Durham, England – "If you have never been to Durham, go at once. Take my car. It's wonderful." So wrote Iowa-bred, best-selling author Bill Bryson. He was, to his own astonishment, rewarded last year with being made Chancellor of Durham University. That is not just the third oldest university in England (after Oxford and Cambridge) but was offspring of, and sits under the river-fringed ramparts of, the great Norman building described by the same Bryson as "the best cathedral on planet earth". The city and university also boast a small but celebrated Oriental Museum with fine exhibits ranging from Chinese porcelain to Buddhist and Islamic art and artifacts from ancient Egypt.
But if Durham encapsulates so much that is enduringly attractive about England, it also tells one a lot about what is wrong with its educational system.
Durham would appear to have so much going for it. Bryson the globe-trotting travel writer and witty pedagogue - "A Short History of Nearly Everything" - seems evidence of the internationalist view of its university. He succeeded the late actor, writer and wit Peter Ustinov, another foreigner who made England his home and enriched its language. The city itself is a World Heritage site, its cathedral is dedicated to St. Cuthbert who spread Christianity throughout much of northern Britain. Here too lies buried St. Bede, one of the most learned men of his time in science as well as theology and the Roman classics. This monk's 8th century Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum was the first history of England.
Adjacent to Durham lies a very different place, Sedgefield, a grittier, semi-industrial district not on many tourists' maps. But it does happen to be the parliamentary constituency of one Tony Blair, a one-time amateur actor and, as prime minister, a man determined to play a prominent role, for good or ill, on the world stage. Sedgefield has, in theory at least, a significant say in global affairs and those of the Middle East and Asia in particular.
So what is the international news from world-renowned Durham and the university over which its amiable champion Bill Bryson presides? It is closing its entire East Asian Studies department and abolishing undergraduate studies at its Middle East department. These are among the oldest departments in Britain teaching subjects which are entirely absent from 90% of the nation's universities. Out with Chinese, out with Japanese. Oh, and while Mr. Blair's troops are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, why bother with Arabic or Farsi? The Chinese and Japanese may be OK at making widgets but don't they all speak English anyway? And the Middle East? What culture, what learning, what business do they have other than oil?
In a example of arrogance which would have stunned the real academics of Britain's imperial age, who took Asian and Arabic studies seriously, Durham is going flat out to make money from foreign students, Chinese in particular, studying business and other saleable subjects. But teach Chinese to the Brits? No way. It's too difficult, too expensive.
There are two aspects to this English university logic. Firstly, more graduates can be produced for less cost in courses in English, history, law and (god save us) media studies than in difficult subjects like Chinese or physics. One lecturer for 50 students and a pile of books will suffice. The others need intensive training and a much higher costs in terms of teaching staff and facilities. The hard work of learning takes second place to the diploma mill. Such is U.K. university economics.
The second is that "hard" subjects demand high entry standards and hard work on arrival. Why enroll low grade students in Chinese if they are liable to drop out after a year and get an easy degree? Intakes are thus small and "expensive" on a per capita basis. Why? Because entry standards have sunk so low for many universities that there is no need to excel. A recent official study concluded that the standards demanded by the International Baccalaureate (IB) an internationally recognized alternative to Britain's "A Level" university entrance qualification, were 40% higher than A level.
But what can be surprising in a nation where study of any foreign language is no longer a necessity? What chance of doing business with the Chinese if the kids of Blairite Britain can't face basic French?
Sorry, Durham. Go back to a short history of basic Bede worthy of your cathedral. Or, Bill Bryson, resign in disgust. As for Asia it's time to say: Bye bye, Britain.