So what were the high notes of 2007?

December 21, 2007

Key figures in higher education provide snapshots of their truly memorable experiences - academic and personal - of the past year.


President, University College London, and chairman of the Russell Group

- The cut and thrust of meetings of Russell Group vice-chancellors. Unanimity among this group is a rare commodity; lively exchanges tend to be more highly valued. The appointment of Wendy Piatt as director-general has been a great success in providing research back-up for our otherwise somewhat intuitive opinions and in developing effective engagement with Westminster.

- I reached, with some relief, the qualifying age to claim my Freedom Pass, only to be teased by the chairman of UCL council, Lord Woolf. He has brought the whole concept of old age and retirement into serious disrepute by taking on ever-greater burdens of work and global travel as he glides easily through his mid-seventies.

- I welcomed Camden Council's approval of UCL's bid to run an academy in partnership with it. Universities simply have to get involved in the state secondary sector. We can no longer simply stand by, wringing our hands and decrying falling standards in Britain's schools. But local politics is a strange beast: we have met vocal opposition from a small activist group opposed to the whole idea of academies, on grounds that bear little relation to the proposal we have put forward.

- I welcomed the opening of the newly refurbished St Pancras Station, which has become UCL's new gateway to Paris, Brussels and beyond.

The Prime Minister's approval of the major new national medical research centre immediately alongside St Pancras, in which UCL is a partner, will be a huge advance for the UK and have great benefits for London.


Fellow and tutor in modern history, St Peter's College, Oxford, and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

- This year has been dominated by the deaths of my wife's parents in a road accident last December, and the purely personal has taken precedence over the professional and public. As a historian, I have found myself delving into family matters, and two events have left the deepest impression.

The first was the discovery among my father-in-law's papers of a letter sent by a British officer in 1945 describing in great detail the liberation of Belsen. We have donated it to the Imperial War Museum.

The second was discovering Stars of David on the graves of my wife's great-grandparents in a cemetery near Groningen in the Netherlands. As my wife, Madeleine, is not Jewish (or didn't think she was) and as her ancestors evidently survived the Second World War, this was doubly intriguing.

- The announcement that the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography had won a Queen's Anniversary Prize was welcome recognition of its services to scholars and of the dedication of its staff.

- My best experience of the year came after delivering the keynote address at a conference of Victorianists at the University of Colorado: a hike in the Rocky Mountains under the deepest azure sky.

- The least pleasing event was writing my letter of resignation to the University and College Union after 25 years as a member. Its proposed boycott of Israeli universities was only one of the reasons for my resignation, and not the most important. I oppose the UCU's politicisation and I have lost confidence in its ability to represent the interests of research academics.


Dean of Oxford Brookes School of Technology

- The opening of our £8 million purpose-built engineering building, incorporating our brand new Motorsport Engineering Centre, was the culmination of more than four years of work for me.

- We celebrated my mother's graduation with a BA (Hons) in history from Chester University at the age of 77. She had left formal education at the age of 14 because of the Second World War.

- I loved watching the battle between Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton unfold both on and off the Formula 1 race track, and the impact this has had on the sport and its popularity.

- I was most impressed with Alonso's decision to sponsor 12 Spanish students to study on our MSc in motorsport engineering, and meeting him at the event to launch the awards.

- I have taken up (after a break of nearly 20 years) playing the electric guitar again, discovered how the internet has produced a wealth of excellent tutorial materials and watched my son (aged seven) playing guitar in his first concert.


Professor of English, University College London

- I gave the guest lecture at the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society. My PhD supervisor Tony Tanner once told me that getting invited to be the speaker at this event was the acme of an academic's career.

- My eldest daughter passed her Bronze Swimming Award, in the teeth of parental pessimism. I felt disbelief and pride as the small figure ticked off the seemingly endless lengths of the swimming pool.

- Philip Roth's Everyman: I almost never read a book merely for pleasure - it has to be something I'm teaching or reviewing or somehow I am writing about for money. Roth's miraculously condensed, bleakly pleasurable novel was the only exception in the past 12 months.

- England beating Australia in the Rugby World Cup: this upset against overconfident opponents was, for a sports patriot like me, simply euphoric.

- And I finished writing a book - Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature - that I have been "about to finish" for years and years, just in time for the research assessment exercise.


Principal, King's College London, and president, Universities UK

- On my first trip to India, I met King's College London alumnus Abdul Kalam, who was at the time the President of India, in his office in the presidential palace.

- During a family holiday in Scotland I stayed in a hotel in scenic Speyside that had superb food and a malt-whisky bar so atmospheric that it has been reproduced in precise detail in Tokyo by local enthusiasts.

- I presented awards at our Guy's Hospital campus to students on the King's extended medical degree programme, at an emotional ceremony; the following morning the first graduates of this pioneering widening participation programme received their degrees and took the Hippocratic Oath in Southwark Cathedral.

