Friday, 16 March 2012

Fund Raising Degree Zero

My old college  -- one of the oldest and, some might say, most prestigious of the Oxford colleges, but far from one of the wealthiest -- is having one of those alumni-pumping drives that have become such a feature of British higher education in recent times.  It's an art that has been refined in the USA over decades, but is still in its infancy here.  The usual pitch is partly an appeal to nostalgia, partly an appeal to conscience, and partly the standard charity shakedown.  "Give us your money", the universities say, "Or the pretty young student gets it".

I am constitutionally resistant to this sort of thing.  Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in taxes.  Take my money, please, and buy me some excellent schools, hospitals and universities.  There are a select few charities and causes that receive my tithe but, beyond that, I am a lowly public servant with a high-maintenance photo-habit to feed.  Have you seen the price of Epson inks?  Besides, when you have studied and worked at a range of universities -- ancient, red-brick, plate-glass, and pre-fab -- the argument that Oxbridge students are in danger of receiving a second-rate education due to lack of funds tends to lose any force.

But Balliol's pitch is quite cunning.  They take the implied threat to the pretty young students to the next level: they get one of them to call you at home on the phone, at that expansive moment after dinner when you are contemplating the possibility of alcoholic refreshment.  What terrible threats or incentives are used to persuade these talented young people to operate from a call-centre I cannot imagine.  Perhaps it's touted as work experience.

So, I'm studying the bottle of Laphroaig the other evening when the phone rings.  A young man, his voice cracked with strain and anxiety, begs me not to hang up, or they'll hurt him again; badly, this time.  "Please, please, please, say you'll give a little money, or ...  OW!!  ... sorry, sorry, a lot of money, or..." Actually, no. It wasn't like that at all.

A pleasant young man named Tom was on the line.  I said, up front, that if this was the Old Members Shakedown then forget it:  I ain't got none.  No problem, said Tom, and we proceeded to have a nice chat.  Or rather, I proceeded to deliver a monologue about how things were in Olden Tymes, when the world was young, women were still regarded as a separate species, and a young man could spend three years playing at radical politics and perfecting his joint-rolling technique and still come within a whisker of a first.  Happy days!

Tom did get the odd word in edgeways, however, and I discovered he had an interest in Roland Barthes.  Roland Barthes! Well, that was me away for another ten minutes.  "Have you read S/Z yet?  No?  You should!  What about Camera Lucida?  No?  Really?  You have so much, ahem, pleasure of the text to come, I envy you!"

Oh, dear.  Late middle age has few native pleasures, but pompous bloviation at the expense of the young is certainly one of them.  The irony is, of course, that I never studied Barthes at Balliol.  For that, I had to escape the Oxford force-field and spend a year as a "comparative literature" post-graduate at the University of East Anglia.  I always say I did more work -- both as hours put in and as hard thinking done -- in that single year at UEA than I did in my three Oxford years put together, and it's true.  I'm sure things are very different now, but back then the Oxford English degree was a shapeless, ill-disciplined thing, with no sense of itself as a subject, or any coherence.  Or maybe that was me, I do get things confused.

What I do remember is that no-one was expected or encouraged to ask dangerous questions like:  Why are we studying this subject?  What purpose does it serve?  And what is this "literature" thing, anyway?  My tutor backed away in horror when I mentioned in my 3rd year I had been having these, you know, thoughts.  "Well," he said, "It's a bit late to be thinking about that now..."  I think he thought that I meant I wanted to change my subject of study.  To him, a scholar of the old school, the answers to those questions were so self-evident, that even to ask them was to be, well, unsound, practically a scientist. To me, though, these were the questions that kept me awake at night.  I was beginning to suspect that it was the subject itself that was unsound.

The Room at the Top of the Stairs
(Staircase 10)
I'm told it was once Howard Marks' room, too

Whatever.  It was pleasant to be reminded of those long-ago days, when it seemed not unreasonable to believe I might be on the brink of some Big Thoughts and a much larger life than anyone of my background could have been expected to have.  It was almost like picking up the phone, and finding my 20-year old self on the other end.

Sorry, I wanted to say, I've let you down, haven't I?  That's OK, I replied, it's good to know I'm going be happy, and stop lying awake asking myself these bloody questions.  And is that really the same girl from St. Anne's I met last week that I can hear in the background?  Yes, I said, that really is her, it's all going to work out just fine.  But you'd better get off the line now, this conversation must be a breach of all sorts of logical and cosmic telecoms regulations.

So, against every principle, I worked out the cost of a telephone call from 1974 to 2012 -- surprisingly cheap after 6:00 p.m. -- and sent them the money.  I wonder if they'll name a building after me?

Summer 1974
Yes, front row, rolled-up trousers...  That's him/me.


Martin said...

No phone calls yet, but plenty of postal correspondence, offering me the opportunity to contribute. Perhaps if I hadn't already stumped up a five figure sum for my higher education, I wouldn't be so quick to use the shredder.

Mike C. said...


I was one of the lucky ones -- full grants all the way through first degree and two postgraduate degrees! Those were the days... I suppose you can only afford to do that if you restrict higher ed to 10% or so of the population.


Mike C. said...

Plus you could sign on for "supplementary benefit" in the vacations, I should add.

It is often said that "the dole" was the British government's greatest contribution to the development of the arts in the 1970s...


Martyn Cornell said...

"a shapeless, ill-disciplined thing, with no sense of itself as a subject, or any coherence" - man, you just described my entire three years at Sussex "studying" politics, with a side order of English, History and Philosphy. Total waste of three years, looking at shallow slices of unconnected information, with no one seemingly bothered if I was getting anything from the experience. I worked vastly harder, and learnt much, much more, doing a part-time MBA at a scrubby ex-poly. Which does have the effect of me now not wishing to have anything to do with Sussex at all, and being barely civil to the nice young men when they ring me up asking for dosh.

Mike C. said...


Things are very different now, largely because students are paying customers (esp. overseas students, who pay the full whack) and actually demanding their money's worth.

In revenge, the tutors make the students work bloody hard -- libraries are now full, day in day out, whereas I barely darkened the door of a library in my time.

Sadly, I guess it's true that you value something more if you are paying for it... I regret not having done more work, now, but it was the ethos of the times. And most of the courses back then were crap.


Gavin McL said...

I have also been "nobbled" by my Alma Mater, Newcastle - one of those concrete and glass palaces of learning, though my department was based in a "red brick" building.
I had a rather different experience to many of my contemporaries (late eighties early nineties) My department, Marine Technology, took many foreign and mature students so about 50% of the course were paying their way, either fees or had sacrificed their wages (many were ex Sea Captains) They took no crap from the lecturers, who were generally very good. The whole course worked very hard, Lectures and labs 4 1/2 days a week. Non attendance was noted and frowned upon. As a result I got a good degree which is largely the basis for a moderate amount of financial security, financed wholly by the UK government. So when they do ring up I feel I ought to give something back.
By the way Mike, photos from Ray and Fay + others are appearing in an exhibition at the V & A, The exhibition is called "Island Stories"

Mike C. said...


I have to say I like the idea of a lecture hall full of sea captains -- it's a Monty Python sketch that writes itself.

Thanks for the V&A heads up -- must try to get to see it, as I've never yet seen any Ray Moore pictures as actual prints.