Professor of Poetry

HE market place may turn students into “consumers and punters”

Proposals in a Higher Education White Paper could lead to the creation of a higher education market place, which the government says will ensure students get the full value of their higher fees.

Published by the government on Tuesday 28th June, the paper stated its aim to create a “more dynamic sector in which popular institutions can grow and where all universities must offer a good student experience to remain competitive”.

Universities will have to publish data on areas such as teaching hours, quality of lectures and accommodation costs. They will be also be “encouraged” to publish information about the qualifications of teaching staff.

The government will also request information about employment rates and projected earnings of individual courses. In an effort to tackle possible losses from students who cannot repay their loans, pressure will be put on underperforming courses to be reformed or scrapped completely.

Universities will also be required to publish and justify how they spend tuition fee income. Currently, two-thirds of universities will seek to charge the maximum £9,000 fee despite differences in student experience, teaching and employability.

While universities will still be allocated total student quotas, in an effort to encourage institutions to compete for students, from 2012 universities will be allowed to give unlimited offers to students achieving AAB or higher at A-level.  There will also be 20,000 places allocated to institutions charging less than £7,500, as Willets outlined his aim “to extend the system so more places are contestable.”

In a round of interviews given prior to the publication of the paper, David Willets argued “all that information should be out there, and we are insisting for the first time that it should be available for prospective students.”

But Oxford Professor of Poetry, Geoffrey Hill, attacked the reforms during a University ceremony awarding honorary degrees. Focusing on Willett’s aim to turn students into “consumers and punters”, Hill said: “If even one University comes to consider their students as consumers and punters…the future of education in this country is bleak”.

OUSU President David Barclay condemned the government policy, which he described as “in total freefall”. Barclay commented on Hill’s speech: “Like Professor Hill I find it extremely offensive to suggest that students are consumers. We are members of our University community and our rights and power come from that status, not from the size of our wallets and the level of our debts.”

NUS President Aaron Porter said separately: “To use proposals for more information as a justification for lifting the cap on fees to £9,000 is outrageous and will not fool students and their families. It’s the price, rather than educational standards, that will have tripled.”

Ode to Oxford

The elections for the chair of Professor of Poetry at Oxford are now once again underway, with Geoffrey Hill being tipped as the frontrunner for the position at the time of going to press.

Media coverage of the contest has been extensive, following the widely reported resignation of Ruth Padel from the position last year, after she was linked to the smear campaign that had prompted the leading candidate and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott to withdraw his candidacy.

For all its prestige, however, it is a rather vague academic appointment. The incumbent is only required to make three lectures a year, and the job description is simply to “encourage the art of poetry in the university”, whatever that may involve.

The reputation of the post, which was created in 1708 following a bequest by the 17th century academic Henry Birkhead, has thus centred on the leading figures that have held the post, such as W. H. Auden and Seamus Heaney.

The elections, usually held every five years, are open to all graduates and current academics of the university: the successful candidate will be announced at the end of June and should, smear campaigns allowing, take up the post next Michaelmas.

Poetry has long been a central component of Oxford’s identity in the popular imagination. The classic evocation of Oxford as “that sweet city with her dreaming spires” comes from the poem Thyrsis by Matthew Arnold, who coined this description of the view of Oxford from Boars Hill whilst Professor of Poetry in 1865.

Keble College is named after the poet John Keble, and the artist and poet John Ruskin founded the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in the 1870s.

At least seven poet laureates have attended Oxford, with other poets claiming Oxford as their alma mater including John Donne, Percy Bysshe Shelley, T. S. Eliot, A. E. Housman and Philip Larkin.
The university also runs several poetry competitions, including the Eugene Lee-Hamilton Prize, the Lord Alfred Douglas Memorial Prize, and the Newdigate Prize, which have in their time awarded prizes to talented young students like Andrew Motion and Oscar Wilde.

Nowadays, the main port of call for poetry aficionados in Oxford is the Oxford University Poetry Society, which advertises itself as “the centre of undergraduate poetic life”.

Whilst it is student-run, it includes members of the university and the public alike, and has attracted a long line of well-known poets to its Thursday readings, which take place at a variety of different locations like the Albion Beatnik bookshop in Jericho.

This close proximity to the greats of the British poetic community certainly places Oxford students in a privileged position; but it can understandably be a rather daunting place for a student to launch their poetic ambitions.

This perhaps explains why there is a strange disparity in the Oxford poetry scene, with a sizeable amount of student creative-writing taking place at the collegiate, rather than the university, level.

So how can the new Professor of Poetry and students work to further “encourage the art of poetry in the university”?

Whilst not perhaps for the faint-hearted, these poetry-readings are made more accessible by including mixing student performances with those of established poets.

An added emphasis on performance art has also been suggested, merging poetry readings with musical performances and art so as to attract a more diverse crowd.

The rewards and the accolades are already there for the taking; the challenge is to keep pushing new creative talent forward.

Poetiy race is on

Eleven candidates are in the running for Professor of Poetry after nominations closed last Wednesday, including Oxford alumnus Geoffrey Hill, slam poet Steve Larkin and “poetician” Michael George Gibson.

The poets now have a little more than a week to campaign until voting starts on 21st May. The English faculty praised the “large and extremely diverse” field of candidates, which it said had been encouraged by the move to online voting. In last year’s election, only three valid nominations were submitted.

The frontrunner for the post is Geoffrey Hill, a former Professor of Literature and Religion at Boston University and alumnus of Keble. He was nominated by more than 70 Oxford graduates, including 10 college heads.

Peter McDonald, a Christ Church English don who nominated Hill, described him as “the best English poet writing today, as well as one of our most intelligent and profound critics”.

Hill visited Oxford last Thursday to give a special lecture on “War and Poetry” at Wolfson, although a college spokesperson said it was unrelated to the election.

The other ten candidates include Beat poet Michael Horowitz, Sanskrit scholar Vaughan Pilikian and neuropsychologist Sean Haldane.

The election marks a return for Michael George Gibson, after his general election campaign for the True English Poetry Party in George Osborne’s Tatton constituency ended with him polling only 298 votes.

The self-described “poetician and tunemaker” received 18 nominations after spending two days outside the Ashmolean gathering nominations from passers-by. Gibson has promised to return to Oxford for a poem-off husting against any other willing candidates.

He claimed that the new online voting system could produce a shock result. “I will do anything I can to obtain as many votes as possible. Who knows what will happen?” he said.