I can’t be alone in cheering on Manchester’s students after videos surfaced of them furiously pulling down fences the university put up around their dorms to enforce the lockdown. The fencing was reminiscent of Beijing’s method early on in Wuhan, where authorities welded shut gates and placed bars across apartment doors while residents slept. There is nothing in the UK rules that requires people to stay in their buildings – but clearly the university fancied running its own mini police state.
As an alternative to incarcerating their students permanently in dorm rooms, other universities have decided to splash out on regular Covid testing. The student paper The Tab compiled figures showing that Oxford, Cambridge, Cardiff and Nottingham Trent are all spending well over £1 million to test students, track how Covid is spreading on their campuses and keep everyone learning in-person as much as possible.
Others aren’t quite so generous. Bristol and Durham are each budgeting less than £100,000 for testing, though both were at least more transparent than Nottingham and Liverpool, which claimed the information was too “commercially sensitive” to release. They ought to tell that to the taxpayers who effectively bankroll much of their income by backing student loans.
Naturally, the University and College Union believes that the Government should take over the cost. It is hard to think of any good reason why the state’s existing £12 billion testing programme should prioritise healthy students over other people, let alone healthcare and care home workers, but no doubt the UCU will think of something.
These spending figures deserve to be disseminated widely, however. They show, better than any government ranking or awards ceremony, which universities actually give a toss about delivering an education and which ones are happy to keep their bored, indebted students locked up, “learning” online while handing over absurd rent payments and ridiculous tuition fees. Universities collecting £9,000 cheques from unlimited numbers of students have no excuse not to dip into their own well-lined pockets to ensure undergraduates actually get a fraction of the educational experience they are paying for.
If and when there is a reckoning with the universities for their behaviour during the pandemic, data like their spending on Covid tests should be exhibit A in judging which ones are actually striving to deliver an education, and which ones are simply using their students to access taxpayer largesse.
Goodbye to the smug, indiscreet Lord Darroch, and good riddance
Whatever happened to going gracefully? Not so long after churning out his undoubtedly tedious memoirs and admiring his own portrait for Lunch with the FT, Britain’s former ambassador to the US was busy blabbing to the New Statesman this week. Lord Darroch was initially a rather sympathetic figure when he was forced out by the leak of a cable in which he described Donald Trump’s administration as “dysfunctional… clumsy and inept”. He was, after all, just sending his honest views back to HQ, which was his job, but the leak made his position impossible.
But any sympathy I had evaporated after he went nuclear and gave two tell-all interviews to the papers moaning about Boris Johnson’s “radical populist government” and blaming the Prime Minister for his decision to quit. He has now followed up by divulging that the British embassy never thought much of Joe Biden: “What we used to say inside the embassy about Joe Biden – to be indiscreet – was he is certainly past his best and his best was never that great.”
Quite apart from the unbearable smugness of this little revelation, it quite clearly breaks the Civil Service code, which states as one of three top principles in its “Standards of Behaviour” section: “You must not disclose official information without authority (this duty continues to apply after you leave the Civil Services).” There is an obvious reason why former diplomats are not meant to go around telling the world what their old employer thought about potential incoming presidents: it makes life harder for the diplomats still in service who are trying hard to build a good relationship with our most important ally.
Patriotic discretion, however, clearly takes a backseat when it comes to the importance of Lord Darroch’s self-image and dinner-party credentials. We are well rid of him.
Around the bend at the British library
As evidence that academic institutions cannot be trusted to possess much common sense, I submit the latest of my running list of crackpot Covid rules. The British Library has gone to great lengths to make itself “Covid-safe”. Slots in the reading rooms are limited and must be booked in advance and the interior is now plastered with stickers instituting a convoluted one-way system.
But one of its measures confounds basic reason. Every other cubicle in the ladies’ loos has been taken out of action, presumably to ensure that women stay more than one metre away from one another while whizzing, even if they would be physically separated by a cubicle wall. The result, obviously, is that more women have to re-use the same cubicles, directly touching door handles and loo seats touched by others rather than spreading their germs far more sparingly across the whole array. If some ingenious bathroom curator wants to explain the logic of this arrangement, they are more than welcome to write in.