Monday, 28 April 2014

Intellectual floor-sweepings…

Hi everybody. I hope you all had a restorative Easter break. I certainly did: a few days in Ireland with every electronic device switched off. Newspapers, books, country and beach walks, the Rás Mumhan and country cooking. Then it was back to the office to hold the hands of various dissertation students feeling the pressure: the theses are due in today. Mostly they were fine, though I did have head desk moments on Thursday and Friday, on being forcibly confronted with evidence that some people, given a year and extensive tutoring, either haven't started or don't understand what a dissertation is.

But as I say, the vast majority will do excellently: I'm really looking forward to reading lots of them.

Talking of reading, I've been inhaling books rapidly as usual. On the ferry to Ireland, I proof-read my ill colleague's forthcoming book Original Spin: Downing Street and the Press in Victorian Britain which is a fascinating history of politician's relationship with the press. It was all a lot easier in those days: parties either openly controlled or secretly bankrolled newspapers in the early days, though a gentleman would never allow an editor to cross his threshold. It turns out that lots Irish newspapers, for instance, entirely depended on payoffs from British politicians, who didn't mind the bribes, but objected to the uselessness of the product. Unsurprisingly, readers preferred the nationalist newspapers to the loyalist propaganda of The Patriot, the Clonmel Herald and the Belfast News Letter (still going, though presumably un-bribed these days).

In other ways, things have changed little. Politicians then briefed against their opponents, particularly those meant to be their friends, while holding their noses and pretending to be above the fray. They professed democracy in public and suborned it in private, as did the newspapers. The Times in 1835 saw 'press management' as a curse:
…if the attempt had been carried on to success, it would have ended in a rotten representation of public opinion, similar to the rotten representation of the people before Parliamentary reform…The Editorship of one paper was as much a Government appointment as a seat at the India Board or the Admiralty. A committee…used to hold daily sittings in a Government office, and contrive things for the reward of the servile and the damage of the untractable. 
My, how things have changed, going by the memoirs of Alastair Campbell and his counterparts in the other parties. Even the dirty tricks have changed little. 1834 saw the leak of a ripped-up letter between Althorp and Brougham considering 'whether we should declare open war upon The Times': someone picked it out of a bin, stuck it back together and helpfully posted it to that paper. The politicians, newly exposed to a (very) limited degree of democracy, were very unhappy that newspapers now saw themselves as conduits of the public's opinion to the elite, rather than the other way round.

What I rather liked about the 18th and 19th-century newspapers was their rumbustious offensiveness: while slavishly following their paymasters, they doled out abuse to their opponents in some style, much like Hogarth and Co. in their cartoons a generation previously. Here's The Times on the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, whom it suspected of feeding juicy stories to other papers:
What an offensive union is that of a dull understanding and an unfeeling heart! Add to this the self-satisfied airs of a flippant dandy, and you have the most nauseous specimen of humanity – a sort of compound which justifies Swift in the disgusting exhibition of the Yahoos. 
A comment we could fairly apply to rather a large number of the current Cabinet.  The Daily News described a speech Lord Russell as 'scarcely one degree above twaddle', which reminds me of David Cameron's embarrassing exploration of theological matters and Blair's latest exhortation to make an Iranian and Syrian desert and call it peace. Later on, the Prime Minister the Earl of Derby (last words: 'bored to extinction') was attacked for his rhetorical flights by The Times:
Last night the House of Lords heard…with considerable pleasure one of those ingenious and even impassioned orations which Lord Derby is able to… deliver on almost any subject, and perhaps we might add, on almost any side. 
Shades of Blair, certainly. Not that the politician's were entirely the victims: Russell told Clarendon that 'if England is ever to be England again, this vile tyranny of The Times must be cut off' a sentiment shared by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (the latter being accused by the newspapers of committing treason: they wanted him locked up in the Tower). Albert remarked in 1861 that Lord Derby was powerless without a helpful press: 'The country is governed by newspapers, and you have not a newspaper'. He excluded the Times from this, though Victoria said it was 'as corrupt as the rest'. With Murdoch at the helm, that sentiment can be redoubled a thousand times, though we lack the politicians – with the partial exception of Ed Miliband – to do it.

The last words go to Derby, who had a warning for all putative press barons and politicians: '…there is no more unsatisfactory mode of spending money than the purchase of a second class newspaper' – perhaps he knew what Humbert Wolfe put into verse:
You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God!
the British Journalist.
But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there's
no occasion to.
The other book I read with rapt fascination is Friedrich Heer's The Medieval World: Europe 1100-1350, which I bought in Hodges Figgis in 2002 (a formerly great bookshop which gets a mention in Ulysses). I'm sorry I left it on the shelf for so long, because it's a fascinating read and one likely to make Nigel Farage choke on his insular cornflakes. A translation of a 1961 German book (Janet Sondheimer deserves respect for retaining Heer's dry wit), it's probably way out of date factually and critically, but I admired the book's huge sweep: politics, war, faith, heresy, crusades, city life, economics, philosophy, literature, art, science, architecture and ethnicity. Most of all, I admire the book's attitude to the Cold War. Heer was a very open-minded Catholic and left-winger who was part of the Austrian resistance during World War 2, and encouraged liberal resistance inside the USSR and the Catholic church. As such, The Medieval World is determined to paint a picture of a Europe which was open to the ideas and civilisations of the world in the early period, before nationalism, religious sectarianism and rigid authority conspired to shut it off. In Heer's view, early medieval Europe drew strength from Jewish and Islamic thought, science and philosophy, art and politics were informed by travellers and invaders from as far afield as China and India, while Russia was a place to trade and exchange ideas. Only when the Catholic Church and various monarchies became absolutist did Europe become crabbed, suspicious and reactionary.

