Some minion in administration got in touch the other day asking me to explain why I had rejected a prospective PhD student. Apparently the candidate had complained that she had been given inadequate feedback from the history graduate co-ordinator (me, in one of my many roles) and wanted advice on how to improve her proposal so that she would be accepted because she was dead set on coming here.
I thought my feedback had been pretty clear – the quality of English was so bad that I could barely understand what the proposal was supposed to be, and anyone who writes like that after several years (supposedly) of higher education is hardly a good prospect. Naturally I phrased the rejection politely, saying something along the lines of “inadequate expertise in written English and lack of clarity in the proposed field of research”.
I duly replied to the minion and said I had nothing to add to this. The application letter had also been seen by Brian the Anxious, my boss, whose careworn face had actually cracked into a smile when he read it. “Dear God,” he had remarked, “if we get many more of these we might as well shut up shop altogether” – an unusually pithy comment from a man who has turned dithering into an art form.
But the minion persisted. Was I not aware of the programmes in remedial English designed to help just this kind of student? Shouldn’t she be accepted on condition that she signed on for just such a course?
No, I answered, this one is beyond redemption. She would need a decade of one-to-one intensive coaching and she would also need to start reading a few history books along the way. That might at least bring her up to basic GCSE standard.
The minion must have been miffed, because the tone of the next communication was slightly more forthright and mentioned the credit crunch, the vice-chancellor’s announcements about our own tough financial situation and the desirability of attracting international doctoral students. As if I didn’t know any of that!
Right, I thought, nothing for it but to send the actual proposal, which read as follows:
Dear esteemed Mrs Glory,
I am applying to your expellant university because I want doctoral studying. I am hard-working student in love with English history – King Henry 8 the fat, and his daughters, Empress Elizabeth, Mrs Queen Victoria Brown and Olivia Cromwell.
My research proposal is to compare great English queens with famous Chinese concubines. Many were also very fat with black teeth considered sign of beauty. My research question is why is black teeth in queens beautiful in ancient China but considered ugly in England?
I wish you will be my esteemed supervisor. I have top grades in English communication. I was guide in Chinese Olympics in 2008 that made our country look so high in all the world. My family will pay all to help me have my dream to doctoral studying in America.
Nobody in their right mind would expect me to accept anything like that, I told myself, credit crunch or no credit crunch. After all, we do have aspirations to international greatness in the foggy future, and our v-c is still sending round emails assuring us that the RAE result shows we are on the right track. We still don’t quite know what the result means, but let that one rest. We are trying to fly the flag of quality education.
But I was wrong! Back came the minion urging me to reconsider. There could be the basis of a research project here, if the student were given enough help to formulate it and guaranteed English-language support.
I rang the minion up. “Look,” I said, “this is crazy. This applicant doesn’t know the first thing about English history and judging from this can barely read or write.”
“That’s a bit harsh,” said the minion soothingly, “don’t you think?”
“No,” I said, “not harsh enough, if you ask me. What am I supposed to make of OLIVIA Cromwell?”
“Easily explained,” said the minion, trying his hardest. “It could be a simple typo or this student could have been misled by the fact that they all had long hair in those days.”
“So she might have thought he was a girl, warts and all?” I said with the bitterest irony I could muster, which went right over his head, because he seemed to think I was agreeing with him. He went on to say that he had read about black teeth in women being prized in ancient China, and he’d seen a film about Elizabeth I’s rotting teeth, so clearly there must be a comparison to be made.
Realising I couldn’t win the argument on those terms, I made a sideways move. I laid copies of the application letter on the table at the staff meeting and asked if anyone wanted to supervise since the university was pushing us to take this candidate on. Pretty quickly I was able to assemble a unanimous petition protesting about declining standards, cash over quality and a whole lot more over-our-dead-bodies type of sentence.
So, one battle won at the start of 2009. But I’ve no illusions: that was just the first of many in what looks like being a very long war.