DJ Taylor: Educating Peter

Lord Mandelson should come clean about universities; accountants are the new bankers; behind the scenes at the museum; how to sell papers; and Amis novels
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The Independent Online

With the general election now supposedly set for 6 May – the cat having been let out of the bag by our luckless Secretary of State for Defence, Bob Ainsworth – the battlegrounds on which it will be fought loom inexorably into view.

Gratifyingly, if we can set aside our absorption in the economy and class for a moment, it looks as if one of these may be higher education. Even better is the sight of some genuine disagreement between the major political parties over what universities ought to do and how they can expect to be paid to do it. Labour, while committed to widening access, has, in the person of Lord Mandelson, just announced £900m-worth of cuts in funding. Lord M has, additionally, hinted that the future lies in universities becoming economically self-sufficient. The Conservatives have quietly swapped their old assumption that the more people you let into higher education the lower the quality of that education will be for the politically expedient awareness that vast acreages of the middle classes now regard a degree as a kind of birthright, and are talking about an extra 10,000 places. Only Vince Cable, for the Lib Dems, has struck what on the face of it seems a faintly illiberal attitude by suggesting that there are too many undergrads and some of them might be better off in apprenticeships or other forms of training.

None of this, inevitably, answers a question that governments of all complexions have been shy of addressing since the days of the Robbins report back in 1963. What is a university for? Lord Mandelson – and what, you might ask, has any of this got to do with Lord Mandelson, who is merely Secretary of State for Business? – seems publicly to assume that it is a sort of forcing house for industry and privately to concede that it is a splendid way of keeping young people off the dole for three years. Vice-chancellors habitually justify their existence on economic grounds. Thus the University of Loamshire may aggrandise all over the local skyline, buy up school playing fields to build accommodation blocks and turn large parts of downtown Loam into a student ghetto, but will redress the balance by sending half its population out to spend money in the town on a Saturday night.

In this context, the campus novels written half a century ago by Kingsley Amis and Malcolm Bradbury turn out to have been extraordinarily prophetic. "A provincial university is just a modern version of the workhouse" claims a don in Bradbury's Eating People Is Wrong (1959). "We're trainers of the aspiring bourgeoisie." Somehow this would matter less if someone in authority came out and said it. If Lord Mandelson, for example, dropped all pretence of universities having anything to do with the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and simply admitted that it is economically and politically convenient to dragoon half the teenage population into them, then the iniquities of the modern higher education system – from student loans to fanciful degree courses – would be so much easier to bear.

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It was a bad week for the financial well-being of professional football clubs. Premier League Portsmouth's situation grows ever more precarious. Championship side Crystal Palace have been forced into administration. League One Norwich City fans, meanwhile, were relieved to learn that the club is taking legal action against the News of the World for falsely suggesting that the accountancy firms KPMG and Ernst & Young were readying themselves for a summons to take control of its affairs.

All this, albeit in a roundabout way, reminded me of another part of the national fabric in which an incoming government could usefully interfere: the accountancy profession. Never mind all those ruinously expensive government IT contracts, most of which have a nest of overpaid management consultants burrowing at their core, or even the tax-avoidance schemes with which such firms woo private clients; what about the conflicts of interest that regularly come into play with potentially insolvent firms? Private Eye has an instructive story about the number of times an accountant's consultancy arm advises a bank that one of its clients has financial problems and then contrives to get its insolvency specialists appointed to wind the client up.

There is a complaints procedure, naturally, but professional solidarity invariably wins out, and the number of offenders ever brought to book by the Institute of Chartered Accountants is implausibly small. A Royal Commission on the usefulness of the UK's top 10 accountancy firms would be almost as amusing as the frying of Sir Fred Goodwin and his bankers.

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Radio 4s A History of the World in 100 Objects, fronted by the British Museum's Neil MacGregor, right, has had the critics in raptures: a flagship production, nearly everyone agrees, and unignorable evidence for an incoming Conservative culture secretary of why the corporation deserves its licence fee. All true, of course, and yet Mr MacGregor's sibilant appreciations of 13,000-year-old reindeer carvings and ancient Japanese pots is also a pattern example of what might be called the BBC's theory of history.

This, you won't be surprised to learn, is thoroughly contemporary. I was particularly struck by a description of some Stone Age Tanzanians gossiping away around their work-station and Sir James Dyson's claim that whoever invented a 1.3-million-year-old axe probably did so to impress the women of his tribe. As an approach to past time, all this is very consoling to 21st-century ears. On the one hand, those early Tanzanians (who, incidentally, are thought to have possessed the cognitive development of a modern seven-year-old) were just like us, bless them. On the other, given that the series is designed to show how we became "more fully human"', real equality is, sadly, denied them. Ideally, the modern listener wants to be able to relate to his ancestors and feel pleasantly superior to them at the same time. Quite what the series will do if it gets to Anglo-Saxon wergild or medieval notions of chivalry – and the dreadful realisation that the past wasn't like now at all – I don't know, but I'm sure Mr MacGregor will have some form of words at his disposal.

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The book I most enjoyed reading last week – in fact the only book, as it weighs in at just under a thousand pages – was Juliet Gardiner's The Thirties: An Intimate History. Amid a feast of recondite information, Gardiner is particularly interesting on how popular newspapers sought to increase their circulations during the Depression. Most papers employed tribes of canvassers who went from door to door offering such inducements as wrist-watches, kettles and silk stockings to new subscribers. The Daily Mail, then as now finely tuned to middle-class anxieties, volunteered to pay £100 school fees for children whose "bread-winning parent" had met with a fatal accident, and £10 to Boy Scouts and Girl Guides who had suffered "accidents involving a broken bone". Best of all, perhaps, was the Labour-supporting Daily Herald, which offered cash prizes to any subscriber who gave birth to twins, providing they survived for more than 48 hours. Gardiner notes that by 1937 a typical newspaper employed more canvassers than editorial staff, and that "since this was such an expensive and ultimately self-defeating war, the inducements gradually dried up", but one can't help feeling that there is scope here for the modern media marketing executive.

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With a new Martin Amis, The Pregnant Widow, published next Thursday, the air has been thick with off-the-cuff authorial remarks designed to stir up controversy. Last weekend Mart, great ironist that he is, could be found in the Sunday Times advocating the installation of "euthanasia booths" on street corners where the elderly could be waved on their way with "a Martini and a medal". Come Wednesday he was all over the websites disparaging the Nobel laureate and two-times Booker winner J M Coetzee's lack of talent.

Heaven knows what Amis will come up with next – it may even have something to do with literature – but the remark about Coetzee at least gestures at a puzzle that has always fascinated literary critics: the failure of very great novelists to "write well" in the accepted sense. Virginia Woolf once remarked of Thomas Hardy that he had "genius but no talent". The same could be said of my particular American hero Theodore Dreiser, whose An American Tragedy (1925), an 800-page epic of blighted hopes and squalid disappointments leading to the electric chair, is chock-full of stylistic flaws while harbouring an elemental force that most novelists would give a limb to possess. Meanwhile, on the quid pro quo principle, it would be nice to know what the famously reclusive Coetzee, a man for whom a newspaper interview is the spiritual equivalent of an acid bath, thinks of Martin Amis.

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