From Subprime to Subway

Conference Special: Inspired by @phil_baty live-tweeting from ICAI 2013.

Bill Noakes shifted restlessly in his seat. It was only 9.30 am in Gandhinagar, but he was still uncomfortable in the huge marquee. The chairs were packed tightly together, and he wasn’t too sure how strong they were. He felt as though he were slightly overflowing the seat; the edges were digging into his thighs. Phyllis had been telling him he needed to lose some weight. She said it was part of her duties as a PA to keep him in shape.

The temperature was forecast to rise to 32C, and maybe higher for the following day.  He ran his finger round the inside of his shirt collar. The Indian delegates were much less formally dressed than the UK representatives. No suits and ties, but open-necked shirts with jumpers over the top, although these were starting to be peeled off now that the temperature was rising. He daren’t take off his jacket. He could feel the sweat forming dark circles under his arms.

On the stage, flowers were being presented to a succession of local and international dignitaries, each bouquet accompanied by a speech about how the International Conference for Academic Institutions 2013 would foster special collaborations between Gujarati and non-Indian institutions. Why couldn’t they just get on with things? He was here to make contacts and promote the University of Central Burston, not just to listen to people slapping themselves on the back. Bill leaned over and whispered loudly to his Head of International Partnerships, Sunita Hundal.

“How long is this bit going to go on?”

Sunita looked embarrassed. She replied in a whisper several notches lower than Bill’s. “Not too long, Vice Chancellor. It’s just a traditional way of thanking people for their sponsorship and support, and recognising their importance in forming productive economic relationships.” She emphasised the last part of the sentence.

Bill harrumphed and straightened up. The dignitaries were now all seated on the stage. Someone seemed to be giving them all a vote of thanks. He glanced down at the programme. Oh well, at least people were only making short speeches. Seven minutes each? Practically elevator pitches.  It reminded him of his MBA.  Those were the days, when it was all before him. Always the group inspiration, always the thrusting ambitious young leader. He sighed.

Craig Mahoney, the Chief Executive of the UK Higher Education Academy, was speaking now. He was citing some figures about HE in India. Bill took a few notes:

Need to build a new college every day to cope with population increases

Indira Gandhi National Open University has 2.6 million students

Next, up, the Chief Minister of Gujarat.

Indian Government investing in HE to drive economy

Need international partnerships to create knowledge from information.

Never been a for-profit uni that has been a major knowledge producing centre for the past 2,600 years

Phil Baty was talking about world rankings now. That wasn’t something that Burston Central could get very excited about. Bill’s attention drifted and he started thinking about what he’d already heard. The UK market was pretty dead, if they would only be honest about it. Mahoney had just said that the UK had slipped massively in terms of the percentage of GDP spent on HE. And the Burston Central figures were looking very bad for the next couple of years. Last week’s UCAS application statistics were probably the beginning of a trend, and institutions like Burston Central were likely to be squeezed badly, maybe catastrophically. He didn’t want to be the VC who presided over the demise of the University, but he couldn’t see any clear way out. Alan’s idea for the University College was interesting, but far too small to make any real impact. But India was definitely expanding. That’s why Sunita had been able to persuade him to come along.

There was no way he was going to be able to find the capital to do what Nottingham had done, and build a replica campus in Ningbo, or a customised one in Malaysia. Even if by some miracle he could find the money, employing UK staff in those countries was really expensive. And probably against Burston Central’s principles, too – it was practically neo-colonialism, as he remembered one of the UCU committee saying when he’d mooted some kind of similar idea in 2007, when the possibility of finding funding hadn’t seemed to remote, and the UK market had seemed to be expanding. Not that he cared about being neo-colonialist, but as he couldn’t afford to set up branch campuses, he might as well take a principled stance.

What if the University College of North Burston idea could provide a model, a template, for emerging markets? What about having a real franchise system, a sort of HE Subway chain? Subway provided the raw ingredients, the recipes, the Health and Safety advice, the training manuals and the marketing information. The franchise holder provided the premises and the staff.  In a similar way, Burston Central could provide all of the teaching materials, the regulations, and the degree certification. It was a genius idea.

It would be pioneering, taking the idea of the university to the masses in an affordable way. And why shouldn’t a for-profit system produce knowledge?  Obviously, all institutions needed to be solvent before they could invest in all the stuff Ron Barnett had put in last week’s Times Higher about higher purpose, which had made him spit his coffee out on the plane to Ahmedabad.  But they could always aspire to that later. 

