The MT Diary

Beefing up French universities; Mumbai rises; Singapore watches; referendum wheeze.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

If you ask a Frenchman for the French word for parsnip, you normally get a puzzled Gallic shrug. In fact, there is a word (panais) but it is little used. 'We feed them to les betes, I think,' they observe cautiously. So it is bold for Our Man on the Faubourg St Honore to offer them up with the rosbif: my polite French neighbours pushed then around the plate for a while, then hid them under their Yorkshire pudding.

But in most other respects the Anglo-French relationship has recently exhibited a touch of global warming. President Nicolas Sarkozy campaigned in person among the London French; his prime minister Francois Fillon is married to a Welshwoman. And there is some interest in Paris now in the way we have changed our pub-lic institutions.

So more than 200 French old boys and girls of the LSE gathered in the Embassy's gilded salons the other day to discuss university reform, one of Sarkozy's early priorities. He has already put forward some modest proposals, but still hasn't grappled with selection or fees.

In recent years we have benefited from a mood of malaise hanging over French universities (though the Paris political science school is an exception) and the numbers of bright French students coming to London have risen. In a way, it would be a pity if Sarkozy succeeds and more of them stay at home, but I nonetheless loyally made the case for reform. My secret hope is that once the French get a taste for roast parsnips they won't want to go back to Paris at all, however much their own universities improve.

Running the University of Mumbai must be even tougher than presiding over the Sorbonne. It has at least 440,000 students, though those in charge recognise that the number is about as certain as our Government's guesstimates on the immigration population. No-one has a very clear idea, either, of the number of people in the city as a whole, though the forecasts suggest that it may well be the largest conurbation in the world by 2025.

Some of the LSE's finest minds and I assembled on Marine Drive (the famous 'Queen's Necklace') to see what wisdom we could bring to a conference generously supported by Deutsche Bank. Angela Merkel showed up, too - the Germans are taking India seriously these days.

Lord Stern of Climate Change explained Mumbai's high vulnerability to rising sea levels, which set a suitably apocalyptic tone for the proceedings. But India's rapid economic growth is generating new opportunities to improve the lot of the millions of slum- and street-dwellers. Dramatic rises in land prices allow developers to build profitable high-rises and re-house displaced slum-dwellers at the same time.

As always when I visit India, I came back both overwhelmed by the scale of the problem and inspired by the optimism and commitment of charities, NGOs and some businesses to address them. It is also striking that you can walk back to your hotel from dinner at 1am without being molested by more than a few polite beggars, and without stepping in pools of vomit - which I can't do at Charing Cross.

I doubt, though, that in spite of its growing prosperity Mumbai will ever be quite like Singapore. We used to call it the Switzerland of Asia - but there is a lot more litter in Geneva, and fewer top-of-the-range Mercs and Armani dealerships. Singaporeans do have their worries, though. Will the growing financial centre of Shanghai eat their lunch? Can they insulate themselves from the dangerous neighborhood in which they live, with Islamic fundamentalism on the rise?

There is now a shiny new public policy school, named after Lee Kwan Yew, to grapple with these and other issues. And London's continued financial success, despite Northern Rock, attracts their attention. So I spent a couple of days there solving the world's problems. (Things have started to look rather bleaker since, I fear). The food is great and if you are foolish enough to leave your specs at home after an early start for the plane, you can get a new pair made in three hours at half the London price.

Back home, our PM has been restor- ing momentum to his regime with speeches on civil liberty and education (he is - generally - in favour of both, I can reveal). But the capital gains tax row rumbles on, and the new parliamentary session will be dominated by arguments about a referendum on the 'not-the-constitution' treaty. So other themes are hard to develop.

On the way to Paris I met, on the train, a pleasant man who claimed to be the editor of the Daily Telegraph. That couldn't be literally true, as it is surely a contractual condition that the jobholder must not have a passport. But whoever it was made a powerful case that the Government had promised us a vote, so we should have one. We can expect the press to campaign fiercely on that front. Whether they succeed seems to me to depend on the views of their Lordships, who could embarrass the Government by adding a referendum clause to the Bill. But no-one seems yet to have canvassed their opinions.

My modest proposal is that we should hold an EU referendum, and the one the Scot Nats want on independence and the vote for BBC Sports Personality of the Year, all on the same day. If Gordon Brown has secured the 2018 World Cup by then, he might win one of the three.

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