Gary Day

February 28, 2003

Why is the government so intent on playing Cupid and leading business and universities to the altar? It'll all end in tears...

Just because you work in a university doesn't necessarily mean you know what's going on in higher education. Sorry, shouldn't have said "you". The ignorance is all mine. The other week I went for an interview and was told by a representative from human resources that, if offered the job, I would have to prove that I wasn't in breach of the Asylum and Immigration Act. I think that's what she said. I was so stunned by the stipulation I may have misheard it. Perhaps she really asked: "Do you honestly think that tie goes with that suit?" Or maybe it was a mixture of both and I was in danger of being deported for not being properly colour coordinated. Who says the English are not serious about style? If they can demonstrate they are English, that is.

It just goes to show how out of touch I am. I didn't know people from human resources sat on panels for academic appointments. Come to think of it, this woman didn't. She shimmered at the side of the room where she could see but couldn't be seen. Spooky or what? Anyway, never mind my not knowing what's happening in the larger world, I have difficulty keeping up with what's going on in my own place. And this despite the daily downpour of emails designed to keep me informed. Heavens, if I read them all, I would never get any work done. As it is, when Friday comes round I'm still trying to catch up with what I should have done on Monday. And when I finish work, usually at 10.30 on Saturday night, there's little to look forward to except Des Lynham who, frankly, is not much of a reward for having finally got my templates done.

In fact, watching football reminds me of higher education. Just as the premiership clubs get all the money, so the top 25 universities get 75 per cent of Higher Education Funding Council for England funding. For once metaphors about level playing fields and moving goalposts do not seem out of place.

Last week, tired of not knowing things, or knowing them and then forgetting them, I thought "right! I'm going to read the white paper." Why is it called that? I mean I know paper's white so that proves the government doesn't always lie. Although the phrase "white paper" doesn't have quite the same effect on me that a crumb of madeleine once had on Proust, it does stir memories of The Beatles' White Album , except that that broke new ground whereas the white paper merely ploughs the same furrow, churning up great clods of prose. Apparently universities face many challenges. Yes, they do. The government being the chief one. How about this for your starter for ten? Cut funding by 36 per cent, and increase student numbers by 43 per cent. Done that? Good. Now for your bonus points. First, push even more people into university - as long as it's the one appropriate to their social class. No, the white paper doesn't say that, well not in so many words anyway. Second, make sure knowledge is harnessed to wealth creation. Mr Clarke is coy about who gets to keep the wealth though I think history has the answer to that one, which is why the plebs are discouraged from studying it. Third, make "the system supporting students fairer", and the best that can be said about that is that it's an interesting use of the word "fair".

Although the white paper makes you wonder why the English were ever noted for their literary ability, it does bear a passing resemblance to Chaucer and Shakespeare. I'm thinking of Troilus and Cressida . For what the discerning reader finds here is a government playing the role of a modern-day Pandarus bringing the two lovers - universities and business - together. We should rename the paper the white Pandar. Given the epically awful mess business makes of everything it's pretty certain that, like all the best love stories, this one will end tragically. There are simply too many bodies doing the same job: regional development agencies, skill councils and knowledge exchange centres are all charged with bringing the academy and the corporation to the altar.

It's not all bad news though. There is one good idea in the white Pandar and that's the access regulator. I look forward to this person making sure that universities such as my own get their full quota of middle-class students. And there's also one resonant phrase: "the lone scholar" who must be pulled from his or her study to collaborate with others. Pascal said that the problems of the world arise from people not being able to sit quietly in their rooms. Will we see the lone researcher, like the Lone Ranger, seek revenge for the way he or she was betrayed? There's something else I don't know.

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

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