So it's a plea for ecumenism, internationalism and tolerance. Heer has his favourites, particularly the Cathars, the 'Spiritual' wing of the Franciscans who were suppressed by the church for their embarrassing insistence on poverty and humility, Siger, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham (very interesting ideas who seems to have anticipated structuralism and semiotics), and the early Universities of Paris and Bologna before the church cracked down. Not sure I should show my students this bit:
The people who counted were the students, secular in their interests and completely self-assured, the majority of them already mature and experienced men. The students… would tolerate no sermonising, whether from Rome or from their university professors; the university belonged to them [and they] owed their masters no moral or spiritual obedience… the mediaeval student took to quarrelling as readily as he took to drink. The students, who had the whip hand, kept their professors to a punctual observance of the lecture timetable, under threat of financial penalties, and revenged themselves on unpopular teachers by boycotts.
Has university life changed much?
Many were very poor. Then miserable lodgings were poorly heated and ill-lit. Their life was turbulent and often dissipated; brawls with the townsfolk and artisans, assassinations and excesses of all kinds were a regular part of it. Discipline in the colleges was often harsh and gloomy, distinctly parsonical  in tone, and accompanied by a highly-developed system of informing… lectures started at a very early hour, six o'clock in winter, in summer even earlier, and often lasted for three hours. Famous teachers attracted large crowds, which the antiquated rooms serving as lecture halls could barely accommodate.
For Heer, the medieval university, however squalid, was heaven. In it, students and lecturers 'criticised everything', including each other. Nothing was out of bounds, in a world where the slightest whiff of heresy could otherwise lead to excommunication and execution. For a brief period, he says, intellectual disputation was the definition of freedom. Now, of course, universities are valued – by their own management – for their 'business-friendliness', 'entrepreneurial' attitudes and customer service: disputatious, disobedient departments are harshly disciplined, silenced or closed down. Is there room now for Clarembald of Chartres, who said that 'Hell is ignorance'? For the disciples of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Siger of Brabant or the rationalist Boetius of Dacia, who proclaimed in the midst of the deeply religious age that 'if there is anything divine in man then it is in the intellect'.

Heer's history is as revealing of his position in 1960s Europe as it is of the medieval age. He clearly sees the Cold War and the Catholic Church's crackdown on liberalism, ecumenism and argument as the equivalent of the closing of Europe in the 1300s. Then, Jews were expelled, Islam repelled, dissent and debate closed down by over mighty bureaucracies and centralised powers. Now, he implies, freedom of thought has been replaced once more by secularism. It's hard, in places, to work out whether he's voicing the intellectual traditions of the medieval period or making a plea on behalf of enlightened post-War intellectuals. Here's his summary of Aquinas:
The better the use man makes of his intellect, the more open he becomes… A well ordered society is that in which free and reasonable men, speaking a common language, set up a community on the basis of common understanding. But Aquinas realised that men in fact no longer understood one another… his fundamental conviction [was that] in intellectual argument the common interest demanded the victory not of one side or the other but of truth. One should be grateful even to those proved to be in error, since error has its part to play in making truth plain…'We must love equally those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have made the effort to discover truth, and both, in so doing, have assisted us'. 
Imagine a Prime Minister's Question Time adopting those principles… though I hope my own classes go some of the way to encouraging this approach. Dated as it is, I recommend The Medieval World, for its liberal values, sweeping narrative and conscious insight into the stresses of intellectual life in post-War Europe.

Oh yes. I've been reading James Callaghan's astonishingly dull – and paradoxically interesting –autobiography. Written in 1987, nice Mr Callaghan remarks on how little Prime Ministers had to do, and expresses his satisfaction that despite Margaret Thatcher's best efforts, immigration is no longer an issue voters and politicians worry about. If only…

Now and then, in between doggedly uninteresting explanations of minor decisions, he drops in little anecdotes of what he did in his leisure hours. Picture the scene: a nightclub in New York, 1965. Seated around the table: James Callaghan, doggedly worthy Chancellor of the Exchequer, Richard Nixon, failed Presidential candidate and future disgraced President of the United States, and Ginger Rogers, actor, dancer and Hollywood star. What on earth did they talk about?

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Au revoir, farewell, slán go fóill, hwyl fawr…

By tomorrow, I shall be on the west coast of Ireland for a few days. This means:

  • no phone
  • no laptop
  • no iPad
  • no Twitter
  • no blogging
  • no marking
  • no writing
  • no conference planning
  • no email

Instead, it means

  • 3 daily newspapers on paper (the Guardian, the Examiner and the Irish Times)
  • lots of reading
  • some proofreading (an ill colleague's book on Victorian spin doctors)
  • walking
  • eating
  • perhaps even a swim in the Atlantic
I haven't packed yet, nor do I know quite which books to take. I've an Anthony Trollope and a Jack Womack which are definitely coming. Perhaps Joanna Trollope's re-write of Sense and Sensibility (or is that too many Trollopes?), and M Wynn Thomas's In The Shadow of the Pulpit, though taking a book about nonconformism to almost-post-Catholic Ireland might be wrong. I've also a backlog of Beverley Nichols and Jim Crace novels. I will take one Irish novel though - Mia Gallagher's Dublin junkie-hell Hellfire

Should be enough for a week. See you on the other side.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Three Days In Wales: a conference report

After the rock'n'roll excesses of seeing The Nightingales live (two beers! out until 11!), I was in the mood for more disorienting, mind-expanding experience. So I hopped on a train to Newtown, Powys for the annual conference of the Association for Welsh Writing in English (Twitter was used extensively: see Bethan Jenkins's Storify collection).

Last year it was held a couple of weeks earlier, which meant blizzards and deep snow - wonderful for me, as these pictures show. This year, AWWE14 was held in beautiful late spring sunshine. The mansion house is beautiful, the surrounding landscape wonderful, and the incredibly distant traffic was thoroughly drowned out by lambs bleating, woodpeckers knocking, owl hooting and pheasants making the sounds that pheasants make. Calling. That'll do.

In short: Paradise. Great surroundings, a library, a bookshop (neither of which stopped me from bringing several books along), mountains of food and several days of learned conversation with a big bunch of ridiculously clever people. Oh, and no phone reception, which was bliss. The only fly in the ointment was having to give a paper, which I find terrifying at the best of times, let alone in such august company. I loathed the young ones most of all: clever, charming, hugely well-read and still with their own teeth. Serene bastards. See some pictures of them here.

Anyway. I turned up early on the first day, which was a schoolboy error. Rather than strolling round the grounds or thieving rare books, I went along to the annual meeting of the association. A simple offer to take the minutes suddenly turned into being given the secretaryship of the organisation, co-organising 2015 conference and judging next year's M Wynn Thomas Prize. All because I can touch-type. Thankfully, I'm not being left to do any of this on my own, which is a relief to all concerned. I feel like this:

or this:

So there it is: my third Secretaryship (union branch, regional fencing committee).