He’d get the details sorted out later. Even though Alan had left him in the lurch, he now had those two academics seconded to the project, and they seemed to have some notion of what was needed. In any case they were relatively junior; he could soon get them sorted out.

He scribbled frantically on his notepad, shielding the text from Sunita. He wasn’t going to trust anyone else with this idea until he’d got a concrete plan in place. It was fucking brilliant. This was going to be his legacy.  He looked up and gazed at the garlanded dignitaries. Next year, he’d be one of people getting a bouquet on the main platform, and a Queen’s award for export to go with it…

Wading Through Treacle fictionalises the stuff in HE which you couldn’t make up. You can follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebook to be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for updates from Wading Through Treacle. Feel free to send me accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email, too:

If you want to read the Advent Calendar 2012, which has a bit more of a narrative, see the ‘About’ page.


Applications crisis

Inspired by

Alan sat despondently in his office. The latest UCAS figures were in, and they were awful. A 12% drop in applications. Worse than Wales, as the VC had snarled derisively at him. He didn’t really see why it was all his fault. The Marketing department reported directly to the VC, not to him, and that campaign about feeling the love had been bloody awful. However, the Head of Marketing could do no wrong. Maybe if he wore such short skirts he’d get on better with the VC?

He reproached himself for that unworthy thought, and wondered if he should have been spending so much time on the University College of North Burston project, but on the other hand, that was a chance to get students from an entirely different market. It could save the whole university.

He looked at the document open on the screen in front of him. It was headed ‘Emergency UCAS strategy’. The rest of the document was blank. He sighed heavily. 4 January. UCAS deadline 15 January. Most schools’ internal deadline for student drafts: 14 December. There was no way of retrieving the situation now, but the stress ball which had hit the door as he left the VC’s office had left him in no doubt that he was expected to do something.

He got up and made a cup of coffee. Maybe he no longer had a PA, but at least he had a proper coffee machine in his office, courtesy of the previous VC. And his office was big enough for pacing. He paced.

Alan was a mild-mannered sort of person. He’d worked his way slowly up the academic ladder, or steadily, as he preferred to think of it. His wife had been happy to be a homemaker, so he’d been able to move institutions regularly in search of promotion, and to be truthful he much preferred administration to his original research on late 19th century British industrial history (beginning of the end, as he liked to think of it) or to teaching (just the end). Deputy head of department, head of department, pro vice chancellor, deputy vice chancellor. He’d almost got to the top job, but now he was at the end of the line. Bill Noakes had made it clear that they needed to mutually agree his departure. It wasn’t too bad: he had plenty of years of service, and he was going out on a six-figure salary. All the paperwork had been signed and he’d be off in a couple of months. As he paced he tried to analyse why he was feeling so despondent.

His critical thinking skills were a bit rusty – too much public relations and bonhomie at official gatherings, perhaps. But as he thought about the injustice of his situation, he started to get more and more fed up. There was an issue of professional pride at stake here. Why was he taking the blame for everything that went wrong at Burston Central? He’d always been loyal. He liked to think that he’d tempered the VC’s ideas into workable compromises. He was the creative person, the visionary, the one who’d come up with the idea of the University College of North Burston which would save the whole institution.

He straightened his back and strode over to the computer, recklessly ignoring the splashes sent over the side of his cup by the increased pace.  It wouldn’t be his office for much longer, let the next person deal with the stained carpet!

He got out the UCAS figures again. Fuck ‘em. He was going to be logical about this.

A little later, Alan got up from his computer. He carefully locked the workstation screen,  put on his coat and went over to the Sainsbury’s Local which was opposite the main campus. He came out carrying six empty wine boxes and went back up to the sixth floor. He emptied the contents of his desk into the boxes and tucked them carefully behind the door. Then he carried on with his normal duties for the day.

At around 5pm, he returned to his office. The corridor was dark.  He started ferrying the boxes down to his car. Once the last one was safely stowed, he went back up and sat at his desk. He read through the email on this screen one last time.


Bcc: News Desk, Burston Gazette

From: Alan Chilcott, Deputy Vice Chancellor

Subject: Fall in Applications

All staff will be aware of the fall in applications to Burston Central for the next academic year. Despite the best efforts of the Marketing department, our applications are down 12% on this year, worse than the sector average. With our rivals in a similar position, there is no chance of increasing applications for this year without a severe compromise to our entry standards, which is clearly unacceptable to all of you.

