St Chinian University Comes of Age,
by Paddy Masterson (Pegasus Press/Elliot Mackenzie Publishers, £10.99)
Patrick Masterson served as president of University College Dublin from 1986 to 1993 and was president of the European University Institute in Florence from 1994 to 2002.
His novels are the fruit of his first-hand and practical experience of how insignificant, first-world issues can cause uproar and convulse the tranquillity of a university. He pokes fun at the eccentricities and idiocies of academic life but always with a light touch.
In this, his second novel, Patrick Masterson continues his saga on St Chinians. This is a liberal arts university in the Languedoc Region of Southern France, former heimat of the notorious Albigensians.
The university has evolved along with society. Many members of the professions, realising that they are likely to enjoy independent and active lives into their eighties, are taking early retirement. As a result they are opting to pursue new careers or to return to academic life as part-time students.
Keen to increase his student numbers and the economic benefits that would entail, the wily president of St Chinians, Guy Boulanger, exploits the situation. He and his colleagues conduct a most successful campaign to promote St Chinians as the ideal university for those of the troisiéme age intending to return to academic life.
Within a decade the student body of St Chinians is transformed. It eventually consists of 8,000 mature, part-time students and 4,000 typical young undergraduates.
St Chinians offers programmes in four different academic schools. The most popular is the School of Viticulture and Agriculture. It caters specifically for the wishes of local vignerons to have their sons and daughters educated for careers in agriculture and wine production.
The School of Arts, Media and Communication provides the traditional liberal arts subjects. Thirdly, there is the School of Economics, Business Studies and Tourism which concentrates on promoting local tourism. Finally, there is the School of Social and Political Sciences, where ideological and personal animosities flourish.
The young, full-time students are registered in a particular school to pursue a predetermined degree programme. By contrast the mature students enjoy the freedom to indulge as they wish their intellectual curiosity and their flights of fancy. A remarkable number of them have fixations on the most exotic subjects and insist that the college authorities provide courses to pander to their tastes.
Initially members of the disparate groups respect each other. However, this changes as the mature students exercise an increasing influence in the various student clubs and societies and across the university at large.
And the mature students nurse a grievance, namely that their vote in elections is valued at only a half that of the undergraduates. Tensions reach a head when it comes time to elect a new president of the student union.
The standard-bearer for the mature students is Lottie Beausang. She is described as having spent her life working in a company’s advertising department where her natural talent was soon recognised but never fully acknowledged.
Her opponent is Yves Leroy, the handsome captain of the university’s successful senior rugby team. Staff and students alike support their chosen candidate, each with ulterior motives of their own. In the event Lottie wins the election by a slender margin. At the count there is the customary, controversial intervention when there is an unsuccessful claim that the whole operation is invalid, owing to the method in which the count had been conducted.
His past students and former colleagues and many others besides will immensely enjoy his delightful romp in the groves of academe. And beneath all the fun he presents a vision of the university of the future.