Life improved immensely after that. The conference started with a tribute to Nigel Jenkins, the scholar, poet, satirist, political activist 'and hunk', apparently. Tears and laughter. We then awarded the M Wynn Thomas Prize to two ridiculously talented scholars, Lisa Sheppard and Matt Jarvis. Here they are, recreating a C&A catalogue pose with sponsors Richard Davies and M Wynn Thomas himself:

Wynn's the polymath who essentially invented the academic field of Welsh writing in English, while writing himself in Welsh and English on a huge range of topics. He also knew everyone in academia and literature. At breakfast, he mentioned dining with FR Leavis in that very room. 'And along came a very clever Cockney academic, who leaned over and took the sausages right off FR's plate!'. We discovered this weekend that the water at Neuadd Gregynog is not fit for drinking due to the lead pipes. Poor Wynn: he's been coming here since 1967. Imagine the work he could have produced were it not for the annual intake of poison…

After that, we had the launch of the latest Library of Wales books, the 2-volumes of short stories selected by Dai Smith. Now, I have a bit of a problem with Dai. I wrote my PhD on Lewis Jones's novels, Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley, and Gwyn Thomas's Sorrow For Thy Sons. Dai edited and arranged for reprints of Jones's novels, and is the literary executor for Thomas, and produced the only edition of Sorrow ever published. He defined Jones's as first and foremost an orthodox Communist writer, which my thesis spends several hundred pages (it feels like) debunking, and the latest edition of Cwmardy and We Live silently made multiple questionable editorial changes. However many times I wrote, he never responded to my request to see the manuscript of Sorrow so while we know he shortened it massively, nobody except him knows what the original novel Thomas wrote is like. 

However, I also respect Smith as a stalwart of the Old Left. He's never caught up with the 60s New Left let alone the new Welsh Left, which has room for feminism, the Welsh language movement and for Plaid Cymru, but there's still something fairly admirable about his consistency. I knew that his launch would be feisty: his view of Welsh writing in English as largely male and starting in the 1920s is pretty outdated, and his Old Left approach meets lots of Plaid/Welsh Left opposition. That, and the choice of scantily-clad drunk women on the cover of Volume 2. And so it proved: a good knockabout session with plenty of points aired though there was a whiff of rutting elk locking horns…

Dai Smith

Round 2 came after dinner with the first keynote speaker. The Scottish independence referendum will obviously affect Wales. Nationalists in both countries are allied, and their will be political and cultural impacts whatever the result. A lot of Welsh people are quite nervous of being left alone with England, while wishing Scotland well. So the invited guest was Murray Pittock, literature professor and leading intellectual advisor to Scottish Nationalism. 

Murray Pittock

In a barnstorming and entertaining presentation, he touched on the failure of bodies like the BBC to understand devolution, examined the changing (fading?) nature of Britishness, and touched on relations between Wales and Scotland. 

The audience was pretty riled by some of this, not least Dai Smith, who quoted Lenin and then talked of 'false consciousness': the charge being the standard Classic Left one which accuses nationalism of drawing pernicious lines between working classes who should be united against those who oppress them. I've got some sympathy for this, but also see the logic of some nationalisms. Ireland was occupied by the British: should people like my great-uncle Thomas have accepted the crushing of his language and confiscation of Irish land rather than fight in 1916? Should the Welsh have meekly accepted the ban on Welsh and the despoliation of huge areas of the country for English water supplies and commodities? Answers on a post-card please, but I tend to feel that colonised and invaded nations should be nationalist, then develop a socialist state once self-rule is achieved. English nationalism, on the other hand, is sheer cant. 

Anyway, Pittock's presentation caused a good barney as Smith called him 'patronising' and Pittock demonstrated that popular definitions of 'Britishness' are not simply English, but London-centric and reductive. The debate continued in the bar until the early hours, though I was relatively sensible. Can't keep up with the young folk any more. 

The next morning, I opted for the Queering The Nation panel: Huw Osborne from Canada on the relationship between Jan Morris's transsexuality and her version of Wales, Kirsti Bohata's fascinating history of literary lesbianism in Wales which provided me with a long reading list and determination to re-read some older novels in the light of her analysis, and Daniel Williams' hilarious, Freudian reading of Glyn Jones's classic The Island of Apples, in which he claimed that the whole thing is an account of living in a mental asylum (a surprise to everyone in the audience) and comprehensively demolishing the assertion that the book is entirely devoid of both sex and politics. Some of the passages he chose would have made Kinsey blush. Jones's public image and the work he produced in his mature years made him appear sober, devout and respectable, but the early stories suggest a wilder and less normative interior which was repressed. Wynn, who knew him, said that he was a 'a lifelong chapel man, but a wild man underneath', and it looks like critical readings are revealing this wildness at long last. 

One of the problems with AWWE is that the quality of papers is so high that choosing between the panels automatically means missing great work: I was sad to miss out on Jane Aaron, Stephen Colclough and Malcolm Ballin on 19th-Century constructions of Wales, especially as my own paper could really have fitted into that session. However, putting my disappointment behind me, I toddled off to the next session, which was a corker. Simona Janecekova compared Welsh and Slovak modernisms, Clare Davies talked about Dorothy Edwards and Nella Larsen as examples of women negotiating the networks of patronage within different literary and social contexts ('Dai Smith isn't here so I can say what I want'), and Aleksandra Jones gave a paper on literary representations of disability in coalfield literature, funded by the Leverhulme. I wrote my MA partly on Dorothy Edwards, so was naturally interested, while my PhD was on coalfield novels and I knew some of my texts would re-appear with new readings by Jones. I was stunned that these three were new to academia - there's no way I was anywhere near their standard at the same stage (or now). 

After lunch, there was a special panel on a fascinating project by Kathryn Gray, Peter Barry, Bronwen Williams and Matt Jarvis which interviews Welsh poets who've emerged since devolution, to establish how they feel political change as affected their process, context and careers. 

Given that getting a straight answer out of a poet is like asking a tree for directions, we got a fascinating insight into this (unfinished) project. Some poets are indifferent to devolution, at least professionally. Others felt that the establishment of political institutions like the Assembly takes the pressure off poets to 'represent' or define the nation. The project also looked at the presence of these young Welsh poets in magazines inside and outside Wales. For me, I got a distinct whiff of Romantic withdrawal from some of them: like Wordsworth busying himself with daffodils after his support for the French Revolution made him unpopular for a while, I wondered if English Romantic interiority was replacing the older Welsh tradition of poetry being a public duty. Early days, but an excellent project. 

Infuriatingly, my own paper was scheduled alongside a panel I desperately wanted to attend: Jessica George talking about The Meat Tree which I've taught here and as a guest at Gloucestershire University; and Diana Wallace on John Cowper Powys's Owen Glendower and Chris Meredith's Shifts. I've loved Cowper Powys since my hippy French teacher gave me some of his work in school, and I wrote about Shifts in my MA. Very annoying! My own bit went OK, but Andy Webb's paper proposing a new critical approach by considering 'residual cultures' presence in texts was a barnstormer and will, I think, inspire some really interesting and original work. 

