The 1997 anatomy lesson

December 26, 1997

January

It wasn't a happy new year for those academics in departments rated one and two in the research assessment exercise. They said goodbye to their research hopes as those in departments rated 5*, overwhelmingly in the traditional research universities, took the lion's share of the funding councils' money. Nick Tate had better luck. He was appointed chief executive of the new all-encompassing qualifications super quango, Quanca. But the bishop of Ripon demanded that the unfortunate acronym be replaced.

Attention turned to what Sir Ron Dearing would say about tuition fees in his imminent report on higher education. But other questions were asked when government papers released under the 30-year rule revealed how he protected the National Coal Board from some of the political consequences of the Aberfan disaster in the 1960s.

The Howard government in Australia set up its version of Dearing, while something borrowed rather than something new was causing a furore in Italy when international publishers warned Italian academics that they would take legal action to stop blatant plagiarism.

Richard Klein meanwhile had good news for well-rounded and festively augmented people everywhere. He argued that though our ideal of beauty might be absurdly thin now, history showed that fat would become absolutely flabulous again.

February

Hefce took the softly, softly approach in its 1997-98 allocations. It used a formula designed to prevent any major upheavals before the general election and Dearing. Thanks to the extra Pounds 100 million announced in the previous autumn, cuts in real terms were reduced across the board so that no university went under. But it did mean that those institutions which should have gained most under the RAE bailed out poorer universities.

Undeterred, vice-chancellors' pay continued to rise and the ranks of the six-figure v-cs increased mightily. The annual THES pay survey showed that 61 heads of institutions were paid Pounds 100,000 or more in 1995-96. Lecturers had to do with rather less. They finally abandoned their freezing picket lines and accepted a two-year 5.8 per cent pay offer. Manual and ancillary workers settled for a two-year 7.3 per cent offer.

Reconciliation was in short supply elsewhere, however. The right-wing press dismissed Patricia Williams, the first black woman to give the Reith lectures, as "a militant black feminist who thinks all whites are racist". Orthodox Jew Geoffrey Alderman tried to persaude Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks not to attend the memorial service for the liberal rabbi Hugo Gryn. Canadian feminists were outraged by a threat to close the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Montreal's Concordia University. And the European Union was accused of trying to "enslave nature" with its directive on patenting biotechnological inventions.

According to Christopher Booker and Richard North the EU's criminal ambition did not stop there: "In the kingdom of Brussels, the Euro-moonies, live, breathe, fornicate and conspire I Their mission? To reorder the lives of 400 million people I whether you like it or not."

But things were no better across the Atlantic. Actor Charlton Heston, who was starring in Hamlet, was incensed by a survey revealing that only one-third of the United States university English majors required a course in Shakespeare. He would not have been soothed by Nicholas Humphrey's discovery that 20 per cent of the US population thought that they may have been abducted by aliens.

Terry Eagleton argued that it was no use looking to postmodernism for any answers: "Talk of whether the signifier produces the signified or vice versa I is not quite what stormed the Winter Palace or brought down the Heath government." Perhaps the solution was to follow the example of Marcus Aurelius, the only kind of leader the late Joseph Brodsky admired, according to Anita Desai. Like him, Brodsky learnt that "life had to be subverted" and that melancholy and reason were the only possible responses to it.

March

March was a quiet month. Not wishing to disturb the calm, more than 1,500 delegates at the 75th annual conference of the National Union of Students re-elected Douglas Trainer as their president. In the manner of contemporary student politics he forbore to urge solidarity with the Cuban proletariat and pledged to fight top-up fees and to promote wider participation.

Revolutionary politics was left to a sheep. The news that the Roslin Institute had successfully cloned Dolly the sheep prompted MPs to urge the government to ban the cloning of "experimental human beings" while the old models were still serviceable. In more measured terms, David King in our pages argued that "what is really disturbing about cloning (is) the relentless search for uniformity, efficiency and control. Do we really want our farming to go further in the direction of industrial efficiency; a direction that has already given us BSE and the horrors of factory farming?" It fell to Edna Longley to remind us that even old horrors can be tamed with imagination. Reviewing R. F. Foster's biography of W. B. Yeats, she quoted the poet's appeal made during the Irish crisis of 1912: "I often see the life of Ireland today I under the image of a stagnant stream I Now among the old boots drifting along there are a very objectional pair, Catholic and Protestant bigotry. Some Irishmen object so much to one or other of these boots that they can think of nothing else, and yet we have merely to make the stream move again to sweep them out of sight."

