Tuesday, 3 April 2012

A Song for Masterchef

THOSE not familiar with the MasterChef phenomenon seem to think that the programme is just another Ready Steady Cook. How wrong they are. There is nothing so simple as a meagre green pepper or red tomato here. There are, however, Heirloom tomatoes and Anaheim chillis- the kind of capsicums that sit well outside the pitifully amateur box.

MasterChef’s audience follow the programme with an avid, impassioned pride. They love it with the same pride which scorns Big Brother and The X-Factor, in fact, the only other reality television programme people who watch MasterChef make time for is The Apprentice. This is middle-class televisual snobbery at the highest level.

But what is it that makes MasterChef such compelling viewing? I would argue that there are three (possibly four) factors. Firstly, the toothy grin and outlandish sayings of presenter Gregg Wallace can’t fail to raise a smile, particularly when accompanied by a growl from his bumptious, po-faced partner John Torode. One of many examples came during the Semi-Final, when the contestants were whisked off to Thailand for an authentic experience away from the sterility of the MasterChef kitchen. “What a punch round the face of chilli that was” exclaims Gregg. “For me that needs more chilli” John replies, to which Gregg says “What are you, inferno mouth”, in that way that rotund uncles do when they’re struggling for a metaphor. Gregg’s vicarious habit of describing food not as food, but as an out-of-body experience is arguably one of MasterChef’s most enjoyable features. Telling contestants that they’ll have to cook two puddings to be judged by three chefs, Gregg shouts into the camera: “this is a day for heroes”, leaving everyone in the room showered with spit but ready for action. Nuggets of linguistic genius from previous series include: “This is the bland leading the bland”, “Love an icing bag me. You know someone’s serious when they get an icing bag out”, “It’s summery, it’s fruity, I’d stick my face in it” and “I wouldn't marry your rhubarb, strawberry and ginger crumble - but I'd love to take it away for a dirty weekend”. Indeed.

That said, my second factor, the combinations of food and startling array of ingredients, leaves me wondering whether Gregg is perhaps justified. This isn’t home cooking, and the contestants producing gasto-pub fodder are sent packing in the early weeks. This is a show for those with strictly Michelin-starred aspirations. There’s a beauty in seeing bouncers who you’d cross the street to avoid tossing peashoots and pomegranate seeds onto a square piece of pristine white china with all the elegance of a sugarplum fairy. Stick me in Fortnum and Masons for a month and give me an unlimited budget and I still wouldn’t dream up dishes like Andrew’s chocolate, orange and coriander tart with chocolate-hazelnut mousse, pear and fennel ice cream and candied fennel.

Factors three and four are the humility of the contestants and the occasional appearance of Michel Roux Jnr., pastry impresario and God to whom all men should aspire. These four factors, though there are probably many more, cannot help but keep feasting eyes glued to the screen. I for one will be holding out for next series, waiting for more hilarious puns, charismatic contestants and crazy-but-it-works dishes.

This piece was published in Exeposé in March 2012

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Postgraduate Funding Gap

Perhaps now that I'm in my final year and juggling dissertations, essays and the small matter of graduate employment, I should stop making excuses for not blogging tout suite and accept that there may simply be more pressing matters. Regardless, here is a little blog that I've written which exists solely to moan about the funding gap of glacial proportions that prevents mere mortals from undertaking postgrad courses. Enjoy! (and then weep...)

There was once a time when undergraduate degrees were prized, and gave individuals a much worked-for first step on the ubiquitous ‘career ladder’. Without wishing to sound as if I’m lusting after a bygone era, these days are a thing of the past. Undergraduate degrees have become a pre-requisite for those wishing to enter the ‘professions’ and CVs that do not boast a degree often aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

So how can students ensure that their applications stand out from the crowd? The solution has become, ironically, to stay in higher education and complete a postgraduate qualification. With graduate unemployment at a 16-year-high, it’s unsurprising that, according to the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU), there was a 7.4% rise in the demand for Master’s degrees in 2009/10. Many graduates see the addition of a postgraduate qualification to their CV as worth its weight in gold, literally.

The average cost of a Master’s degree in English hovers around the £4,500 mark, depending on the institution, whilst the price the Mathematics equivalent is marginally higher. Vocational Master’s courses often cost a lot more. My ambitions of pursuing a career in journalism experienced a vicious setback when I realised that the qualification would cost me £8,000 in tuition alone.

With the hike in undergraduate tuition fees receiving vast amounts of media coverage, it seems that postgraduate students, despite their rise in number, have all but been forgotten. The undergraduate notion of a ‘student loan’ is a thing of the past for postgrads, for whom there is simply no such thing. The government provides no funding for Master’s courses and most are forced to take out commercial loans, whilst the lucky ones turn to their parents for financial support. Limited numbers of scholarships are available to the brightest and best students but, as is increasingly obvious, when a Master’s qualification is the norm, small pots of funding just aren’t enough.

As if this pressure on the postgraduate student’s purse wasn’t enough, it seems likely that Master’s courses are going to bear the brunt of further fee rises. With Master’s course fees currently remaining uncapped, they’re the obvious target for universities hoping to recoup funding lost through government university cuts. Despite the rise in undergraduate fees, they still remain capped at £9,000, and institutions hoping to top-up their coffers aren’t blind to the fact that postgraduate qualifications offer the crude potential for limitless cash.

So what are the consequences of neglecting postgraduate funding? Well, I can’t see that it will be long before postgraduate admissions become another barometer of social immobility in this country. Without postgraduate loans or a significant increase in the amount of funding available, Master’s courses are a privilege of the rich, leaving less economically able but potentially more academically capable students high and dry.

With their current cuts agenda, it’s understandable that the coalition government has, thus far, chosen to turn a blind-eye to the problem of postgraduate funding. This, however, does not mean that the present situation is sustainable in a fair society. With the competition for graduate jobs getting fiercer, the postgraduate funding gap needs to be filled before the prospect of employment becomes as clinical as a cost/benefit analysis.