Following that and oceans of coffee, I went along to the great Katie Gramich's keynote, which covered Welsh War Writing and representations of women. There were some fascinating propaganda images, some 'depressingly awful doggerel' which Katie recited with considerable glee and discussion of a women's column in Y Darian which became sharply and wittily feminist, leading Katie to conclude that their author may well have been Kate Roberts, whom I think is one of the very greatest writers of the last hundred years. Roberts turned up in discussion frequently this weekend, as a modernist and as a possible lesbian writer. 

After this, I confess I skipped a session, exhausted and still shaking from my own paper. I intended to go for a walk in the grounds but instead dozed and followed the Stoke City match (another victory). After yet another massive dinner, Mike Parker gave the day's keynote. Author of the Rough Guide To Wales ('anything you can do in Rhyl, you can do elsewhere') and presiding genius of the Real series of psychogeographical works, he gave a funny, heartfelt, thoughtful and informative take on Welsh publishing, travel and tourism, fuelled by beer (him) and wine (the Swansea postgrad women on the back row). Being generally too dumb to live, it hadn't occurred to me to bring booze to the session but Parker's piece was glorious even to those few of us who remained sober. Amongst the delights: pictures of a Dalek in Welsh costume and an account of the day he and Niall Griffiths decided to call on BNP leader and immigrant to Wales Nick Griffin for a bit of fascist-bashing. Luckily either for him or them, he wasn't in. 

The final day saw another difficult choice. In one panel, Emma Schofield, prize-winning essayist Lisa Sheppard and Hywel Dix talked about national identity post-devolution, taking in Charlotte Williams' Sugar and Slate (Lisa) and Imtiaz Dhaker (Hywel), but I went for the either one, in which Daniel Hughes talked about the amazing and scandalously overlooked modernist poet Lynette Roberts and Jamie Harris analysed the Real series including Mike Parker's Real Powys while the author sat on the front row (mostly nodding and smiling, thankfully). 

Finally, the conference ended with a special panel in which John Goodby, Jane Aaron and Tony Brown discussed the relationship between Dylan Thomas, Welsh writing in English and the critical establishment. 

John Goodby, Jane Aaron

Goodby, an eminent author who isn't seen as part of the WWIE movement, caused controversy by suggesting that DT hasn't been welcomed in the anglophone or Welsh-speaking movement yet is seen as too excessive and existentialist to be contained in the English tradition (he says literary history skips from Auden to Larkin which is a shame because 'the 1940s were the Welsh decade'). 

Goodby then added to the tension by asserting that Welsh writing in English has been blind to experimental and modernist work, which really got everybody going. Brown asserted that modernism has been integral to Welsh writing in English despite claims that there's no such thing as Welsh modernism. Saunders Lewis's famous statement ('there is no Anglo-Welsh literature…[Thomas] belongs to the English) was countered heatedly by Wynn, who pointed out that Lewis recanted gracefully after DT's death. One of the recurring themes of the weekend was the strength of Welsh Modernism as a distinct literary practice and genre, often manifesting itself as a predilection for the grotesque or Gothic. I'm certainly convinced by this - even in the supposedly stodgy coalfield novels I know well, there are hugely disturbing events and manifestations undercutting the surface realism. 

Jane Aaron's contribution was to present the difficult birth of WWIE as an academic subject: plenty of universities then and most Welsh schools now have no interest at all in it. She then called for a Dylan Thomas day on October 27th to match Bloom's Day or Burns Night. The conference cheered and voted for that…until M Wynn Thomas, in combative mood, opposed the idea. He 'set the facts straight' on relations between Dylan Thomas and the Welsh-language literary scene and listed a whole lot of critics he felt Goodby had ignored while claiming that experimentalism was marginalised in Welsh literary criticism…and some Welsh-language modernist poets to boot, such as T. H. Parry Williams. While Aaron asserted that celebrations of DT would boost Welsh-language culture, Wynn called Dylan Thomas Day 'naive', bearing in mind the divisive nature of Thomas, Saunders Lewis and others. I can see his point: Bloom's Day barely has anything to do with James Joyce any more, while the authorities' promotion of it as a tourist trap conceals a long history of censorship, suppression and suspicion of Joyce's work. 

Aside from all the formal stuff, AWWE14 was joyous because I got to wander around chatting to the most amazing people, from postgrads to professionals. Conversations ranged from the hilarious (one bunch decided over breakfast to design a game: Angry Bards) to the profound, and I've come away with enormous reading lists and several ideas for modules stolen from my counterparts. I learned about the great lost philosopher JR Jones, that Sylvia Plath dumped a boyfriend because he didn't appreciate Dylan Thomas. Oh, and I finally got to see the infamous RS Thomas Packet Of Crisps, a sought-after object for any archive. 

I left exhilarated, yet exhausted, sad to go, and yet glad not to have to speak to anyone for a day or two. 

And next year I'm co-organizer. No pressure…

A Nightingale Sang in…The Slade Rooms

If you're a new reader, you won't know that one of my friends, with whom I share an office, is an on-off rock star. By which I mean that he's a long-serving guitarist in post-punk grouches The Nightingales (formerly The Prefects, apparently 'Birmingham's first punk group'). John Peel loved them. So do Marc Riley, Phil Jupitus and Stewart Lee. Sadly, the record-buying public have remained largely immune to their ramshackle charms. Not that that's stopped them. They tour internationally a couple of times a year and release a new album at least annually. There's a new one out and the first track is called 'Bullet For Gove', which is a sentiment I think we can all share. You can also buy the t-shirt. Ideal for schools' non-uniform days.

I like them for various reasons. Firstly, for being so bloody-minded. Secondly, because they sound like Wilko Johnson on speed, thirdly for the acerbic, convoluted lyrics. They very rarely play their old songs (which made The Wedding Present look like a cabaret act when they appeared together recently) and they never stop between songs because fishing for applause is not punk. So they play for 90 minutes without a pause. It's a thrilling experience. The effect is like having eternal credit on the world's angriest jukebox.

They played a home-town gig (-ish: their drummer's from Norfolk and the bassist is German) last week and I took my camera and played with my new (used) 105mm f/2.8 and the 11-16 f/2.8 wide-angle lens I bought last year, plus the trusty 50mm f/1.4. The support acts were local youths Jump The Shark (better than their name) and notorious anti-comic Ted Chippington. He's not funny, but that's the point.

