Gary Day

August 13, 2004

Tuition fees are all very well, but why stop there? Why doesn't the Prime Minister strip the post-1992 institutions of their university status?

To: Lucinda Lumley-Bottom, The Torygraph
From: Fenton Twitters, University of Oxton

Dear Lucinda,

How are you? Things are pretty terrible here. We all have to come in over the hols and do a PR job to prospective students and their parents. What a gormless looking lot they are. They can just about manage a grunt when you address them. And their offspring aren't much better. Blank faces, blank minds.

Still, most of them come from good schools so I'm sure we'll be able to mould them. What really worries me is the number of working-class people going to university. Don't you agree that they would be much better off working in Dixons, or some such place? High culture - by the way, loved your latest piece on gender instability in Enid Blyton's The Famous Five in Fancy Dress - is simply wasted on them. They haven't the faintest idea how to appreciate it, and become confused if you refer to their beloved chips as pommes frites .

As I've said before, their sort don't need art, they need antisocial behaviour orders. Let them stick with their sport and their soap operas. At least the Government has finally realised that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Never thought I'd say this, but well done new Labour for putting the plebs in their place. It's much better that they're enrolled on these "foundation degrees" where they can study something useful such as plumbing, instead of wasting their time on philosophy.

Hurrah, too, for top-up fees. Hope our place charges as much as possible to keep the oiks out. And while he's at it, why doesn't Blair strip post-1992 institutions of their university status? Bloody polys, giving themselves airs. Their buildings are carbuncles on the face of civilisation and as for the staff calling themselves academics - well, it is one of those rare occasions when words fail me. Do they write books or sit on editorial boards? Are they invited to speak at international conferences? Do they even have a doctorate? Even with these new initiatives it'll take a while for the poison to work itself out of the system.

Et in Russell Group ego , to coin a phrase! I had a taste of it the other day. Some boy - can't remember his name - whingeing on about how he may have to defer because he couldn't balance work and study. No sense that he might be interrupting me while I'm engaged on important work. Did I tell you I'm writing an article on the use of capital letters in English poetry from 1384 to 1432? Anyway, I suggested he give up his job shining shoes, or whatever it was, and concentrate on his degree. But was he grateful for my advice? Not a bit. Looked at me as if I didn't know what I was talking about. Declared he had to work because he was £8,000 in debt. I nearly fell off my chair. Have these people no idea how to budget? After taking into account rent and household bills, his student loan leaves him £23 a week to live on, which, as I pointed out to him, was plenty if he was careful. Do you know he actually had the temerity to disagree with me? Said far from being "plenty", he had to take out a credit card to help him survive.

I suppose it's their background, always getting things on tic - the wrong things too, I might add. If he was really serious about studying, he'd have bought my book, which, incidentally, I'm still waiting to see reviewed. It is essential reading and only costs £65. His reply on the subject of my monograph was frankly impertinent and if anyone should have felt insulted it was me; but it was he who acted the injured party, wondering how I could doubt his commitment to the course. He came to university to better himself, he said, and his ambition was to be a teacher.

I suppressed a smile. Limited ability is no barrier to the profession at primary and secondary level, but it does require a modicum of people skills. In the end, I couldn't tell him what to do. Wouldn't it be better to talk the whole thing over with his parents? But his father left years ago and his mother has just died. Says he's on antidepressants. I will be too at this rate. For one awful moment I thought he was going to cry, which would have wasted another half-hour.

Honestly, we're more like social workers than scholars these days.

Thankfully the phone rang and I was finally able to dismiss him. Well, must go and read a bit of Dickens - I'm teaching him next year. I don't think there's a more compassionate novelist in English, do you? I hear Sardinia is lovely - if you can get away that is.

Yours, F.

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

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