Gary Day

October 3, 2003

'Russell Group? More like a group of rustlers. And, being English, they're not unlike that grotesque embodiment of social snobbery, Hyacinth Bucket'

There's an exhibition at the National Gallery called Paradise. Underneath is written "Admission free". Imagine that. You can enter heaven without having to worry anymore. After watching its creation rise from the mud, fall from the trees and land on the moon, always with a long face, the supreme being must have realised that humanity's special talent was for being miserable. No one is content. The good are tormented by what they have not done and the bad, too, for that matter. And so the Ancient of Days has given us all a lesson in how to widen access. Let everyone sip from the cup of happiness for eternity. But that's no guarantee of bliss. I, for one, will be complaining about the crowds.

Anyway, enough of this cod theology, it just struck me that while there is no entry charge to paradise, there is to universities, which makes them more of the earth than of heaven. And, being of the earth, universities reflect the society around them. In Britain, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened since 1997. I suppose that's the difference between old Labour and new Labour. Clem Atlee said: "Let's abolish poverty." Tony Blair says: "Hey, listen. I've got a really great new idea. Let's increase it." This isn't actually such a bad thing to do if you're a Christian because it means there's more opportunity to practise charity. And people have been very charitable to Tony. Holidays in Tuscany, that kind of thing.

With a Labour prime minister outdoing the Tories on sleaze, immigration and privatisation, it's not surprising Iain Duncan Smith is suffering an identity crisis. Few people know who he is. And judging from the details of his entry in Who's Who , even he's not sure. Desperate circumstances call for desperate measures and Iain the invisible has decided that if Labour is going to steal his policies, then he's jolly well going to steal theirs, declaring that the Conservative party is the party of compassion. So when Jeffery Archer says he would like a basic literacy programme for prisoners, he's doing it to help them, not to create readers for his novels.

Yes, it's hard to tell our politicians apart. We stare at them like the creatures at the end of Animal Farm stare at the humans and the pigs, unable to tell which is which. There's no such problem when we turn our gaze on the university sector. The divide could hardly be more stark. On the one hand, the Russell Group with its investments, endowments and reserves; on the other, the rest with not very much at all. As it says in the good book, to them that hath shall be given and to them that hath not shall be taken away - or words to that effect. Thus while my institution lost 10 per cent of its research grant thanks to the government reneging on research assessment exercise funding, the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London gained a 15 per cent increase in theirs.

The Russell Group of 19 universities is gifted roughly 66 per cent of research funding, leaving some 70-odd universities to scrap over the remainder. The richest university is given 12 per cent more income per student than the poorest and, to add insult to injury, the so-and-sos this year creamed off the best students from clearing. Russell Group? More like a group of rustlers. And, being English, they're not unlike that grotesque embodiment of social snobbery, Hyacinth Bucket. It's not unknown for these select universities to veto referees from post-1992 institutions. That's never actually happened to me, but I was snubbed by York, a non-Russell university, which just shows how low down the scale I am. Who wants to listen to a talk on literary criticism, especially when the sun is shining? Served me right, really.

The only people who turned up were postgraduates and they told me that the last speaker held the English staff spellbound by discoursing on the semiotics of snogging. Apparently he blew kisses to the audience and they, especially the female members, blew them back to him. Well, how could I follow that? The department was probably off somewhere putting what they'd learnt into practice. Who says English doesn't teach practical skills?

Back to Russell. I know we have things in common, but I don't want to dwell on that. It would diminish the achievements of those of us who struggle to widen access, to introduce non-traditional students to the best that's been thought and said, and to engage in research, all on less time and money than our colleagues in Britain's Ivy League. They may be more wealthy but we are more virtuous. That's why I'm not altogether happy that, nowadays, anyone can get into paradise.

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

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