I now have a new job - as Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lancaster University. The RLF is a wonderful organisation - originally founded in 1790 as a charity to keep writers (and their families) out of the debtors' prison, they've been helping authors such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce ever since. They've benefited from bequests from wealthy authors, like A.A. Milne, whose estates have swelled the coffers. The rights to Winnie the Pooh currently fund the RLF Fellowship scheme - which was a brilliant idea. Writers are put into universities to help students with their academic writing: the writer gets financial support in the form of a proper job, and the university gets a useful member of staff.
I was lucky enough to be appointed as an RLF Fellow in 2006 and am now in my first term as the new Fellow at Lancaster. It's a scary feeling starting a new job - Lancaster is one of the top ten universities in England and the students all look very bright and enthusiastic. AAAgh! But everyone is very friendly and welcoming, and I have a lovely office which looks out onto a courtyard with a gigantic tree. In the first week I have managed to find the photocopier and the kettle and have achieved a staff card and an email address. I have also seen an actual student!
I'm very concerned about the new government's plans to scrap the current cap on student fees. Students already leave university with a crushing level of debt. How do you afford to make a relationship, have kids, buy a house when you're already more than £30,000 in debt? The idea that only the children of rich parents can now afford to go to university makes me very angry. I grew up with the concept of free education and went to university fully funded in the nineteen eighties. My parents could never have afforded to send me to university if they had had to pay. They struggled to keep me at school - even uniform items were difficult to afford and I was usually in hand-me-downs. My own children got to university during the era of student loans, unfortunately during a period when I was a single parent and unable to give much financial support. Only one child made it to graduation but - oddly enough - now earns less than any of the others.
I think we've got to completely re-think our approach to education in England. We need to value practical skills just as much as intellectual ones and we need to fund training (both practical and academic) for those unable to afford it to enable all our young people to realise their potential. We also need to provide much more part-time study so that students can support themselves while studying and make it possible for people to re-train when they find themselves in the wrong job. 18 is far too young to choose what you're going to do for the rest of your life.
OK - I'll put the soap-box away and shut up! I'm going to be quiet for a few days anyway. I'm off to Knutsford literature festival tomorrow to give a book talk and then dash by taxi and train to London to do a book signing at New Zealand house (they're celebrating Katherine Mansfield's birthday). Then at 5am on Saturday I'm getting into Neil's ancient car to drive down to Italy - hoping to get there on Sunday evening in time to fly back on Monday to go to work on Tuesday! One of these days I'll be able to stop travelling and get some peaceful time to write.