The decline of traditional university study is no bad thing

University vice-chancellors will find some uncomfortable reading in their New Year in-tray today. Last month the chairman of accountancy giant PwC pointed out that more and more middle-class teenagers are walking away from old-style university studies and embracing degree apprenticeships and other forms of on-the-job learning. Already the number of those taking up degree apprenticeship is nearing 10 per cent of university admissions, and this figure is still set to grow. Although many such apprenticeships boast an element of university involvement and some even a qualification called a ‘degree’, their emphasis is quite different. Learning happens predominantly by working; the academy is not the centre of the process, but merely

A.N. Wilson has many regrets

‘Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults.’ A.N. Wilson seems, on the surface, to have taken to heart the wise words of the Anglican general confession. Aged 71, he looks back on his life and career and records his regrets and failures both private and professional. His major concern is the failure of his marriage, at the age of 20, to Katherine Duncan-Jones, the Renaissance scholar. Katherine, ten years his senior, was a distinctive Oxford figure, recognisable by her sideways limp and for riding a wicker-basketed sit-up-and-beg bicycle. In later years they reconciled and met weekly for lunch. Wilson records Katherine’s sad, slow descent into dementia, which mimics

Life on campus is so much worse than The Chair

For those disappointed by the humorless and deeply earnest treatment of the contemporary campus experience in the 2020 TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, the new Netflix series The Chair will be a welcome tonic. Over its punchy six half-hour episodes, the show, co-created by the actress Amanda Peet and produced by her husband David Benioff, deals with the iniquities of contemporary university life. Its setting is Pembroke, a fictitious minor Ivy League campus somewhere in New England. The action is mainly seen from the perspective of the English department chair Ji-Yoon Kim, a Korean-American academic who fears that her promotion has been brought about through ‘diversity issues’, rather

As circus gets serious, is all the fun of the fair lost?

What’s so serious about a red nose? How should we analyse the ‘specific socio-historical relations’ and ‘aesthetic trends particular to geographic context’ of the circus? How can we ‘codify’ equestrian performance in the ring? With the publication of The Cambridge Companion to the Circus, this artform has tumbled out of the Big Top and into the library and lecture hall. It’s a recent arrival to lofty, learned spaces. When Vanessa Toulmin of Sheffield University, widely regarded as the world’s leading expert on circus and fairground history, first ventured into academia, she did so under the guise of an ‘early film historian’, as circus wasn’t regarded as worthy of study. Now

A study in vulnerability: The Coming Bad Days, by Sarah Bernstein, reviewed

When the unnamed narrator of Sarah Bernstein’s The Coming Bad Days leaves the man with whom she has been living because she can’t bear the sight of the tidy line of his shirt collars hanging in the wardrobe, she triggers an existential crisis that dominates this debut novel: ‘The notion that I was free in theory but also in practice to do whatever I liked with my life was terrifying: it was nothing short of a nightmare.’ She moves to a cottage, where she lives alone, worrying variously about the plight of women and the state of a world that is on fire or under water depending on the season.

A fantastic online show of Euripides’s take on Helen of Troy

Everyone knows Helen of Troy. The feckless sex popsicle betrayed her husband, Menelaus, and ran off with the dashing Paris, which triggered the ten-year Trojan war. The Greeks were victorious but after sacking the city they went straight home again. So what was the point? Euripides’s play Helen takes a radically different approach in this Zoom production by the Centre for Hellenic Studies at Harvard. The script is crammed with enough twists and turns to make an entire Net-flix series but the running time is barely 60 minutes. Euripides opens with a narrative bombshell by revealing that Helen was absent from Troy throughout the conflict. The gods had spirited her

Manchester University scraps the word ‘mother’

Universities have traditionally played an important role in preparing young people for a life outside academia. These days, though, it appears that many institutions are more interested in lecturing their academics than teaching students – especially when it comes to using the right kind of language. That perhaps explains why the University of Manchester released on Wednesday a new ‘Guide to inclusive language’ for its staff, made by its ‘equality, diversity and inclusion team’. The guide aims to tell those working at the university ‘how to use inclusive language to avoid biases, slang or expressions that can exclude certain groups’ and has been added to the uni’s house style page,

Why academics hold Thatcher and Trump in such contempt

‘Has that orange baboon gone yet?’ asked a senior professor in the teacher’s room at my university yesterday. The remark went down well, despite the unfashionable remark about someone’s skin colour and the dubious zoomorphic comparison. As did an earlier comment from another colleague joking about how he’d like to replace Trump’s corona medication with something more potent (i.e. he wishes he were dead). I’ve had more than four years of this sort of ‘banter’ at the university I work at, which pretty much sums up the consensus view amongst academics of the outgoing President: Trump is a disgrace to humanity, a complete aberration, and the sooner he departs the

Universities are supposed to encourage debate, not strangle it

Liberal values are under attack on two flanks. Those of us who think extensive freedom of expression, universal human rights and respect for science and evidence-based policies are vital for a healthy society are getting worried. We foresaw the rise of a dogmatic right-wing populism that is as sceptical about truth as Pontius Pilate, but were caught napping by a new illiberalism that emerged from the left, one that has found fertile ground in universities and beyond. The new illiberals are eager to police others’ language and thought. They attack Terfs, and tell us which words we can and can’t use. If you enter a debate about any of a