Stefan Collini’s analysis of the effective privatisation of higher education reminds us that a dress rehearsal for it was carried out by the Thatcher government with the further education sector (LRB, 24 October). The Further and Higher Education Act of 1992, as well as allowing polytechnics to become universities, removed colleges of further education from local authority control and turned them into independent corporations. Most of the funding that had come to them via local education authorities instead went to an HE-style funding council, from which colleges could claim funding for each individual student working towards an approved qualification. In addition, a slice of the funding for further education went to quangos charged with promoting vocational training; colleges could bid for contracts to provide training, as could the many private training agencies that sprang up to take advantage of the opportunity.
The changes effectively transferred control of the curriculum from local authorities to central government and ensured a shift away from broad education towards vocational training. It also led inevitably to a growth in the number of non-academic staff in institutions that were now responsible for their own finance, personnel, estates and other functions previously managed by local authorities. The funding system became increasingly complex as it was tweaked to facilitate the implementation of policy objectives, and large complements of specialist staff were required to draw up claims for funding and collect the data needed to audit these claims. It was the job of some of these staff specifically to make sure that claims took full advantage of biases in the system. Colleges that didn’t do this, or were too small to attract sufficient funding to cover the costs of the extra staff, became ‘unviable’ and were encouraged to merge with larger institutions.
Some aspects of the legislation were moderated by the first Blair government, but the broad thrust of policy was to consolidate the changes, which have resulted in successful college principals transforming themselves into chief executives of large multi-campus institutions or, in some cases, FE colleges attached to universities.
Shortly after reading Stefan Collini’s article on the commodification of British higher education, I came across the following in Christopher Isherwood’s diaries:
Yesterday I got a letter from a professor at the University of Mississippi … On the envelope was stamped with a rubber stamp, in red ink, ‘With a tradition of Quality, Integrity and Progress’ – as though this were a meat-packing firm.
The date was 1 August 1956.
John Dickie is unhappy with my review of his book, and as a sometime author myself, I understand his feelings (Letters, 24 October). But the fact remains that he is an industrious outsider wholly reliant on published literature about a phenomenon that remains almost entirely undocumented but for the deeply flawed documents that emerge from Italy’s system of justice – or, more accurately, of institutionalised injustice. I cited the case of Calogero Mannino, a former deputy, senator and minister, who was tried and retried over a period of 18 years on the impossibly vague charge of ‘external association’ with organised crime (buy an espresso in a bar that pays protection money and you too are externally associated). When that failed, he was prosecuted again on a hyper-political version of the same charge by the magistrate Antonio Ingroia, who then left his post to form the ultra-left Rivoluzione Civile political party for the 2013 election, which attacked Mannino’s politics, and who was allowed to become a prosecutor again after his crushing defeat at the polls. Prosecutorial abuse is fuelled by Italy’s parody of Catholic forgiveness, whereby prisoners willing to testify as prosecutors wish are freed to enter a well-paid career as ‘repented witnesses’; naturally they spin wondrous tales.
Politicised justice can be found all over the world, but Sicily’s version is extreme, and it fatally deforms the information generated by the legal system on which outside researchers such as Dickie must rely. One of the strengths of his book (duly acknowledged in my review) is that he fully recognises the fatal defects of Italy’s justice system, yet he still relies on it for information. I do not, hence my very different perspective. I am surprised at his intimation that my own information is derived from (obsolete and fabulistic) childhood memories, merely on the basis that I mention my Sicilian childhood. In fact I have never been away from Sicily long enough to lose my personal connection with Palermo and its surroundings.
Finally, Dickie’s contemptuous dismissal of the contention that annexation was economically disastrous for Sicily contradicts the consensus of economic historians who have published on the subject.
Chevy Chase, Maryland
I was interested to learn from Colin Burrow that the ‘OED was fuckless’ until 1972 (LRB, 26 September). Here in the Antipodes we were dragging the chain as usual and it was 1985 before the word was used on Australian television – on the staid ABC of all places. It turned out to be less of a breakthrough than an aberration and just a year later the managing director of the ABC decided on a whim to ‘de-fuck’ the network. I was one of its two censors and we laboured long and hard to excise the word wherever it appeared. So vigilant were we in this task we became known around the traps as ‘the fuck police’. Sanity eventually prevailed, and the offending word was quietly restored. These days you will hear it a dozen times on most nights.
Here is a further story about repetitive swearing (Letters, 24 October). During his National Service, Anthony Burgess was a passenger in an army truck that broke down. A mechanic was summoned. After determining the cause of the breakdown he announced ‘the fucking fucker’s fucking fucked.’ Burgess was delighted: such economy of expression, a complete sentence with adjective, noun, adverb and verb.
No Make-up Make-up
I want to thank Michael Wood for the unintentional but gladly accepted compliment he gave my wife, Gretchen Davis, and her colleagues (LRB, 24 October). Wood writes of Cate Blanchett’s character in Blue Jasmine: ‘Her hair is unbrushed and wet from the shower … She is wearing no make-up and looks about a hundred years old.’ My wife ran the make-up department on the film, and I’d like to disabuse readers of a common misconception about that last scene. No actress would stand around with wet hair waiting for a scene to be shot. Blanchett had products applied to her hair to make it look wet, and a proprietary mix of products applied to her face to make her look distressed and haggard.
Thank God for the Leavisites
John Mullan seems intent on making a meal of Leavis’s reputation as a literary dictator (LRB, 12 September). The book he is reviewing, by David Ellis, puts this matter in perspective, acknowledging the sharp edges of Leavis’s character without letting them obscure the real value of Leavis’s criticism and teaching. Christopher Hilliard in English as a Vocation believes the moment for a clearer reassessment of Leavis has come, and Ellis has ably fulfilled this need. Hilliard, whose survey includes the careers of Leavis’s pupils abroad, unaccountably makes only a passing mention of D.J. Enright, who taught in a number of countries, wrote extensively about his experiences, and was far from being a mere Leavis disciple (he got into trouble with the Singapore government for publicly regretting the ban on juke boxes). When I last spoke to Leavis in 1964 – I was on leave from the University of Singapore, where Enright was head of the English Department – L.C. Knights had just been appointed to the chair in English at Cambridge, and Leavis told me that he’d backed Knights as ‘the least objectionable of the candidates’, but would have preferred to see Enright in the post, adding: ‘and the great thing is, he isn’t a Leavisite.’
Some readers will have spotted, as we failed to, that Richard Hoggart was referred to in John Mullan’s piece as a ‘former student’ of F.R. Leavis. He wasn’t.