Monday, 14 February 2011

A Hungarian Love Affair

Today is St Valentine's Day.

A couple of days ago I posted an article about Budapest and my links with the city going back almost fifty years. I could say a lot about Budapest, Hungary and everything Hungarian, and so today I have started a new blog called A Taste of Hungary in which I shall bring together my thoughts, comments, memories, and anything else that comes to mind relating to Hungary. The title of the first post to that blog is almost the same as the title of this short note. It somehow seems appropriate today!
Me at the top of Gellért Hill overlooking the Danube

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Latest Attempt to Destroy Our Universities

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Destruction of British Universities over the last few decades, but I had not expected another assault on their academic standing to come quite so quickly.

Last week Nick Clegg announced that Oxford and Cambridge, in particular, would not be allowed to charge fees of more than £6000 unless they offer places to more people from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds. At no point did he seem to be remotely concerned about the academic ability of the students that the government proposed to require Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities to accept - simply that they must come from certain sectors of society that are currently under-represented at the best universities. The fact that, for example, Cambridge University has already said that it will use some of the money from the higher fees to reduce fees and provide bursaries for students from poorer families, and that the rest will barely compensate for the dramatic reduction in state funding already announced by the government, was obviously of no concern to the Deputy Prime Minister in his self-proclaimed push for social engineering.

In yesterday's Daily Telegraph Simon Heffer spelled out most eloquently how the government's policy would destroy our universities, describing it as an evil proposal that verges on the wicked. Strong words, to be sure, but the destruction of the academic excellence built up over more than 800 years justifies such language. Anyone who cares for the future of our country and the academic excellence of its best universities must surely bring pressure on their MP to stop this insane vendetta against one of the few remaining areas of excellence in our educational system.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Budapest - Queen of the Danube

Those who know me, or who have read my most recent book, The Budapest Betrayal, will probably realise that I have a deep love for Budapest, Hungary and, indeed, all things Hungarian.

Heroes Square, Budapest

My first visit to Hungary was in 1962, while I was spending part of the summer learning German in Vienna. It was a short, long-weekend, trip and was the only time that I have ever had a loaded rifle pointed at me. It was less than six years after Hungary's gallant attempt to throw off their Soviet oppressors and the border with Austria was still a heavily guarded crossing point between East and West. Our coach-load of (mostly) young people had never seen anything like this before and, naturally, several of us took out our cameras to record this new experience. It was only when I saw that the guard whose photograph I was about to take had raised his rifle to point directly at me that I realised that perhaps this was not a good subject for a photograph!

Even then, however, Budapest was a beautiful city - although the ravages of both the events of October and November 1956 and the 'liberation' of the city by the Red Army twelve years earlier were still plainly visible wherever one looked. One of my lasting images of that time was the window of a department store which contained a single pair of women's stockings - and nothing else.

It was another fourteen years before I returned - this time at the invitation of the Computer and Automation Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. As I was driven into the centre of the city, which was alive with neon advertising signs, I found it hard to believe that this was the same city as the one I had visited a decade and a half earlier.

But it was the following year that really began my love affair with the city and, by extension, the whole Hungarian nation. At the end of my earlier visit I had been invited to return for a year and, thanks to the generosity of the University of Sheffield, who granted me a year's leave of absence, I was able to take my wife and two small children to spend a year in this wonderful city.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Six Nations in the rain

Yesterday it rained. It was raining when I drew the curtains back in the morning. And it was still raining when I shut them again in the evening. It was, in short, a thoroughly unpleasant day. So I needed no excuse to sit in my arm-chair all afternoon watching, first, Ireland scrape to a narrow 13-11 victory over Italy, and then Scotland fight bravely against a classic running display from France before going down by 34 points to 21.

The start of the Six Nations rugby tournament is always a harbinger of Spring - although it is usually not until the later stages of the series in March that it is accompanied by sunny, or even warm, weather. But the two matches I watched yesterday were played in Rome and Paris, respectively, where the television pictures showed most clearly that the sun was shining out of a clear blue sky. But the third match, between Wales and England was played in the dark!

For reasons best known to the powers-that-be - but probably not unconnected with television sponsorship - this year's Six Nations tournament began on a Friday evening instead of a Saturday afternoon, as it always has in the past. Which meant that I couldn't watch it as my wife and I were otherwise engaged at the quarterly meeting of the Derbyshire Friendship Force. And even if we hadn't been I suspect that, after watching the final part of Michael Portillo's Great British Railway Journey through the West Highlands of Scotland we would have stayed with BBC2 right through until the end of Mastermind - if not later. So England's slightly scrappy victory over Wales by 26-18 will exist only in the form of a few highlights and the written report in the newspaper. At least the next four rounds of matches will all take place at the weekends!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Destruction of British Universities

There has been a lot of talk about universities recently - ranging from undergraduate fees to graduate unemployment, and from vice-chancellors' salaries to funding for research. But there seems to be very little discussion of what universities are for, and how they can best achieve their true purpose.

I spent almost thirty years working in universities - first at Sheffield and then at Oxford - and observed at first hand the gradual loss of morale amongst the many fine academics that I knew well. And yet the situation is far worse now than when I left Oxford just under a decade ago. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Simon Head says that "The British universities, Oxford and Cambridge included, are under siege from a system of state control that is undermining the one thing upon which their worldwide reputation depends: the caliber of their scholarship."

Over the last fifty years the whole higher education landscape in Britain has changed in a way that would have been unthinkable in the immediate post-war years. At the end of the war there were only nineteen universities in the whole United Kingdom, of which twelve were in England, four in Scotland, two in Wales, and one in Northern Ireland. By the end of the 1960s this number had more than doubled following the recognition of a number of existing University Colleges and Colleges of Advanced Technology as independent universities, together with the creation of seven completely new institutions and the revolutionary, non-residential, Open University.

All of these universities followed the long-established tradition in which research and teaching went hand-in-hand. Both institutions and their academic staff believed that the benefits of being tutored by someone who was actively carrying out research at the leading edge of their field more than outweighed the theoretical disadvantage of professors and lecturers only being part-time teachers.

But there were already signs of a change in the official view of the role of universities within the wider society. I well remember an occasion in the mid 1970s when Fred Mulley, Secretary of State for Education and Science in Harold Wilson's government, visited Sheffield University. He was a Sheffield MP and during his visit he was asked by the head of the local branch of the Association of University Teachers if he could do something to assist in the current pay negotiations. His reply was blunt and to the point: "If you won't go on strike you can't expect more money."