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: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.

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

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6 thoughts on “From Subprime to Subway

  1. Superb ! Love the notion of an ‘elevator pitch’. That could be my contribution to ‘new modes of assessment’. Sort out the details later…..

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