Gary Day

November 29, 2002

It's time to meet the three 'Rs', Russell, Redbrick and Remainder - the contestants in Margaret Hodge's university Blind Date

If new Labour is so enamoured of the market why doesn't it make choosing which university to attend more fun? In fact, why not do a university Blind Date ? Margaret Hodge could be the hostess. I can see her skipping down the stairs in a figure-hugging little number and wearing a mortar board, perhaps with a tassel if she's feeling really cheeky. Her catchphrase "universities must focus clearly on what they do best" has the audience whooping with delight.

Then it's time to meet the three "Rs", Russell, Redbrick and Remainder. "Aren't they all lovely!" cries Margaret. Well, maybe not all of them. Poor old Remainder looks as if she didn't have time to change. What do these three beauties do best? "Research," Russell says, flaunting her assets. "A full partnership with business, the professions and the community," Redbrick purrs. And Remainder? Like a low-paid worker doing two or three jobs to make ends meet, she excels in doing what she's told. What sort of student are they looking for? "One who stays the course," Remainder says.

But enough of the girls, let's bring on the lucky young man, call him Paris, who has to choose between them. "Hello," Paris says. "Hey big spender," sing out the three contestants, "spend a little time with me."

It's going to be a difficult decision. Paris asks the first of his three questions. What inducements can they offer to persuade him to part with his money? Russell does a Sharon Stone and flashes an international reputation. Redbrick flutters her eyes and talks about a student experience second to none. Plain Remainder says do one degree and get another free. Second question. What's the nightlife like? Russell stresses romance, candlelit dinners at high table and the May ball. Redbrick provides minibuses to clubs that give student discounts. What can Remainder say to be a third more alluring than her rivals? Nothing. Oh dear. Nothing will come of nothing.

And so to the decider. What would each do about late essays? This is the most important question. We know that deadlines don't just affect lecturers and students but relatives too. The week that essays are due is a dangerous time for our customers' families as they are inexplicably exposed to a series of horrors from bubonic plague to being abducted by aliens. And when your granny has been kidnapped by bin Laden it's not surprising you can't concentrate on your assignment. So it all hangs on this question. Remainder offers an extension, Russell a hefty fine and Redbrick some counselling.

It's decision time. Will it be well-groomed Russell with her fabulous facilities? Or dynamic Redbrick with her unique environment for interdisciplinary study? Or will it be Remainder with her student satisfaction surveys? It's Russell. In this show, though, the chosen one can decide if she wants to proceed with the date. And though Paris is a nice chap, he's not Russell's type. His wallet is too small. There goes his chance of an elite education. No wonder he looks depressed. Who wouldn't be when you can see what benefits it confers?

Take Charles Clarke, for instance, a man who looks like Father Christmas without his beard - and there the resemblance probably ends. Charles had the best of everything. Charles attended private school and Cambridge. Charles read in the best libraries. Charles was taught by the best teachers. Charles learnt about the great thinkers. So what wisdom has Charles gleaned from over the ages? "I don't think everything you get in life is free." If that doesn't convince you of the advantages of attending an elite institution, then try this: "I do think that many independent schools have worked much harder to create a culture of going to Oxbridge and many state schools don't." There's thinking for you. That's top-class, world-beating brains that is. Those state-school teachers just aren't digging deeply enough into their own pockets to buy the books their pupils need.

And I bet they're not passing on Margaret's profundities either. She recently said on Radio 4 that: "There's no such thing as a free lunch."

Absolutely. This year's new Labour Christmas party is allegedly going to cost just under £1 million. So why should going to university be any different? And if you are going to pay for university, you want to make sure you get a good deal. Which means you don't want to waste time thinking about things - Charles and Margaret clearly didn't. Instead, you want to become a member of the new elite whose creed is that the more something costs the better it is. Who is now surprised at the increase in inequality since 1997?

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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