See the full set, or click these favourites to enlarge. There's only one of drummer Fliss Kitson because she wore black, with black hair over her face, in front of a black backdrop. Cool, but hard to photograph.

The blues and Joyce expert who calls himself Zoot Horn

Typical Gales fans

The merchandise stall is run by the world's leading Charles Manson academic

Ted Chippington

Guitar hero Alan Apperley

Andreas Schmid, ex-Faust

Fliss Kitson, the singing drummer who isn't Phil Collins

Separated at birth? Sajid Javid and the Ferengi

In the wake of Culture Secretary Maria Miller's graceless resignation, she was replaced by Sajid Javid, an immensely rich financial speculator and plutocrat with zero (seriously, I looked long and hard) interest or experience of culture. The best the newspapers could manage was that he likes the film It's A Wonderful Life and Star Trek films.

It's A Wonderful Life is a poor and ironic choice for Javid to claim affection for. It's the story of George Bailey a small-town building society operator whose care for his neighbours leads to bankruptcy at the hands of Henry Potter, a thieving mega-bank operator. As he contemplates suicide, an angel shows him what a poor and broken place his town would have been without him. Persuaded, he rallies round and is repaid with the faith of his neighbours.

Sajid Javid became a vice-president of Chase Manhattan at the age of 25, and soon moved to Deutsche Bank as a director, then managing director and soon Global Head (appropriately, given his appearance) of Emerging Markets Structuring, before moving to Singapore to run the credit trading, equity convertibles, commodities and Asian private equity markets.

In short, Sajid Javid is no George Bailey. If you wanted a poster child for the global economic crash, for mass unemployment, privatisation, the erosion of the state in economic planning and the destruction of all the things George stands for (community, compassion, empathy, sensible economics), Sajid is your man. He's the living embodiment of the tensions at the heart of Conservatism: while they promote small-town values at home, their economic strategies tear down communities ruthlessly.

Turning to Star Trek, I'm also confused. In most of the ST worlds, money has been abolished as the cause of strife and inefficiency. The Earth of Star Trek appears to have abandoned money at the same time it abolished war. Only unenlightened and vulgar species pursue riches instead of knowledge, progress and harmony. I can only think that Sajid is rooting for the Ferengi, a species from the rather poor Deep Space Nine franchise.

"They're greedy, misogynistic, untrustworthy little trolls, and I wouldn't turn my back on one of them for a second."
"Neither would I. But once you accept that, you'll find they can be a lot of fun."
- Kira Nerys and Jadzia Dax, on Ferengi
As Quark once put it, "there is nothing beyond greed. Greed is the purest, most noble of emotions." Finally, the 10th Rule of Acquisition states that "greed is eternal."
The Ferengi are ruthless in their pursuit of Latinum. They despise sentiment, culture and community, happy only when they're selling their grandmothers for cold hard cash. Often the objects of narratorial satire, we're not meant to be rooting for them.

Coincidentally, they look very like Sajid Javid.

Sajid Javid, Minister for Culture

Quark, a ruthless Ferengi speculator

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Your Uppal round-up

Hi everybody. As it's a while since I updated the world with the activities of my local MP, elusive millionaire fantasist Paul Uppal, here's a bumper edition. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll vote to throw him out in May 2015. 

Firstly, Paul's previously noted hilariously unconvincing photo-opportunity following the budget has attracted the attention of better-known satirists than I. Here's Private Eye's take on George's Beer and Bingo debacle:

Insult of insults, they don't even deign to mention who the 'next man' is. But we know, readers. We know. Incidentally, I haven't seen any mention during the Beer/Bingo coverage of the long-standing working-class suspicion of the continuing links between the Conservative Party and the brewing industry. There were even songs about it. Here's Paddy Ryan's 'The Man That Waters The Workers Beer':


Now I'm the man, the very fat man,
That waters the workers' beer,
Yes I'm the man, the very fat man,
That waters the workers' beer,
And what do I care if it makes them
If it makes them terribly queer,
I've a car and a yacht and an
And I waters the workers' beer.

Now when I makes the workers' beer,
I puts in strychinine,
Some methylated spirits and a drop of
But, since a brew so terribly strong
Might make them terribly queer,
I reaches my hand for the water tap,
And I waters the workers' beer.

Now a drop of good beer is good for a
Who's thirsty and tired and hot,
And I sometimes has a drop for myself
From a very special lot;
But a fat and healthy working class
Is the thing that I most fear,
So I reaches my hand for the water tap
And I waters the workers' beer.

Now ladies fair beyond compare,
And be it maid or wife,
O sometimes lend a thought for one
Who leads a wandering life,
The water rates are shockingly high,
And meths is shockingly dear,
And there isn't the profit there used
  to be
In watering the workers' beer.

And if you've ever tasted Banks's beer (where George and Paul did their gruesome duet) you'll understand where the song comes from.

Anyway, that's enough of the comedy. Paul next popped up on Channel 4 News during a piece on why Asian voters aren't turning to the Conservatives. The obvious answer ('Paul Uppal') sadly wasn't featured, but after a quick chat with Paul's dad (presumably no non-relatives could be found to endorse him), we got some words of wisdom from the great man himself. And what words they were! In perhaps the most audacious instance of inclusion and revisionism in political history, Paul found a way to claim that Enoch Powell, his notoriously racist predecessor in the constituency, would have been pleased that Paul is the MP. You could have knocked me down with a feather. Enoch Powell predicted race war if immigration into the UK wasn't stopped (he later went to Northern Ireland to represent the unionists who'd immigrated into Ireland by force, demonstrating a keen sense of irony). To claim him now as some kind of kindly integrationist is beyond bizarre and into the realms of dishonest. Personally, I'm very pleased that Tory voters in the area are now prepared to vote for an Asian candidate. I just wish a) it wasn't Paul and b) they'd consider not voting Tory. But to appropriate Powell: breathtaking. To mix ethnic cultural references: that's chutzpah on a grand scale.

Finally, Paul also has a job as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister for Higher Education, presumably a reward for his bravery in voting for £9000 tuition fees despite having a majority of 619 and a university serving the economically disadvantaged in his constituency. A while back, I wrote to him asking why the government hasn't projected HE funding streams beyond 2016, a break with normal behaviour. My suspicion – shared with education guru Andrew McGettigan and many of the experts I spoke to at an HE leadership event recently – was that it's simply because they have no clue and have given up. Instead, they've savagely reduced the teaching grant and slashed the support funding for disabled students, which I think we can all agree is the mark of a competent and classy administration.

