What is a university?
Sir: As a former Russell Group vice chancellor, I think that Toby Young’s appeal for more universities (Status anxiety, 14 January) needs several caveats. First, what is a university? Recently some have been created by stapling together several institutions without any substantial element of research and renaming them as a university. There is even some suggestion that research is inimical to good teaching, because some university researchers with a duty to teach shirk it. But the presence of a weighty research community lends a university an invaluable ambience. In America, many colleges that teach only to the bachelor degree are well regarded without possessing the title of university.
I would also recommend caution in judging the quality of teaching by student surveys. First, I suspect the recent obsession with ‘universities for all’ has led to many enrolling who would be better served by other forms of further education. Second, the ‘value for money’ atmosphere focuses on contact hours. In subjects like engineering and medicine, a great deal of information has to be given didactically. But in subjects like the arts and social sciences there should be time to read and reflect. Indeed, some of the best education takes place in the gaps in the timetable.
Sir: Simon Jenkins’s idea in his characteristically thought-provoking piece on the Stonehenge tunnel (‘Monumental folly’, 21 January) would represent the worst of all worlds. He suggests keeping the current A303 and upgrading it (presumably widening it) to a one-way dual carriageway, with, to the south, another dual carriageway running in the opposite direction. As well as creating extensive disturbance to a very sensitive landscape south of Stonehenge, this would put at risk some very significant archaeology on either side of the existing A303. Perhaps, in a shoal of red herrings, we should not get too distracted by this one?
Chief executive, Historic England
In praise of Oxfam shops
Sir: A ‘left-wing thinktank’ Oxfam may be (Any Other Business, 21 January), but its shops seem to be the only places nowadays where internet-intolerant dinosaurs like me can browse secondhand books, rejoice at finding that dusty out-of-print gem for a couple of quid, and feel that one is rescuing something of value from the recycling bin. It can be returned for someone else to enjoy, and the purchase process is quicker than even Amazon.
Sir: Simon Wilder claims that ‘Israel is as pro-immigration as Britain seems anti- (‘Flight into Israel’, 21 January). He may have a point, but I find it difficult to accept this comment without due context. While he is correct in saying that Israel is pro-immigration, he is not so clear as to the nature of this immigration. In Mr Wilder’s account of applying for Israeli citizenship, he mentions the need to provide evidence of his Jewish identity. This is necessary to deem one eligible for Israel’s ‘law of return’, which grants unconditional citizenship to all Jews across the world. Israel may be pro-immigration, but more importantly, it is pro-‘selective’ immigration.
By contrast, the UK’s policy of admitting over 600,000 immigrants a year isn’t of a ‘selective’ nature. It’s no surprise that Mr Wilder alludes to anti-immigration sentiment in Britain. Any population undergoing a demographic shift of such magnitude would be concerned.
One can put this difference down to the value each country places on its identity. It is a simple fact that Israel prioritises above all else its ability to survive as a Jewish state. Britain, on the other hand, has put the survival of its very identity in doubt.
Sir: On behalf of the 1 per cent of people in the UK who have coeliac disease, may I enlighten Melissa Kite and the readers of her article (Real life, 14 January) with some facts about the reasons why some churches now offer a gluten-free Eucharist. People with coeliac disease have an autoimmune disease caused by a reaction to gluten for which there is no cure or medication. If they do not want to suffer potential long-term consequences such as osteoporosis, infertility or small bowel cancer, there is no choice but to avoid gluten. They may also be Catholic and wish to observe the Eucharist. We applaud the Catholic church for its humanity and mercy in allowing faithful Catholics with this disease to follow their faith.
Chief executive, Coeliac UK
High Wycombe, Bucks
Sir: Damian Thompson’s article (‘The trouble with Francis’, 14 January) was filled with innuendo, hearsay and title-tattle from the city of Rome. I do not want my Pope to be a living saint, but a dynamic, loving force who will take the Catholic church forward to meet the challenges of our changing world. Christ upset a few people in his time, and any pope worth his salt will do the same.
Other people’s money
Sir: Dr Ian McKee (Letters, 21 January) argues that we cannot expect a first-class service from the NHS because the proportion of our GDP we spend on it is less than half of the proportion of GDP the USA spends on health. What he fails to point out is that in the USA that proportion is achieved by most people spending their own money on their health, not by most people spending other people’s money on it.