Advent Episode 5: A Secret Project

The door to the VC’s office burst open and Bill Noakes strode into the anteroom. He was definitely a man who made his presence felt, someone who expected to be the centre of attention in every situation. Bob had met plenty of Chief Executives like that when he’d worked in industry. Not all of them had turned out to be entirely honest.

Bob jumped up. He forced a smile. “Vice Chancellor” he murmured with a slight nod, as though in response to a verbal greeting, although in fact Bill hadn’t said a word: he’d just looked at him. Bob wondered briefly if he should have tugged his forelock to go with the nod, and a real smile flitted across his face.

Bill looked at him sharply, then stared rather despondently at Alan. “Hello, both of you. Come on in. Lovely to see you both” he added, insincerely. “Coffee?”

“No thanks” mumbled Bob “just had one” and Alan said “Yes please, Bill. Milk, two sugars.”  Bill nodded at his PA, added “and I’ll have one too please, Phyllis”, and swept them both into his office.

He sat them down at a small meeting table opposite his desk. Bob sat with his back to the wall, giving him a good view of the office. Again, it was nothing special. The furnishings didn’t shout out ‘here’s a man who earns £220,000 a year’. It wasn’t particularly large, although it was big enough for a sizeable desk, an angled sofa and this meeting table which would take six people. Also, there was a nice view over the city, which made a change from the wall of the next door building, which was all that could be seen from Martin and Bob’s office.

A bookcase lined one wall. It was filled with books about management and leadership. Bob was surprised Bob by this. He knew that the VC was a chemist by background. He couldn’t see any chemistry books at all. He craned his neck to look at the books on the lower shelves. Had he left his discipline completely behind?

The VC sat down and launched straight into a spiel “Right. Thanks for coming in to see me at such short notice. Alan, how much does Bob here know about the project?” So it’s a proper project, Bob thought. And how did the VC know his name? They’d never been introduced, not even just now in the ante-room.

“Well” Alan was saying “nothing, really, except that he’s really pleased to be on board”. He nodded cheerfully at Bob.

Bob was seriously wondering if he had suffered a short but severe memory lapse at some point in the last hour. It was difficult to keep the investigative process to the front of his mind. “Great,” the VC continued “well, let’s get down to it, then.”

Phyllis opened the door, carrying two mugs which she placed unceremoniously down in front of Bill and Alan. “Thanks, Phyllis” they both said, and Phyllis nodded and left the office, giving only the faintest hint of someone who had been deeply inconvenienced by coffee-making.

“Right. Where was I? Oh yes.  As you know, Bob, the university is facing challenging times,” he looked very stern, “very challenging. Universities like ours are going to be very squeezed by the new government fee policies. And so it’s time for some radical thinking!” he put on an expression which might have been intended to show innovation and go-gettingness. Bob wondered if he’d had some kind of drama coaching.

“The Senior Management Team has come up with a fantastic plan to ensure that we continue to support the local community and encourage more people to go to university. We want to bring Higher Education to more local people! “ He looked very sincere, and then continued “But local people are going to find this very expensive in the future. As you know, students now have to pay all of the costs of going to university and we’ve set our fees at £8,990 per year.”

Bob nodded; this was definitely a fact. He was safe to agree. “and of course, since we announced our fees, they’ve said that institutions which set their fees at below £7,500 a year can have as many students as they like.”

Bob nodded again: it may have sounded odd, but it was in the public domain, so it must be true.

“We can’t afford to offer degrees below £7,500 a year without seriously compromising our standards” said the VC, looking very solemn at the mere thought of compromising standards, “but FE colleges can. They don’t do any research, they offer a very limited range of courses, their terms are longer and the staff have different contracts.” he rushed rather over the last two points, as though it was better not to dwell on them.

Bob nodded yet again, wondering what the point of this was, or whether he had, as he had suspected, missed the elusive point during the period in which he had suffered the severe memory lapse he was convinced had occurred at some time between entering Alan’s office an hour ago and now.

“So, what’s the obvious solution?” the VC finished his short lecture with a question for the audience. Alan looked expectantly at Bob.

Bob wasn’t sure why he was expected to answer. After all, Alan presumably knew all about it already.

He reached for the most ludicrous answer which popped into his head “Become an FE College?” he said, timidly, and smiling to show that it was intended to be a ridiculous answer.

“My goodness, you said this guy would be on the ball, Alan, but I must say, I didn’t really believe you. Especially based on past experience of your judgement.” Alan winced.

“Yes,” continued the VC, “you’re right on the money, er” he looked at Alan, “Bob” Alan helpfully supplied.

“Ah yes, Bob. Right on the money. Well, not become an FE College. Haha. Of course that would be ridiculous, we are a university, with very distinguished foundations and history, of course. But we’re going to set up a special new institution. It’s going to be called the University College of North Burston and it will offer Business and Accountancy courses to start with, followed by Law and, well, we’ll see after that. What do you think?”

Bob realised just in time that his opinion was not really being solicited. “It sounds very exciting, Vice Chancellor. In tune with the times” he added, trying to think of something which sounded like an opinion but which was not actually committing him to a belief.

This was apparently sufficient for the VC, who continued “top secret, of course, we don’t want this to get out until we’ve developed our plans and it’s all done and dusted. So, er, Bob, we’re looking for someone to head up this project and see it through to that point, with of course the possibility of continuing with it into implementation if that’s mutually beneficial when we get to that stage of the project.”

He stopped and looked expectantly at Bob. “I see” said Bob, again realising that some kind of response was required and making a connection, dimly, between Alan’s earlier talk of a special mission and this proposal.

“There’ll be a small honorarium, and your support will definitely be remembered if the belts tighten any further. And maybe we can be thinking about involving you in our succession planning, too.”

Alan winced again.

Bob acknowledged to himself that he needed to pull himself together and make some kind of definite response before the whole situation slid hopelessly away. Although it probably already had. Alan’s earlier threats, though veiled, were certainly not idle. Alan was more frightened of the VC than of behaving spitefully and irrationally towards other members of staff.

“What exactly would you like me to do, Vice Chancellor?” he said, hoping that this formulation would make him seem willing to serve, but also extract more information about what was required.

“Oh details, details” said the VC airily, waving a hand. “we’ll sort that out later. I just wanted to make sure you were on board. S,o no more for the moment. Remember, this is a secret mission.” The VC tried to look as though this idea was amusing.  Alan obediently provided one of his strange offerings. “Hur, hur.”

The VC stood up and went to the door. Alan and Bob followed, and the VC ushered them out. As a parting gesture, he put his finger to his lips and winked. Alan nodded and winked back. Bob recoiled inwardly.

What on earth was going on?


This is an HE advent calendar for 2012. If you would like to find out what happens next at Burston Central, why not sign up for email updates when a new post is published, or follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter? Tomorrow’s episode: In Full Spate.

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4 thoughts on “Advent Episode 5: A Secret Project

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