April

Electioneering was in full spate. Labour argued that student maintenance should be repaid by graduates on an income-related basis, the Liberal Democrats promised further and higher education an extra Pounds 700 million per year by the end of the century, while the Conservatives were content to wait for Dearing. Historian Niall Ferguson added a surreal touch with his "virtual history", which had Michael Foot winning the elections of 1983 and 1987 following Margaret Thatcher's loss of the Falklands.

Hefce injected a dose of realism by publishing research which showed that more than 100,000 extra students would crowd into universities if as many people at the bottom of the social scale went to university as the current average.But in contrary spirit the Further Education Funding Council's provisional allocations for 1997-98 meant 40,000 full-time students would not be funded.

Outer space fared better. The European Space Agency agreed to fund Cluster 2 - the original Cluster mission had blown up nine months earlier - and 50 British science jobs were secured until the next century. Those gazing into space were not so secure. Plans to restructure the two Royal Observatories threatened up to 100 jobs. And one of the men who discovered comet Hale Bopp sent an open letter to the US president about the difficulties of earning a decent living as a scientist.

Joseph Rotblat, in his review of the late Rudolf Peierls's Atomic Histories, added a footnote to the absurdities of governments and officialdom. He recalled that when Peierels and his collaborator Robert Frisch visited him at Liverpool University in 1940, they were at liberty to discuss the feasibility of the atom bomb, but Rotblat, as a Pole, and Frisch, as an Austrian, were forbidden as aliens to participate in such dangerous activities as riding bicycles.

May

Labour swept to power. "Education, education, education" was one of new Labour's favourite soundbites, but the priorities were clearly schools and nursery education. Chancellor Gordon Brown's promise to stick within Conservative budget plans threatened any extra money that universities had a claim to - such as that from the sale of the student debt.

The seven-strong education and employment team, headed by secretary of state David Blunkett, included Baroness Blackstone as minister for education and employment in the Lords and Kim Howells as parliamentary under-secretary for lifelong learning. Andrew Smith became minister for employment and former Conservative Alan Howarth became parliamentary under-secretary for employment. John Battle became minister for science and Brian Wilson became Scottish Office minister for education and industry.

Other people, however, were being shown the door. Edinburgh University's self-styled "scientific racist", psychology lecturer Chris Brand, faced a university tribunal. Mr Brand had been suspended from the previous November for alleged gross misconduct, after he published an internet newsletter questioning whether paedophilia charges being brought against a 73-year-old Nobel prizewinner Daniel Gajdusek in the United States were in the public interest. He was eventually sacked in August. And lecturers' union Natfhe ousted its general secretary John Akker.

Fortune favoured those who had recourse to the law. Feminist professor Jane Gallup successfully defended herself against a charge of sexual harassment lodged by a female student and a German court showed that it had taken the concept of lifelong learning to heart when it ruled that a university was wrong to bar a student who had studied for more than 40 years without obtaining a degree.

Back in Britain a THES survey hinted darkly that our students' choice of Trainspotting as their favourite book and film was linked to their fondness for drug taking. But the Queen cantered up to rescue the country's staid and muted image. "The very lack of drama or colour in her own life has made her a fitting symbol of a nation winding down its world influence," wrote Dorothy Thompson reviewing Ben Pimlott's biography of the monarch.

June

A joint union and employer survey found that higher education workers were being exploited through a culture of low pay that left some earning half the amount of their private sector counterparts. And a THES survey revealed that only 8 per cent of the country's professors were women, and that at Oxford most women professors earn less than their male counterparts, with some on as little as Pounds 30,000 a year. By comparison South Bank University had appointed women to 30 per cent of its professorships.

Oxford University also had to contend with an embarrassment of riches. Congregation finally approved by 345 votes to 55 Wafic Said's Pounds 20 million donation towards a business school - albeit on a new site next to Oxford station. And Pat Shipman and Alan Walker won the Rhone-Poulenc science book prize for their research on a 1.5 million-year-old teenager.

As speculation about the Dearing report reached fever pitch, further education got its bid in first. Helena Kennedy's report on widening participation in further education was widely leaked as calling for a transfer of funds from higher to further education. She later toned down her report and denied that she was suggesting "a sort of Entebbe raid on university funds".