Anyway, Paul wrote back saying that he couldn't currently answer my question and would get back to me later on. (In case you don't know: MPs have to respond to sensible letters from constituents and more people should take advantage of this). Teasing aside, this seemed perfectly acceptable to me: there wasn't any indication of slipperiness. A few weeks later, a substantial letter arrives.

The first paragraph is the normal waffle about HE being a paradise:
The principal aim of our reforms was to put higher education on a sustainable footing for the long-term. Our universities are now well funded and this is driving up the quality of the student experience while helping to stimulate economic growth. What is important is that we have protected our world-class higher education system; we have not deterred students from participating in HE and we have increased the participation of those from lower income backgrounds. 

Then we get on to the details.
As you are aware, the government has announced its intention to realise value for the taxpayer through sales of English pre-2012 income contingent student loans. The loan book will be sold in a series of tranches over a number of years. The first tranche of loans is expected to be sold by the end of financial year 2015-16. However the decision to proceed with first sale has not yet been taken. As is normal with transaction of this type there will be a value for money assessment made before each sale. 
'Realise value' of course means selling the student loan debt off to financial institutions. It automatically incurs a massive loss because the banks will calculate the non-repayment rate, build in a profit and offer the government a price far less than the face value. But it moves a debt figure on the government current account to an entry on the income list – essentially exchanging a reliable future income stream for the equivalent of a payday loan. As you can probably tell from the undertone of this paragraph, there's a considerable amount of uncertainty about whether the government actually can flog off the loan book. As non-repayments approach the 48% level at which the whole student finance model becomes economically pointless, the banks reckon it's a dog and aren't queuing up. 
The department will ensure that sales from the pre-2012 ICR loan book represent value for money to the taxpayer. A refined model has been developed to provide an accurate forecasts of future repayments. This will be used by government and purchasers to assess the value of the loan book. In reaching a sale decision, careful consideration will be given to the comparison between the value of the sale and the value of retention. 
We'll have to trust Mr Uppal about the value-for-money model because he doesn't provide it and I presume it won't be made public at all. Let's hope that their model is better than the one which led to the disastrous Royal Mail giveaway (disastrous for us, not for the Tory donors who snaffled up the shares at a bargain price before flogging them on at a huge profit). 
Current market conditions are favourable and BIS advisors have confirmed there is potential interest from a range of buyers in investing in the loan book. This has informed the estimates of potential proceeds of approximately £12 billion over a five year period. It has been calculated that the additional outline of loans for the expansion of students numbers over the forecast period will be more than financed by proceeds from pre-2012 loan sales. If the sale of the loan book does not go ahead or does not provide the expected receipts, The Treasury will need to consider the impact on public sector net debt. This will be a wider consideration of the state of the public finances, but will include the affordability of higher student numbers.
I'd love to know what makes him think market conditions are favourable. Graduates aren't repaying their loans because the country is in a deep recession; jobs are low-paid and often part-time, and because graduates are filling positions previously open to non-graduates. We are running a low-wage economy, quite deliberately. Labour did it, and the Conservatives are extending it, because their primary concern is corporate and elite profit, not sharing the wealth.

The second half of that paragraph bothers me. The Conservative Party recently removed student numbers from the existing university sector and transferred them to the private HE sector to kickstart it: not to improve the quality of education but an ideological act designed to damage existing institutions which are viewed in Conservative circles as Marxist enemies of freedom. An astonishing range of institutions appeared as if by magic, some of them very flaky indeed, and overloaded the student finances to such an extent that an emergency cap then had to be re-introduced. Now the cap is supposedly off again but nobody I've spoken to knows what on earth is happening. Clearly that last line refers to the possibility of numbers being cut again - and we all know that unfashionable former polytechnics like mine will be hit hard, while private and elitist universities will be protected.

Moving on:
The higher education finance projections are aligned with other areas of government expenditure in not going beyond the final year of the current spending review period, 2015 to 16. These reforms mean that higher education institutions on how well funded; this has been sustained through recession and is driving up the quality of student experience. Students now have a greater stake in their learning and their future but can expect to be protected should they go on to learn low incomes and do not repay their is loans in full.

I'm not entirely convinced by the argument that projection are in line with government methods. Universities are large, complex organisations which require stable and predictable funding arrangements, as governments have long understood. At the HE leadership seminar I attended, one finance director described the HE funding model as OK for universities but bad for the country, and I can understand their perspective. The system is in fact an accounting ruse, not a policy. After all, university funding has actually dropped (fees don't increase in line with inflation, other funding streams have been abolished) and been shifted from the state to the individual. 

I find the last couple of lines particularly depressing. I really resent the idea that students need £50,000 of debt to feel that they have a 'stake' in their education. It fails to recognise the innate benefits of higher education, and denies that students understand their education as contributing to the public good. Instead, it implies that education is simply a means to individual enrichment: the custom mentality writ large. 

I'm pleased that Mr Uppal took the trouble to write a substantial reply to my letter. I remain troubled, however, by both the economics and the ideology contained within. I hope you all write to your MPs asking for further enlightenment – and vote accordingly.

Update: HE finance expert Andrew McGettigan has unearthed the contradiction between this letter and what MPs were told. Read it all here.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Welcome to the University of Spamford

Not all Business Schools are alike. For every Critical Management inquiring programme, there's a shonky institution dedicated to handing out gold stars to every get-rich-quick chancer who hands over their credit card. That's why mainstream economics departments entirely failed to spot the crash: they were essentially lending a patina of respectability to what amounts to alchemy, and hoping to make a few quid from 'consultancy' along the way.

So far, so normal. But when universities join the ranks of business's bottom-feeders, you've got to worry. I got an email today which looked like the kind of spivvy-spam that we all get every day.
Executive Courses from the University of Salford
Not being an executive (or a leader), I assumed that is was a phishing exercise, especially as the reply email address looked, well, phishy: 
Not a standard UK university address, but one generated by a mass-mailing organisation.

So what 'Executive Courses' were on offer? I was hoping for 'executive relief' (at 29.00), but sadly that was off the menu.

Ooh, look at those logos. I know that the Institute of Directors is a legitimate organisation (legal anyway: its economic and ideological positions are far from legitimate). I've never heard of The Pacific Institute (though its webpage and twitter feed look like what we call 'a load of old bollocks'), and I know that Salford University brutally slaughtered its humanities courses to pay – presumably – for this kind of rubbish. 

I've a short fuse when it comes to spam at the best of times. When it comes to universities, I tend to think that Business Schools should be (in a colleague's formulation) 'about business, not for business'.  These courses look pretty weak: the kind of rubbish institutions with little class use to generate a quick buck, but the use of spamming as a recruitment tool really makes me worry. Surely this couldn't be true? 

