A degree of dangerous philosophy

The tubby, scruffy and bearded can achieve a lot – as the Education Secretary could no doubt confirm
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The Independent Online

It has taken a senior image consultant for a firm called Colour Me Beautiful to illustrate why there has been something niggling and irritating about the debate surrounding university top-up fees. The niggle, it turns out, has nothing to do with the fiscal argument: given the cost of tertiary education, the solution of applying a graduate tax – a small hit on income by which graduates could contribute retrospectively to their education – sounds sensible to me, if only the Government was not so politically feeble when it comes to matters of direct taxation.

It has taken a senior image consultant for a firm called Colour Me Beautiful to illustrate why there has been something niggling and irritating about the debate surrounding university top-up fees. The niggle, it turns out, has nothing to do with the fiscal argument: given the cost of tertiary education, the solution of applying a graduate tax – a small hit on income by which graduates could contribute retrospectively to their education – sounds sensible to me, if only the Government was not so politically feeble when it comes to matters of direct taxation.

It is not money that is the problem at all, but the assumption as to why people attend university in the first place that is the problem. It is apparently to help them to get a really good, well-paid job. Just as literacy hour was introduced to prepare primary school children for the task of filling out job application forms, and GCSEs to provide extra qualifications to put on the CV, so university will lift them three or four rungs up the employment ladder.

With this in mind, the Association of Colleges sought the assistance of Colour Me Beautiful's Mary Spillane, who has helped politicians and business leaders in the art of dress and self-presentation. Academics and teachers, she told the 1,400 college principals at a conference, were letting down their undergraduates.

"Many lecturers look like they have slept in their clothes and they are certainly not role models for how to present yourself in business," she said. Clothes that were outdated or ill-fitting should be shipped off to the charity shop. Men should aim at a "smart casual" look while women should wear something called a "pseudo suit". The droopy, slack muscle tone and low-slung beer-belly, for so long a feature of campus life, would have to go, too. Ms Spillane urged regular visits to the gym. And as for beards and facial hair, "a clean face is much more sharp and presentable".

One would like to think that at this point the speech might have been interrupted by some sharp, erudite heckling – " Ars longa, vita brevis," someone might have shouted. One or two of the more daring of the delegates might have stopped scratching their beards, heaved their beer-guts out of their seats and made their way to the exit, their Jesus-creeper sandals slapping angrily on the floor.

But no. These were impeccably responsible citizens of Blair's Britain where "smart casual" is the dress code. They sat quietly as their guest told them that lecturers had a duty to demonstrate the skills used in the workplace: charm, presence, eye contact, strong handshakes, smart appearance and a confident voice.

So now we know why those who graduated in the past so frequently seem absurdly out of touch – they lacked the right role models at university. If only FR Leavis had dressed better, LC Knights had spent some time at the gym, Patricia Beer had invested in a pseudo suit, then perhaps I would not be the shambling, unkempt figure I am today.

One or two hilariously old-fashioned folk might dare to argue that, far from reflecting the obsession with image of the outside world, universities should reveal that there is life beyond work, where the business of salaries and promotion are of only partial importance – necessary evils, in fact. Under those circumstances, with universities preparing their charges for life at large rather than mere employment, lecturers would have a different responsibility to that envisaged by image consultants.

A good academic role model would be precisely the scruffy, wheezing, misshapen, hairy creature that is the stuff of Ms Spillane's nightmares. He or she would remind students that, while smartness, fitness, a firm handshake and so on may have their place in a business-dominated society, it is the duty of those who have been educated to think for themselves rather than conform to dreary standards of socially acceptable appearance and behaviour. Dealing with creepily well-dressed undergraduates, a lecturer might point out that the tubby, scruffy and distressingly bearded can achieve quite a lot even today, as the new Secretary of State for Education could no doubt confirm.

If the curriculum and strictly applied standards of academic correctness permitted, these alternative role models might actually express views and pursue research that is not geared to the job market without the fear their students would report them to their head of department for teaching a course that is irrelevant or even inappropriate.

There seems little likelihood of this dangerously irresponsible thinking gaining a foothold in academic institutions. The modern university is for jobs, a three-year course in how to fit in and get on. The lecturer with a nice haircut, conventional dress sense and a mind to match will provide the perfect preparation.

terblacker@aol.com

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