- In September, I gave my initial speech as president of Universities UK on the themes of well-funded autonomy and effective socioeconomic impact, in the presence of Universities Secretary John Denham.

- In October, I led a UUK delegation to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, including the beautiful heights of Mount Carmel and the checkpoints of the West Bank. I returned with the strong impression that closer links between UK universities and their counterparts on both sides of the "green line" would be mutually beneficial.


Professor in the department of literature, film and theatre studies, Essex University

- I mourn many friends this year who were sources of inspiration, and will remain so: the loss of Malcolm Bowie, Tony Nuttall (just before his own inimitable thinking about Shakespeare the Thinker appeared) and Julia Briggs.

- But there have also been high points: Louise Bourgeois (in London) and Paula Rego (in Madrid) were/are being celebrated in huge museum shows that reflect the exhilarating range of their imaginations.

- At a time when the Olympics are cruelly draining money here from cultural activities, I was impressed by the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. This fluid, iridescent, flamboyant building-as-sculpture has revolutionised downtown LA, turning a devastated no-go area into neighbourhood full of life and activity.

- In the theatre, younger directors are brilliantly refreshing the classics: Rupert Goold directed a superb Tempest, convincingly set in the polar north, with Patrick Stewart's Prospero a kind of shaman; Goold then went on to direct the same actor in Macbeth, set in a Stasi-like torture barracks, with an electrifying Lady Macbeth (Kate Fleetwood).

- In literature, the selection of Ted Hughes's Letters, edited with sympathy and acumen by Christopher Reid, shifts all settled preconceptions about the man and the poet. Hughes emerges as far more vulnerable and eccentric - and generous. I was also impressed by the The Yacoubian Building, in which a Cairo dentist, Ala Al-Aswani, tells multi-stranded tender stories that unsparingly reveal political and sexual powerplay in contemporary Egypt. A bestseller all over the Arab world, the book shows that the practice of free speech, like water, will find a way.

- On a personal note, the first public commission created by my son Conrad Shawcross was unveiled in the summer: a huge enigmatic, revolving sculpture called Space Trumpet, which hangs high above the new atrium of the Unilever Building in London.


Novelist and chair of creative writing, Brunel University

- One of my sons got a job as a dog walker on the South Downs.

- Two of my students got agents. After that, I can't think of anything.


Professor of applied mathematics, Manchester University

- We moved, with the rest of the School of Mathematics, to our new purpose-designed Alan Turing Building and now the school is finally all under one (solar power-generating) roof after the merger between Manchester and Umist.

- We were part of an event with 120 sixth-form students from all over the country solving mathematical problems for two days - "Making Maths at Manchester".

- I attended a meeting in Graz in Austria on electrical impedance tomography, a subject I have worked on since 1985. It had seemed like a very difficult (and hence interesting to a mathematician) technique without an important medical application. But lung and intensive care specialists have now found it is just the tool they need to monitor lung function in real time.

- All my family enjoyed scuba diving together in Cyprus in summer, and it was wonderful to watch the confidence and curiosity of my children Katie and Sam underwater.

- I met Sir Bobby Charlton, who came to the university to talk about technology for land-mine clearance. He made a touching appeal from the heart that something better should be done to help, having witnessed young lads who had lost limbs to anti-personnel mines when they were playing football in Cambodia. It was really inspiring to meet someone making such good use of his celebrity status.


Professor of politics, Queen's University Belfast

The most memorable moment for me was the re-formation of the power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland in March. The rapprochement between Ian Paisley (left) and Martin McGuinness (far left) was a truly remarkable event. Even though I had been writing about the possibility of a Democratic Unionist Party-Sinn Fein deal since 2002, the event itself was even more dramatic than I had imagined.

- Fortunately, the granting of political asylum in the House of Lords means I have less time to brood on the joys of devolution Ulster-style. The timing of my arrival in London meant that I caught the last days of Blairism and the full flush of early Brownism and its stunning erosion. The end of new Labour hegemony - which is, of course, not the same as the end of the Brown Government - is startling. On so many issues - taxation, economic competence, defence - the consensus that favoured new Labour no longer exists. This may or may not be a good thing, but it makes life more interesting for an independent crossbencher. The most dramatic event so far was the pensions revolt initiated by Patricia Hollis, inspired by her brilliant social democratic and feminist speech.

- Because I have always been a critic of IRA violence, some people assume that I therefore favoured the return of the Black and Tans or believed that the Great Irish Famine was an outbreak of mass anorexia. The publication of my book Ireland: The Politics of Enmity was therefore a profound relief after many years' work; principally because my views on key issues of modern Irish history are now on public record.

- I relished David Healy's exquisite goal to win the game against Denmark at Windsor Park last month, which kept Northern Ireland's interest in Euro qualification alive until the very last game.

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