Fringe benefits: Welsh pluck and bowdlerised Larkin

September 29, 2006

A few stars shone on this week's Labour Party fringe circuit.

* Among them was Malcolm McVicar, vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire and a firm fees opponent.

The university sponsored two key events, and Professor McVicar emphasised that fees would disadvantage not just the poor, but also the lower middle class, which missed out on bursaries.

* Another who shone was Jane Davidson, the Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills Minister for Wales. Attending almost every education event, she flew the flag for her "learning country".

She pointed out that as she had been in office a number of years, she had been able to see initiatives through - unlike the Department for Education and Skills, where there is a new minister every year.

* Paul Mackney, joint general secretary of the University and College Union, was also visible at many conference events. It was noted by some that Sally Hunt, the other general secretary, made a late appearance.

* And no diary column would be complete without a reference to the poet-politician himself, Education Secretary Alan Johnson.

He managed to marry his love of verse to references to skills and vocational qualifications. Probably his best poetic intervention was at a fringe on social mobility, where Philip Larkin's This be the verse got a good airing.

Those concerned that this would inevitably have led to a minister of state swearing in public will be reassured to hear that Mr Johnson delicately recited the poem's last verse and not the famous first lines: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do."

* Surprisingly absent from Labour's jamboree, however, was Alan Gilbert, vice-chancellor of Manchester University. He did have representatives at the conference, but the Australian leader of Britain's biggest university was nowhere to be found.

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