So I looked up the Executive Leadership Programme, carefully not following links on the email in case it led me to some Internet Oubliette in which I'd be stripped of money, credit and reputation. Lo and behold: it's real! For only £1499 I could learn all about Leading Through Change,  or Potential To Performance. See how many Bullshit Bingo words you can tick off in the course synopsis:
People are the cornerstone of organisational success, and Investment in Excellence® develops this most valuable asset. It is a powerful development experience that enables leaders to achieve much more of their potential by changing their perception of what is possible, and then providing the skills, knowledge and application to cause a change in what they actually accomplish.
This module comprises of the development of personal transformational skills to equip participants to address limiting behaviours, empower self and others to set and achieve consistently high goals, and to release untapped potential.
The starting point of this element is that performance is driven by behaviours which in turn are driven by beliefs. In order for leader-driven collective improvements in performance to happen, there needs to be time built in for them to work on their own beliefs and behaviours.  This is an essential stage in enabling them to become more personally effective and thereby creating the constructive cultures that enhance the performance of others. The learning process links back to, and builds on, the first module and the impact of the individual on organisational culture as a whole.
But don't worry. It's a University! There must be a core of solid research informing all this. What's 'Facilitator' Lynne Oliver published? Well, nothing as such but she did work closely with Rabobank of the Netherlands. And what a great job she did with their leadership:
Rabobank boss quits over £662m Libor rigging fine
But I was still curious. Was this real? How did they get my name? Surely a reputable university wouldn't be simply spamming people? So I emailed the Salford Executive Leadership Programme's contact address to ask if the email was genuine.
Could you confirm that this is a genuine message, and that I subscribed to your mailing list?
Yours, Plashing Vole
Back came a reply from Paul Bolton (not that he signed the email, but that's the name in the 'from' box':
Thanks for your email, this is a genuine email to your work email address. We have now removed you from our database. Thank you 
Not, you notice, an answer to the second question. So is a reputable university simply spamming? Or is it buying mailing lists from other organisations with a relaxed attitude to data protection. Last week I was on a course about Leadership in Higher Education. Surely the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education isn't flogging its mailing lists? I surely hope not. I've mailed Salford and the LFHE to ask.

I quickly got a reply from Paul.

As far as I am aware you did not subscribe, however we buy data from a reputable company and your email would have come from this. By law, we are permitted to email on a business to business basis, so long as we offer an opt out facility on the email.
I can see that the email did go to a non-personal email address and we did offer the unsubscribe option. I would however like to apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.

He's wrong about the address, of course: it's my name followed by my institutional domain. I'm even less impressed by his defence: 'it's legal' and I can unsubscribe from something to which I didn't voluntarily subscribe in the first place. Wow. So many things are legal, without being reputable, effective or polite.

Why does this bother me? Because universities should be better than this. They should be better than striking brand-name deals with flaky organisations and they should know better than to besmirch their reputations by indulging in bottom-feeder behaviour like spamming. If this is the kind of thing they teach on their courses, you should save your money.

Stay classy, Salford!

Update: ironically, Salford's SPD unit also offers an Introduction to Digital Marketing for Higher Education including:
  • Considerations for establishing a Digital and Social Media Policy
  • Knowing Your Audience/Market
  • The importance of Customer Relationship Marketing
On this evidence, I'd be awarding a fail. 

Friday, 4 April 2014

Big Bang Bollocks

I've mentioned my deep and enduring hatred of The Big Bang Theory before. It's partly disappointment (that a show about academics and science is so lazy), partly annoyance (I had Green Lantern and Flash shirts years before the show appeared but now get accused of 'copying Sheldon') and partly because it seems like such a cynically constructed appropriation of subaltern groups who seem cool with it. I know this because I attended a conference on science in fiction and crowds of scientists seemed delighted at their representation. Every time I said 'they're laughing at you' or 'the show's attitude towards women is disgraceful' they chanted 'but they get the science right', which rather proves the show's attitudes correct, I suppose.

If you haven't seen BBT, then you don't own a TV. It's a sit-com featuring a number of post-doctoral scientists, their friends and occasionally their families. The core group are male: one is Jewish, one Indian and one autistic Texan who escaped a Christian fundamentalist upbringing (it seems like clever Indians are OK, whereas African-American scientists are beyond the realms of plausibility). They have troubles with girls, one may be a repressed homosexual, and their female friend is Penny: blonde, Middle-American and stupid but with a heart of gold. And large breasts. Other women sometimes appear: similarly autistic scientist played by former child stars of Roseanne and Blossom. Howard's mother (heard not seen) is a domineering Jewish stereotype. Core obsessions are 'geek culture', carefully delineated by the products frequently displayed on screen and guest appearances by semi-hip SF/comic characters.

The basic comedy runs on these lines: scientists are socially dysfunctional and indulging in an extended adolescence; mothers are oppressive harridans; blonde working-class girls are lovely, dumb and sexually available; academia isn't 'the real world; female scientists aren't classically attractive; foreigners are funny as long as they're in on the joke. The genius of BBT is that it's a very stereotypical 1970s-style show disguised as a progressive one. The main method by which this is achieved is the show's apparently approving approach to science. The main characters are physicists, astrophysicists and engineers (psychology and biology are for girls, the show makes clear). Texan Sheldon's defence of evolution in spite of his family's creationism is used to demonstrate BBT's adherence to Progress.

The show's theme song appears progressive too: a history of human scientific inquiry and achievement, though I find it smug and rather evasive about the darker side of our collective history: here it is with the lyrics.

I see it puts bipedal creatures ahead of dinosaur extinction, but at least it promotes the Big Bang rather than Creationism. However, apart from the reactionary nature of the humour (we're clearly meant to desire and empathise with 'normal' Penny rather than the nerdy scientists), the show infuriates me because despite its apparent liberalism, it's actually in deep denial about the most pressing scientific issue of the day: climate science. Caltech, where the characters work, has a large and important environment and climate science programme, yet none of them work there. Nor is climate science ever mentioned in the show's seven series so far, despite virtually every other branch of human enquiry coming up at some point.

How do I know? Because some obliging person has posted the transcripts in searchable form on the web. See for yourself. The word 'climate' does not appear. 'Environment appears 9 times, but almost always with the meaning of social surroundings. Though there is a dismissive reference to hydroelectric power in Series 5, Episode 9. 'Global Warming' is mentioned once: a character's ex-boyfriend is in town to present a paper on the subject, giving rise to the comedy of jealousy. Clearly he is both a threat and a loser. Carbon appears only as an element, and 'greenhouse' doesn't appear at all.

