Should we be worried that Oxford University is planning to cut the number of places it offers to home-grown students in favour of foreign students who can be charged almost twice as much for their tuition fees? With building costs soaring it has been suggested that the only way some of those older colleges can afford to get themselves rewired or order a couple of replacement dreaming spires will be to accept overseas students for whom £20,000 a year in fees, half as much again for accommodation and an undertaking to re-roof the science block does not constitute too much of a problem.
What happens if all the other universities follow suit? That's what worries me. A friend who is also the professor of architecture at a well-known Scottish university already spends two months of every year in the Middle East recruiting new students with much fighting talk about the international reputation of British architecture and as little reference as possible to the international reputation of the British climate. Actually, he told me Israeli students don't seem to mind about the Scottish weather; it's the English students from the Home Counties who complain most.
Touting for foreigners has been going on for years in that other academic sector, the private boarding school. For reasons far too complicated to go into here, one of our sons went for a short time to just such an institution whose sports and classics masters spent most of their vacations hunting wealthy potential pupils in the Far East. This did wonders for academic standards: the Chinese children are driven and think nothing of spending 18 hours a day slaving over hot books but they weren't remotely interested in sports. Pity, this particular school was fanatically sporty and did not take kindly to losing out on the playing field.
Where will all this selling of the family silver lead to? It would be interesting to have a sneak preview of the national survey Social Trends for, say, 2014 to find out. You know Social Trends: it's that fascinating little government pamphlet that comes out once a year and tells you snippets about the way we live now - how many couples in Warwickshire have bottle-green Agas, how many single men on housing benefit wear their baseball caps back to front and own a Rottweiler called Rambo. We already know the way things are going with manual work. The British no longer go in for old-fashioned hands-on occupations such as plumbing, carpentry, building and general maintenance. We're much too creative and entrepreneurial for such mundane stuff. The closest most of us get to painting and decorating is to watch television programmes about make-overs, and then if we're really feeling energetic we phone someone who's just arrived from Bosnia or Poland and get them to do it for us.
Maybe the time has come for the British to bow out of Britain. We've been heading slowly down that path for some time, after all. No one thanks you any more for producing a good old-fashioned Sunday lunch consisting of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding followed by apple crumble and custard. They'd rather have Thai-style chicken on a bed of puy lentils or some other disgusting fusion gloop they've seen tortured on television by the latest Australian celebrity chef.
And whatever happened to fish-and-chip shops? Last time I went to a takeaway and asked for cod and chips, the man in the unspeakably filthy apron behind the counter stared at me as incomprehensibly as if I'd asked for a lap-dancing mermaid. All he had was kebab, curry or deep-fried pizza. British cars are becoming as rare as corncrakes and there hasn't been a decent British film since The Full Monty. Curiously, the only time we seem to want to embrace British culture is when we're abroad. The first thing we head for in Crete or the Costa del Sol is a pub called the Admiral Nelson or the Rat and Carrot full of themed hooligans from Coventry drinking lager.
The advantage of handing Britain over to the foreigners would be that, apart from mending it efficiently - all those broken escalators and roadworks would disappear overnight - they would restore its Britishness as only people who have adopted a new country can. If you want to hear Land of Hope and Glory or Gleensleeves, listen to Desert Island Discs when Sue Lawley is talking to an Indian film director or a Chinese artist. If foreign students are heading this way the obvious answer is for us to do the same. I cherish the year I spent at the University of Colorado. What was I studying? Beowulf, of course.
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