you managed to acquire a few?

So should we be all snotty and pooh-poohing about the news that the people who run McDonald's have been given the power to award their own A-level and degree equivalents? The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority yesterday announced it was giving the burger giant – and the budget airline Flybe and, gulp, Network Rail – the status of "awarding body", able to dish out certificates in "shift management" and "airline training" and "track engineering".

Disobliging sceptics are saying that, if the scheme goes through, nobody outside McDonald's, or Flybe or Network Rail, will take their graduates seriously, or believe their degrees are valid in the open marketplace. I've no time for such carping. Of course, horrible academics on high tables across the nation might raise an eyebrow on hearing of your PhD in Sleeper Replacement (Network Rail), particularly if they know the findings of the report into the fatal Cumbrian train crash a year ago, in which Northern Rail was penalised – but they're probably just elitist swine. If you can get a kid interested in applying his mind for two years at Flybe and getting top grades in studying "Advanced No-Frills Philosophy: No Food, No Drink, No Movies, No Fun", then where's the harm? An A-level is, when all's said and done, an A-level.

I hope the scheme encourages other companies to ignore the claim that they're "devaluing academic qualifications," and join this bold initiative. I look forward to the degree syllabus from Argos, which will surely include a diploma in "Catalogue Lamination Techniques", and a BSc in "Making Refund Policies Incomprehensible". I'm sure the enterprising and go-ahead Primark chain wouldn't pass up the chance of educating the masses, by offering an A-level in "Pricing Strategies for Completely Worthless Garments" and an M Litt in "Damage Limitation, Crowd Control, Self Defence and First Aid".

I will recommend to several young friends any future degree offered by Asda, the supermarket chain, particularly on the vital subjects, "Kayleigh an Jayson, Come 'Ere This Fackin Minute: Maternal Stress Paradigms in Aisle 14", and, "Creative Retailing: How to Sell Organic Salads That Are 90 Per Cent Orange Cheese".

So it's a ringing goodbye to the old orthodoxy, when qualifications were available only from state-funded colleges and universities. Something called BPP College (ah, the romance of academe, and the dignity of scholastic nomenclature!) was the first place allowed to offer law and business degrees, as it were, privately. The Government's John Denham, universities minister, hopes to roll out similar schemes all over the UK.I think we'll all look forward to the first BA graduates in "Back Of A Lorry Debris Reclamation" from HMP Pentonville, and the first postgraduate student of "Bottomless Credit Management" from the new University of Northern Rock...


A small but significant change to British currency takes effect from April: the figure of Britannia will no longer appear on 50p coins, or any others. She has been sacked from the iconography of British-ness, after 336 years on coins and 2,000 years of mythology. It seems harsh treatment for an old dame, especially one wielding a sharp trident.

The Britanniae were what the Romans called the islands off north-west Europe. When Caesar invaded, he called England and France "Britannia" to distinguish them from "Caledonia" and "Hibernia". Under Hadrian, Britannia was personified as a goddess, shown on coins as a racy girl warrior, wearing a centurion's helmet, holding a spear and sitting on a rock, dressed in a long white frock with one breast exposed – like Boadicea, only without the spiked chariot and the termagant demeanour.

Under Elizabeth I, Britannia became the symbol of Great Britain and, after the Act of Union, Ireland was co-opted under her skirts. In the 19th century, as the British empire spread, Britannia soared: she was still a beautiful young girl in a helmet (her bosom tucked away), but now she wielded a trident to suggest mastery over the oceans, a Union Jack was painted on her shield, and a lion sat at her feet. Her image turned up on a farthing in 1672, then the halfpenny and, a century later, on the penny, where she remained until 1970.

Now her 39-year lease on the 50p bit is over, and you won't see her again, except, perhaps, on the writing paper of Britannia Airways. Gordon Brown signed her death warrant before he became PM. Should we mourn her passing as an image of lost nationhood? Or say good riddance to an emblem of casual imperialism?