Thursday, June 28, 2007

New Faces

Gordon and Sarah Brown
There goes the neighbourhood
Gordon and Sarah arrive at Number 10
Gordon Banks has wasted little time in posting his new team sheet. They look a distinctly motley crew, but then so was Tony's line up. It's hard to get over excited about any of the changes, especially in view of the distinct possibility that most will turn out to be little more than mouthpieces for a Prime Minister who will probably turn out to be more autocratic than his predecessor. Blair, at least had his overseas preoccupations to distract him from the worst excesses of control freakery, choosing to delegate many of the tasks of interfering in our daily lives to a platoon of health secretaries, a regiment of home secretaries and a host of other maladjusted members of his government.

I suppose, if pushed, I could say I was glad to see the back of Beckett and Hewitt. To an extent they were birds of a feather, both considerably more intelligent than many of their cohorts, but both with the same supercilious holier-than-thou tone of voice that made you want to throw the radio or TV out of the nearest window each time they appeared on air to lecture us. At least in the case of Beckett, she was generally pissing off foreign governments rather than the general populous, ever since she became foreign secretary.

Thankfully there does not seem to have been a promotion for either of my recent pet hates, Flint or Byrne, despite the latter being tipped by several bloggers who know a lot more than I. Please Gordon, when it comes to the team sheet for the second team, I beg you to move them somewhere where they can't piss me off on a daily basis, even if, given your limited resources you feel the need to keep them in government as the best of a bad lot.

David Miliband is, I'll have to be honest, an appointment that does interest me. As it is pointed out nearly every time he is mentioned, a trend I can see becoming irritating very quickly, he is the youngest person to be appointed Foreign Secretary since David Owen. Miliband is clearly a very bright bloke, even if he is also intensely irritating at times. He's never seemed to possess very much gravitas to me, bordering on being a lightweight, which could be a problem in a role that has traditionally demanded a more substantial figure. At the international level I suspect that on occasion what is needed is a big clunking fist like that of the new Prime Minister himself, rather than relying on the quick wittedness and intelligence, that Miliband clearly possesses, alone. For all that, he's a fresh face and on occasion an interesting thinker so I'll be having my fingers crossed for him.

The most bizarre appointment, as far as I'm concerned, is bizarrely enough the one non-change. Of those to keep a top job, excluding those who were promoted, is Des Browne really the best possible candidate to fill the very of Defence Secretary? It's an important role, all the more so when the country is involved in two simultaneous conflicts, so why on earth would you keep a man in the job who has performed so poorly that he appears not only to have lost the confidence of the country, but to be haemorrhaging support from the armed services, as well as all corners of the political landscape. His failures are manifest and frankly, the fact that he was one of the rare NuLab ministers to make something that came close to a public apology for his piss poor performance doesn't come close to excusing them. While it is a bit of a non-job I don't really think adding the duties Scottish Secretary to his role is going to help either; he seemed to have quite enough difficulty keeping on top of his existing brief.

It's true to say that there would never have been a Broon cabinet I could have felt enthusiastic about, and I suppose, the useless fuckwit in the Defence chair aside, it could have been a lot worse. There is though, one aspect of the reshuffle that does worry me. I never mentioned it here because I was too busy raising the issue on higher profile sites simply because it's something that really scares me deeply, and the personalities involved, Broon aside, don't matter to me in the slightest.

Dreaming Spires
Oxford - already attacked by Brown
Ask yourself a question: If you ignore on, the one hand, Broon's pronouncements directly concerning the Treasury which was his own bailiwick and you'd expect him to have opinions on, and on the other the incredibly limited comments as a Prime Minister-in-Waiting on the other big issues of the day such as Iraq, what are you left with if you look at what we know of Gordon from his own mouth? If you ignore the vague and the vacuous you are left with pretty much one issue over which he went solo…Laura 'I should have got into Oxford' Spence. What novelty do we see in the Broon cabinet? The first clear split between ministerial responsibility for primary and secondary education, and that for the tertiary sector. One minister can give the happy-clappy 'There has been no grade inflation and we are spending lots of money' line for the former, while the other can lay into the universities and colleges, doubtless to the delight of the anti-'elitists' in his own ranks. Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean that Gordon isn't on a mission from God to wreak havoc on just about the only bit of our education system that, for all of Tony and his own efforts, still engenders some genuine international respect.

Yes, I have a vested interest, albeit a dated one, being a product of Cambridge, but I was also a product of the Leeds comprehensive system. If the new Prime Minister thinks that Cambridge, and I suspect the same will apply to any other 'elitist' centre of learning, is prejudiced against people because of a state school education or being of the wrong 'class' (I hate writing that word anachronistic lefty sense) then frankly he is not the world class mind his own academic record would suggest it is.

Yes Cambridge is elitist, I suspect Oxford is too, even if they do occasionally produce dross like Blair. For them though, elitism is about trying to maximise the number of potential one-day Nobel Prize winners their system will produce in the long term. This does mean selection by ability on entry to the system, but from my experience it was a very pragmatic view of ability, and very much includes potential ability. Cambridge colleges, for example, spend a lot of time encouraging people from outside it's traditional recruiting grounds to apply, broadening the pool from which they could select. In my day they had also just introduced an alternative to 'S' levels. The nature of the examination questions themselves made it harder to gain advantage through the type of extra tuition that only certain privileged schools could offer. The fact that they have access to the whole paper rather than just the final grade, made it possible for them to spot nascent talents. The goal is to produce the best possible academic output. Perhaps, on the evidence, Oxford did miss a trick in the case of Ms Spence, who ultimately, via Harvard, went on to be a far better Biochemist than I became at Cambridge, but to suggest that Oxford's decision was based on some kind of prejudice is laughable.

Dreaming Spires
Cambridge - Second only to
Harvard on most rankings,
second for the clunking fist?
The country's top universities feature prominently in every worldwide rankings list, way ahead of even their European competition. Thousands from overseas vote with their feet, choosing to face the incredible expense to come and study here. When, much to my disgust, the EU tries to standardise aspects of higher education across the continent, they do at least tend to opt for standards akin to the British ones in many cases. They are a real asset to the nation, and one that Brown will tinker with at his peril. The universities now seem to be run, as a rule, by real Rolls-Royce minds, not the kind that you find in the civil service but ones with a real appreciation for the institutions they run combined with principle and increasingly with business acumen.

There are problems creeping into the British university system, but elitism is way down the list. Most of the problems that do exist, as far as I can see, actually have been caused by the same politicians who I fear may be about to interfere yet again.

One problem appears to be the diminishing standard of new intakes, where we here tale after tale of faculties having to provide remedial tuition for new students to bring them up to the standards of their predecessors of years gone by; the most damning evidence of the dumbing down and grade inflation, that successive governments have encouraged through their policies.

It's also government policy that is at the heart of the somewhat dysfunctional market in higher education provision. In some aspects the market works; we see many newer universities developing high grade specialisms, such as Exeter for modern languages, in which they are challenging the old order and attracting high quality students because of it. On the other hand we have a worrying pattern emerging, in the nature of courses on offer. This happens as institutions try not only to attract those with a genuine vocation for a university education, but also seek to show that they are 'doing their bit' in helping the government meet its 'back of a fag packet' target of having half of all 18-21 year olds in higher education. We see relatively prestigious institutions dropping major subjects in the sciences and engineering, ones which the nation has a real demand for quality graduates in, in favour of dumbed down subjects that they can more easily attract applicants for.

Despite these concerns, the sector still seems to be thriving. For God's sake Gordon, don't use the clunking fist to fix something that isn't really broken.

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