Wednesday 31 May
I receive a cheeky email from a friend and former colleague, who happens to be a psychologist. It is prompted by press reports of a rather unusual academic post (for which I was not a candidate). The message reads: 'I hear that you have been passed over for the new Lego Professor of Play in Education, Development and Learning at Cambridge University. Maybe next time...' I replied: 'I was too playful for them. They wanted a deeply boring child psychologist.'
Two aspects of this post are noteworthy. First, it represents further recognition of the importance of play in children's physical, mental, social and emotional development. Many studies have shown that the early years are crucial in relation to children's mental health and their later capacity to benefit from formal education. The person appointed to the new post is a distinguished child psychiatrist, Professor Paul Ramchandani, who will bring an interesting perspective to the field.
The second point relates to the sponsorship of the new post by the Lego Foundation – the charitable division of the famous toy company. Cambridge University is to receive a £4 million grant to help establish the centre for research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL).
Financial backing of this kind from charitable and commercial organisations is now commonplace in universities. In some areas, it is highly controversial: for example, concerns have been raised about the implications of accepting money from multinational corporations, pharmaceutical companies and arms manufacturers. The risks to academic integrity become particularly critical when the findings of research may make uncomfortable reading for the sponsors. Governments too often try to control the output of work that they have supported financially, through restrictive contracts about the release and dissemination of results.
University staff are under great pressure from senior managers to generate research income. In the promotion stakes, this has become more important than a record as an inspiring teacher or as someone who raises challenging ideas. Knowledge is no longer seen as a public good in itself. It has been commodified and accorded a monetary value. There is now little scope for the lone researcher who is prepared to go against the grain of official thinking or to question the corporate culture which drives the priorities of university leaders.
Thursday 1 June
Moray Council has come up with a novel wheeze in an attempt to reduce its financial deficit. It proposes to sell street names in new housing developments to private companies, opening up the possibility of Aldi Avenue or Lidl Lane. A figure of around £20,000 has been quoted as the likely going rate, with the hope that some of the local distilleries would see marketing potential in the opportunity. Householders may be less enthusiastic about admitting that their home address bears the name of a well-known brand of whisky. To avoid association with companies that may have a questionable track record, the council will have to give approval for proposed names.
I wonder if there might be a sliding scale of charges for different designations: 'avenue' and 'drive' carry rather more cachet than 'alley' and 'lane', while 'road' and 'street' are relatively neutral. A measure of gentrification might be anticipated. In my local area, there used to be a pathway that, before housing development was allowed on it, was known as 'Tinker's Lane' because travellers sometimes spent a week or two there. After the houses were built, it was rebranded as St Vigeans Avenue.
If the Moray initiative is a success, it is surely only a matter of time before there is a demand for it to be extended to individuals. There are bound to be people in most communities who fondly imagine that having a street named after them would be regarded as a mark of prestige (have they thought about what graffiti artists might do?). After all, look at the number of folk who are prepared to shell out substantial sums for car number plates that contain some or all of their initials. They believe that these 'personalised' (or 'vanity') plates signal to the world that they are important persons. An alternative interpretation is that they are showy prats.
Friday 2 June
'Dr Finlay's Casebook' was a popular television series in the 1960s based on the writing of A J Cronin. It featured Andrew Cruickshank as the experienced senior partner (Dr Cameron), with Bill Simpson as his rather brash assistant (Dr Finlay), working in the fictional rural practice of Tannochbrae. The stories were set in the 1920s and conformed to the Scottish sentimental tradition of heart-warming accounts of ordinary people's reactions to the highs and lows of everyday life. Background motifs included professional rivalries and some restrained romantic interest. The doctors' housekeeper, Janet (played by Barbara Mullen), kept a watchful eye on both her employers and the local community.
The programme came to mind as I watched a report of the problem of finding doctors to fill vacancies in GP practices across Scotland. This has been an issue in remote and island communities for some time but it is not confined to them. At present, 26% of surgeries in Scotland have at least one vacancy, with many posts remaining unfilled after six months. Viewers saw a doctor in Ayr explaining why he was leaving to go to Australia: he wanted more time to treat his patients and the ability to ensure that they received specialist care quickly. Although his job here is well-paid, it was ceasing to give him the professional satisfaction he had hoped for.
It might be argued that doctors who have received their education and training in the UK should feel an obligation to work for the NHS. But if they begin to feel that management targets prevent them from giving a good service, in some cases encouraging them to over-prescribe medication rather than taking time to get to the root of the problem, what are they supposed to do? Add to that the delays that often occur in referring patients to hospital specialists and it is not hard to understand how disillusionment can set in. The romantic retreat represented by 'Dr Finlay's Casebook' is certainly not an option.
Sunday 4 June
Other events are overshadowed by the latest terrorist attack in London. It is, above all, a personal tragedy for those directly affected – the victims, their families and friends. Outsiders, however sympathetic, cannot begin to imagine the impact of random and heartless violence directed at innocent people. The event also provides further insight into the mindset of deeply alienated young men who believe that such action can somehow be justified by their perverted interpretation of the religion which they claim to follow. For the security forces and politicians, this latest episode represents a massive challenge: how can they combat terrorism effectively, while reassuring the public that the values of freedom, democracy and justice will be upheld? There are no easy answers or short-term solutions: the battle is ideological as well as strategic, intellectual as well as operational.
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