Foreign entanglements, or rather a glorious retreat from one, was the issue in the Far East as Britannia sailed from Fragrant Harbour and bid farewell to Hong Kong. Depressed imperialists could turn to Richard Sorabji, who argued in the Gifford lectures that ancient Greek philosophy holds the key to a happy life. But a researcher from the University of Northumbria in Newcastle warned them not to seek solace in Star Trek. She reported that some Trekkies shared many of the same characteristics as drug addicts: "It pervades their lives and there are instances of withdrawal."

John Habgood, former archbishop of York, refused to be dazzled by science fact or fantasy: "The main messages from theologians to scientists are reminders that there must be something wrong with a view of the world which relegates to insignificance those qualities and experiences which are most characteristically human."

July

Dearing finally published his report and proposed that all students be charged a flat-rate tuition fee of Pounds 1,000. Mr Blunkett had other ideas and immediately introduced a means-tested tuition fee that would exempt a third of all students. The price was the loss of the maintenance grant. Students from poorer families would pay less upfront - but face a greater debt at the end of their degree. Top-up fees, the government said, played no part in their plans.

Dearing's other proposals were lost in the turmoil that followed. He called for a new "compact" between government, students and their families, employers and institutions to solve the funding crisis. In particular, he proposed the establishment of a professional Institute for Learning and Teaching, greater selectivity of research funding, an industry-backed loan scheme for research equipment, a powerful Quality Assurance Agency to ensure standards, the creation of an Arts and Humanities Research Council, an independent review committee to report on pay by April 1998, three-year degrees in Scotland, a new code of practice for governors and more sub-degree qualifications in further education colleges.

Funding, or the lack of it, was on everyone's mind. Gordon Brown paved the way for tuition fees in his first budget by finding an extra Pounds 1 billion for schools - and nothing for higher education. And Oxford and Cambridge began a fight to keep the additional Pounds 35 million they receive through college fees. All concerned might have stayed calmer if they had been taught by Oscar Wilde's unflappable Miss Prism, who was quoted by Forrest Capie in a review of the history of money telling Cecily: "You will read your Political Economy in my absence. The chapter on the fall of the rupee you may omit. It is somewhat sensational. Even these metallic problems have their melodramatic side."

Real drama erupted in Kenya when students took to the streets in defence of human rights, and in Nicaragua student unrest led to armed clashes. While Oxford academic Timothy Garton Ash gave a new meaning to the term peer review when he revealed what it was like to be spied on by colleagues working for the East German secret police.

August

It began to dawn on universities that they would not get the money from tuition fees. The DfEE admitted that any extra cash raised from fees over the next few years would cover administrative costs. It reiterated its target of raising Pounds 1.7 billion for further and higher education by the year 2015, but conceded that the bulk of this would come through the new student loans system not through tuition fees.

The government got into a fix over students taking a gap year before going to university and finally announced that they would not have to pay fees. This was not before many had already taken the safe option and rushed to grab a place.

The United States promised hundreds of millions of dollars for the world's largest particle-smashing experiment, the Large Hadron Collider, at Cern in Geneva. Larger particles were on Arthur C. Clarke's mind when he warned of the threat from large meteorites banging into Earth. Still, there was an upside: "Only a threat from beyond the Earth can unify the quarrelsome human species."

In the absence of large celestial stones, the High Court granted Cambridge lecturer Gill Evans leave for a judical review of Cambridge's promotions procedures. Shabbir Akhtar, too, was unhappy with his institution. He revealed how teaching at a Malaysian Islamic university destroyed his desire to defend Islam. But his contention that Muslims felt that there "was nothing new to learn" drew the riposte from a former colleague that Muslims "distinguish between that which is known to be the truth and therefore beyond question, for example, the existence of God, and that which is not proven to be conclusively true and which therefore may be the subject of further inquiry, such as the theories that abound in every intellectual discipline."

September

The Scots went to the polls and voted for a parliament with tax-varying powers. The Welsh followed and voted for an assembly, but only just. The government elected to do a bit of nifty financial footwork. To placate troubled universities it announced an extra Pounds 165 million for the 1998-99 budget. The money would come from paying out loans to students in three termly instalments rather than one lump sum, effectively shunting the cost of the third instalment into the following financial year.

The unacceptable face of US student life was highlighted by the alcohol-related death of a fraternity member at Louisiana State University. And in Nigeria armed security police intervened as an academic and his students tried to buy books by executed Ogoni campaigner Ken Saro-wiwa. Queens' University law lecturer Mary McAleese had more luck with the state apparatus. She became frontrunner in the race to succeed Mary Robinson as president of Ireland, a feat which she accomplished in October.

