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Saturday, 22 October 2011

The iniquities of potted shrimp

I cannot work out how to paste into a Blogger page on my blackberry. I copy text from elsewhere and then there is no paste option on the drop-down bar. I tell you this because I was just looking to see if Chris Leslie is a Shadow Minister, when I found a Wikipedia page about a DC superhero comic called the Shadow Cabinet, which is unintentionally funny and I was going to paste from it here to hilarious effect, but it won't let me.

Chris Leslie is a Labour MP (and a graduate of Leeds University, which will become tangentially relevant later on). According to Wiki, he ran Gordon Brown's Labour leadership campaign in 2007, when his efforts secured Mr Brown a whopping 100% of the vote, as there were no other candidates. Mr Leslie is in the news today with precisely the sort of soft news story that gets MPs in the papers at the weekend. Indeed, purely hypothetically and without reference to Mr Leslie, it is the sort of soft news story that might be recommended to an MP if s/he sought professional advice on how to get in the papers more.

The story in question is about Mr Leslie calling for somebody (but who?) to end the practice of Oxford and Cambridge giving out MA degrees for a tenner. I didn't know Cambridge charged and I paid not £10 but £40 for my Oxford MA, although that included the cost of hiring the gowns and a truly disgusting lunch (which was not hired, as I was allowed to keep it), one feature of which of which was tiny frozen prawns in a block of frozen butter. Is that what is known as potted shrimp? Other highlights of the day included being temporarily locked in a pub's lavatory while still wearing an MA gown, and, before lunch, an elderly Australian man bursting in to shout "They've voted to keep the Sheila!". This was not in the lavatory, this was in an anteroom (I know, I agree, some of my best friends are rooms, and we must stamp out anteroom attitudes) at my college, of which the Australian gentleman was a member. The Sheila in question is Her Majesty the Queen, whose personage the Australians had that day very sensibly voted to retain as their head of state. There could be few more appropriate settings in which to hear such news. Did any of this happen as I remember it? Or did someone in the pre-prandial anteroom tell me that the Australian had shouted that when the news had come through a few days before? I am now genuinely uncertain.

Anyway, I went to get my MA because it is a way of remaining a member of the university, and because it was a fun day out, if your idea of fun is eating disgusting food and being trapped in a public convenience while wearing fancy dress. I would never claim to actually have an MA, and I get why it is offensive to people who have slogged their guts out to get an MA, that Oxbridge people get one for nothing (or for ten pounds). Because, yes, if you graduate from Oxford with a BA honours degree, then, a few years later, you are automatically eligible to graduate MA, without doing any further work - you get an MA without studying for one. That is clearly daft, especially as it means that, legally, I can claim, all over the world, to have an MA, when I don't really have one. 

Centuries ago, if you had got your BA so many years before, then it made sense to assume that you had since been studying long enough to now be eligible for your MA. It's a hangover from the Middle Ages (many an Oxford man still wakes up with a hangover from the Middle Ages, passed down the generations from father to son). It could arguably be updated so that graduates don't get MAs but simply become members of convocation and so elect the university's chancellor, as happens at some other universities. Indeed, when Lord (Roy) Jenkins died and we had to elect his successor as chancellor, I believe that graduates were allowed to vote even if they were not MA, and we were not required to wear MA gowns to vote, as had previously been the case.

I voted very firmly for Chris Patten, and not for Sandi Toksvig, who some Lib Dem kids in Westminster had idiotically put up as an anti-tuition fees candidate, confusing as they were the role of chancellor with that of rector at a Scottish university, the latter being a role that is indeed often filled by a comedian and which is elected by the undergraduates, who get no say in electing the Chancellor of Oxford University. Harold Macmillan was chancellor at the same time as he was Prime Minister. Roy Jenkins defeated Edward Heath to fill the role, amid some suggestions that even Jenkins (a former President of the European Commission) might not be a big enough international statesman to fill Macmillan's shoes. And yet these kids thought that Sandi Toksvig was a suitable candidate to succeed Lord Jenkins, the greatest Liberal Democrat who had ever lived, as the titular head of a great and ancient university, in what is, in any case, a strictly non-party-political election. There were four candidates, and I gave Ms Toksvig my fifth preference out of the four. 

My point (you mean there actually is one?) is: who cares? Does it really matter that Oxbridge has this nonsense and that I get to be an MA and elect the Professor of Poetry? Changing the MA system will do nothing to get more state school pupils into Oxbridge. It is a side issue. Everyone knows that an Oxbridge MA is meaningless (a worked-for post-grad degree at Oxford would be an MPhil or whatever). Nobody with an Oxbridge MA is wandering around falsely claiming to have worked for it. Doesn't the world have bigger things to worry about this weekend? 

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