Why does this matter? Because BBT is the only popular show dealing with science in the English-speaking world at the moment. Because it presents itself as scientifically accurate and cutting-edge, priding itself on scientific accuracy and relevance. It's important because popular culture is what the young watch: not news, or documentaries. Popular culture forms the cultural and intellectual horizon of the next generation, and if an entire field of inquiry – perhaps the most pressing one of our time – is excluded from popular culture, it becomes invisible or suspicious. Sheldon Cooper goes on about M Theory constantly, a theory which many physicists feel has no status as a theory because it cannot be tested. It's abstruse, it's difficult and it's hip (it's also fascinating and amazing). It's also conveniently apolitical: because it has no ramifications beyond a blackboard, it's safe. In Big Bang Theory's world, it's perfect: science is about 'cool stuff' (the ISS or personal gadgets which can be 'product-placed' on screen), or about concepts so far removed from its viewers' lives that they can be rendered the subject of unthreatening humour. The last thing that CBS wants is cool scientists who might be looking at tangible, inconvenient truths. Science, BBT announces, is occasionally magical but largely the preserve of nerds who live in a bubble. Let's point and laugh at them. They're cute, but largely irrelevant.

The exclusion of climate science cannot be an accident, but is a decision made on financial and ideological grounds. CBS, which makes the show, is owned by industrial conglomerate Westinghouse (now CBS Corporation) and has censored analysis of the tobacco industry in the past. Westinghouse owns massive power generation resources including fossil fuels and nuclear plants: clearly it won't tolerate any pro-climate science commentary on its channels. Add to this the public hostility to climate science in the US and you have the reasons why this deceptive show is silenced. From this show, nobody would ever know that there is any problem with the climate, or that tens of thousands of talented scientists are working hard to understand and fix it, right now. In this light, BBT's silence isn't an omission: it's a deliberate intervention in a pressing political and scientific issue.

Still, it's just a comedy. And scientists are nerds, right?

Risky business in HE

Here's a song that's been in my head for a couple of weeks: Snowbird's 'I Heard The Owl Call My Name'. Snowbird is Stephanie Dosen and Simon Raymonde, formerly of the Cocteau Twins, plus people from Radiohead, Lanterns on the Lake and others. This track's the album highlight for me, especially when I'm in the mood for something ethereal.

And if you liked that, you should go back to the Cocteau's:

then to This Mortal Coil, Slowdive and Galaxie 500. Then Hydroplane and The Paradise Motel. And of course Mazzy Star.

I'm in need of ethereality. I'm marking essays and reading drafts in a bit of a stupor. I was up at 5.30 a.m. yesterday for a seminar in London on Leadership in Higher Education. Amongst the attendees was the distinguished and slightly eccentric Channel 4 News reporter Michael Crick, who is a governor of Manchester University. The morning session was on risk, reputation and positioning, the afternoon one covering governors' legal position and presenting case studies of well-known HE disasters. At one point, the discussion moved into naming institutions thought likely to be vulnerable to financial and policy shocks, which I didn't think was particularly professional (though I was relieved that my own dear university wasn't on the list). One presentation discussed HE financing and planning, including a ranked chart of universities' financial stability. We're on the 'good' end of the list, which was reassuring.

What really set the room alight was the discussion of government HE policy. One finance director observed that the £9000 fee system was 'good for universities, bad for the country' which was a little cynical, but most of thought that the worst aspect was the government's utter incompetence. It's not just that their ideas are bad: it's that they have no ideas, and seem to be making it up as they go along. No university can plan for the long term when HE policy seems to lurch from one wheeze to another. Speaking of which, I still haven't had a letter from Paul Uppal explaining how student finance will work after 2016: he said weeks ago that he wasn't in a position to do so but would get back to me when he could. Following yesterday's exploration, I'm now of the opinion that nobody at BIS has a clue.

This isn't just an anti-Tory thing: while Labour are making voter-friendly noises about reducing fees, there's no clarity about the funding model. One speaker made the point that student finance is now simply a matter of accounting tricks: the £9k loan model moves HE funding off the government books, reducing the deficit ever so slightly. That's how important education is to this country.

Personally, I'm old-fashioned enough to support a really simple HE funding model. The government gives the universities a big chunk of taxpayers' cash, enough to cover good teaching, small classes and excellent research. Students graduate and use their degrees to get good jobs. Some will earn enough to pay higher taxes, funding subsequent students. Others will get socially-useful jobs which aren't paid so well (teaching, social work etc) and won't pay much back. Some won't get jobs, in which case the state should look at its economic policies better. Simple, huh? Alternatively, we could take the £100bn earmarked for nuclear weapons over the next 20 years and spend that on education.

We also discussed reputational risks to universities. London Met's secretary discussed her university's  catastrophic loss of Tier 4 visa 'highly-trusted' status, which essentially suspended their international student recruitment, and the furore over their abandonment of the Women's Library. While I suspect that her account is rather rose-tinted, it was shocking to hear of other universities sending men down to LMU's campus with sandwich boards and application forms. What's clear is that many universities have expanded abroad too hastily, while overseas recruitment processes are open to abuse and are very hard to police.

One of the most interesting and sobering sessions was about legal liability and duties. The bottom line for governors is that if you ask enough questions, come to reasonable conclusions (even if wrong) and act in good faith, we're fairly safe from becoming personally liable for (e.g.) institutional collapse. What was far more interesting was the exploration of the laws covering discrimination, our duties towards students and staff with mental health issues and equality and diversity. It was pretty shocking to see cold figures. The older and more senior HE staff are, the more likely they are to be white and male. We're far whiter than our student intake: clearly there's a problem with recruiting ethnic minority PhD students and staff. In English, the students are overwhelmingly female, yet the teaching staff is roughly equal.

It concerns me, too, that very few of us sound like our students: we're largely not from the area and I worry that they'll think academia isn't for them. I've been advocating a talent-spotting postgraduate funding scheme because I'm sick of watching first-class students graduate into bar-work or non-graduate employment because they don't have the family resources or social capital that more middle-class students can access. I really don't want research and academia to become the preserve of rich kids or the Russell Group universities with deep pockets. That way lies ossification and the self-perpetuating mistakes that led, for example, to the economic crash which was aided by the failure of economic departments to ask critical questions because they were too invested in the status quo.

But I can sense a rant coming on, so I'm going to stop. These essays won't mark themselves…