Richard Evans added to the intellectual counter-blast against postmodernism by upbraiding postmodern historians: "The gas chambers were not a discourse. It trivialises mass murder to see it as a text." And philosopher Ray Monk was persuaded by Thomas Nagel's arguments against attempts to subjectivise or relativise logic: "An argument that does not appeal to reason does not count as an argument - except of course in the "lower reaches of the humanities and the social sciences."

October

The first indications that fees were hitting admissions came with figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions System that showed admissions down 16 per cent against the same point last year. The percentage drop finally bottomed out at 6 per cent at the close of applications in mid-December. Scottish universities predicted a legal battle over the government's decision to make English, Welsh and Northern Irish students pay more than Scots in tuition fees for a four-year honours degree. An internal DFEE memo confirmed that money raised from undergraduate tuition fees was to be diverted to further education.

To make matters worse, scientists were outraged when a Blackstone essay written before the election sa published saying that a decline in the proportion of science and engineering students in British universities was inevitable. Harry Kroto demanded that she fall on her sword.

US universities meanwhile were reaping the benefits of the booming stock market, just as their opposite numbers in Australia began to feel the draught from the slump in the value of the tiger economy currencies.

Martha Nussbaum had more on her mind than the vagaries of stock markets. She dismissed the cliched condemnations of "political correctness" and defended the broadening of liberal education to include gay, black and gender studies with an appeal to the Socratic ideal of the "examined life". "Our democracies, like ancient Athens, are prone to hasty, sloppy reasoning, and to the substitution of invective for deliberation. We need Socratic teaching to fulfil the promise of democratic citizenship."

Being immersed in a liberal education should not include contamination with the "lunatic legacy" of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, according to Raymond Tallis. He was appalled that a man whose clients committed suicide at an alarming rate could, 15 years after his own death, "still command the adoration of the vulnerable and the gullible".

November

Mr Blunkett published his Teaching and Higher Education Bill. It provided the legislative framework for the introduction of Pounds 1,000 means-tested undergraduate tuition fees and the abolition of maintenance grants. New powers, intended to stop institutions charging top-up fees, were condemned by some as a threat to institutional autonomy.

The National Advisory Group for the lifelong learning white paper also published proposals that universities and colleges should be subject to the same quality assurance regime as schools and colleges and called for more money for both higher and further education. The government announced an extra Pounds 83 million for further education.

Association of Colleges chief Roger Ward came under fire for alleged links with a lecturer supply agency and a firm of investment managers. He stood down from his post while an independent investigation was carried out.

In a spirit of commendable if tardy openness, MI5 allowed the public access to some of its 80-year-old files and Christopher Andrew argued that the secret services should not be cut back just because the enemy had surrendered to market forces. The Turks were not in the mood to capitulate to anyone, and certainly not traditional Moslems.Universities there excluded students adhering to strict Islamic dress codes.

And as Eamonn Duffy speculated about the likely successor to Pope John Paul II, a secular giant died - Isaiah Berlin. In a review of his work in the summer, Michael Ignatieff had praised the work of this subtle champion of liberalism: "On the one hand, he argued that we must emancipate ourselves from the need for metaphysical guarantees", on the other hand, he could not agree with "the sense that ethics is an arbitrary narrative we construct out of our tradition to keep nihilism at bay - Berlin has always stood for the contention that there is a human horizon, an objective limit that radically restricts the range of ethical choices we can meaningfully approve as being human."

December

As the year drew to a close, Blunkett's bill made progress through the Lords, incurring accusations that it placed an intolerable amount of power in the hands of the education secretary. Paul Mackney became new general secretary of lecturers' union Natfhe and vowed to modernise. And market forces intruded as the University of Central England offered discounted student tuition fees and other institutions pondered altering theirs in keeping with the laws of supply and demand.

Peterhouse in Cambridge was coping with intrusions of a different kind. The college was advised that if it wanted to rid itself of the ghost that haunted it, all the fellows had to participate in an exorcism.

As Susie Orbach fulminated that "psychoanalysis has trivialised the eating problem", new rows erupted over the safety of beef on the bone to a cap a year plagued by fears over E. coli and BSE.

Earlier in the year, European university lecturers had issued a declaration on the shape of Europe's universities in the next millennium, and Ted Hughes was so inspired by the sense of an era coming to an end that he had resurrected the morbid poems of Ovid. With two years to go, everyone seemed in a hurry to end this millennium and start the next. To paraphrase Angela Carter, there is altogether far too much fin this siecle.

Review of the year compiled by Gerard Kelly and Claire Sanders.

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