This reduction in student numbers will probably translate to a reduction in budget of around 10%. At the Vice Chancellor’s request, I am therefore taking immediate action to mitigate the effects of this. The following courses will now suspend recruitment because their applications are too low for a viable entry:

Media Studies


All modern foreign languages

International Management studies

All other weird-sounding ‘management’ courses

We will be consulting with the relevant unions over a concomitant redundancy programme over the next 90 days. I’ve enjoyed working with you all, but unfortunately, the institution hasn’t shaped up. We tried, but we’ve failed.

He pressed send. Then he shut down the computer, put his Blackberry on the desk, turned out the lights, and left the office. As he walked in the dark towards the lifts, he smiled to himself.  Sod them. And sod their succession planning. They weren’t going to want him back after this.

Wading Through Treacle fictionalises the stuff in HE which you couldn’t make up. You can follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebook to be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for updates from Wading Through Treacle. Feel free to send me accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email, too:

If you want to read the Advent Calendar 2012, which has a bit more of a narrative, see the ‘About’ page.

The T*tler Guide to Burston Central University


BEDDING DOWN  Surprisingly, there isn’t much cheap accommodation available in Central Burston, so you’re in luck – you won’t have to bump into too many of the plebs if you pick up one of the expensive converted warehouse apartments available very close to the University.  If you want to mix it up a bit with other students and locals, then you could try Flyblown Hall, which is in an authentic area of town with lots of curry restaurants. Invest in an account with the local taxi firm so that you don’t get caught out walking back there, though –gun crime is quite high in the neighbouring areas.

THE BIG NIGHTS OUT The Students’ Union is a total dump – don’t even think of going there. Even the Rugby Club doesn’t bother. Instead, try Roxy’s disco in the city centre (no, the name isn’t ironic –it’s still the seventies experience it always has been). Otherwise, there is a KFC near the bus station and several branches of McDonalds. You’ll be getting a real cultural experience – ideal for those sociology students among you! If you want to link up with other like-minded people, hop on the train to London.

THE PUB Next to the University is the Salvation Arms. It sounds like a spit-and-sawdust place, but it actually has a patterned carpet, so it’s more of a spilled-pint-and-sticky-floor place. Serves gassy lager and occasionally has a vile-tasting real ale.

LATE-NIGHT MUNCHIES Cheeky’s café opens late on big nights, not closing till 9pm or so. Ideal for a snack on the way home! But it’s even better on the morning after, with a real builder’s breakfast on offer at bargain prices. With real builders available to ogle. Must visit. In the day, try the University coffee shop. It’s not cheap, but you can mingle with academic staff, who don’t have their own facilities – good for catching your tutor to ask for an extension!

WHAT TO WEAR Girls – Ugg boots, Juicy Couture track suits, big hair, lots of foundation.  Boys – jeans, hoodies, T-shirts with slogans.

WHAT NOT TO WEAR  Anything by Wills or Abercrombie and Fitch, unless you like spending the weekend in A & E.

WORK Attendance is only monitored if you are a foreigner, so nobody will notice if you don’t turn up. Don’t stress over preparing for tutorials – there will be 20 people in each group and you won’t get singled out. Nobody else will prepare either, you’ll get a mini-lecture instead. Generous consideration given to Mitigating Factors, but keep track of the number of grandmothers you’ve disposed of.

WEEKENDS Most Burston Students live at home anyway, but those who don’t will usually head off as the city basically closes down at the weekend. Although Primark opens late on Fridays.

WHAT TO SAY TO THE RELLIES Just say you’re studying in Burston – they will assume it’s ‘the other place’.  Remember, Mummy and Daddy spent a lot of money on your school years and this wasn’t what they expected. Don’t embarrass them any more. If they catch on. emphasise the ethnographic value of being in a different milieu for three years, especially if you’re ‘reading’ sociology.  Or the importance to society of vocational education (this won’t work if you’re studying cultural studies).

ALUMNI thousands every year can’t be wrong.

Wading Through Treacle fictionalises the stuff in HE which you couldn’t make up. You can follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebook to be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for updates from Wading Through Treacle. Feel free to send me accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email, too:

If you want to read the Advent Calendar 2012, which has a bit more of a narrative, see the ‘About’ page.