When Ajay got back to the office, Martin was on the phone. Ajay nodded over to him. He sat down behind his desk and switched on the computer.  As usual, Martin was talking very loudly, and as was often the case, he was outraged. Ajay had no choice but to overhear.

“Fucking cheek. They can’t suddenly bring it up now. They knew all about it when they employed me. This is just because I’m the Union rep, as usual.”

“No. No idea.”

“Yes. OK. I’ll keep you posted. See you at lunchtime.”

Ajay sighed. He knew that he was about to receive a recap of whatever it was that Martin was upset about. Martin put the phone down.

“Hi, Ajay.”

“Martin. Is everything OK?”

“Not really. Got a bit of bad news.”

Ajay realised that he was expected to look concerned. He felt really awkward. It was only four years since he’d graduated himself, and Martin had been one of his lecturers. If he was honest, Martin wasn’t one of his favourite tutors. He knew his subject OK, but he’d never seemed that interested in the students. You’d never go to him with a problem. Bob Barker was much more approachable. And now Martin expected him to listen to his confidences.

“Oh, dear. Well, if you’d rather not talk about it…”

“Oh, no, that’s OK. You’ll know soon  enough anyway.”

Ajay sighed to himself. It had been worth a try.

“When you were a student, Ajay, were there any rumours about me?”

Ajay felt trapped. Martin probably wasn’t expecting him to say anything like lazy, uninterested, or out-of-date. “Er. Not really,” seemed like a safe answer.

“Well. A while ago. I got into a bit of bother. Nothing to do with work. For some reason, someone’s brought it up again. It’s because I’ve just been elected to Academic Board as employee representative, I reckon.”

Ajay wondered whether he could avoid asking what the ‘bit of bother’ was. He hoped so. He tried to be neutral. “Oh, dear. That seems unfair.”

“Unfair? You can say that again. It’s a conspiracy. The Vice Chancellor hates me.”

Ajay hadn’t been there for long enough to realise that the Vice Chancellor was unlikely to have any opinion of Martin whatsoever. “Really? That’s terrible.”

“It is. Well, he won’t get away with it. I’m going to phone the local paper myself.”

Ajay had spent the four years since graduation working for a big accountancy firm which avoided publicity like the plague. “Is that wise? Maybe it will just blow over? ”

Martin looked kindly at him, and shook his head slowly. “Nice idea, Ajay, but these guys are up to something. I don’t trust them. Actually, no, not the local paper, I’ll see if we can get something into the Times Higher.” He picked up the phone again.

“Suki? It’s Martin again. What do you think if we draft something for the Times Higher, about the attack on the democratic process? It could come from you, as branch chair.”

“OK, I’ll do it now and get something over to you.”

Without hanging up the receiver, he clicked on the recall button and redialled.

“Betty? Martin. Got a message for Gordon.”

“He’ll need to get someone to cover my classes this week. I can’t work with this threat hanging over me.”  Martin winked at Ajay. Ajay pretended not to notice.

“OK, put me through.”

“Gordon. Not as busy as Betty thought?”

“I have to tell you that I’m absolutely devastated at the insinuations which are being made about me. You know what a reliable lecturer I am, and the, er, incident which is being brought up has never affected my performance.”

“I don’t know who’s brought it up, but you can’t expect me to teach with this going on. It’s harassment and I need to spend time preparing my defence.”

“It is a defence if I feel harassed, and I do.”

“Well, maybe it is nothing to do with you, but you’re going to need to get someone to cover for me, at least this week.”

“You’re summoning me?”

“It doesn’t sound like a friendly chat to me.”

“Alright then. Not today, though. Thursday?”

“Too early.”

“That’s lunchtime. I’ve got a union meeting.”

“OK. Friday. 11.30.”

He put down the receiver. “Good.” He smirked. “They won’t have it all their own way.”

Ajay was completely flummoxed. What on earth could be going on? How come Martin was allowed to dictate so much to the head of department? That wouldn’t have happened at the accountancy firm. He was torn. He really wanted to find out what Martin was accused of now, but he didn’t want to appear too nosy. Also, maybe it was really personal, in which case it would be better for him not to know. Maybe he’d just finish off his teaching portfolio entry instead. He’d probably soon find out what it was all about. He started typing.

Down in the basement, Bob picked up the phone.

“Bob Barker.”

“Really? Petition? Well, I don’t know. Can you tell me a bit more about it?”

“Mmm. Well, send it over. See you.”

Bob put down the receiver. Sheila looked quizzically at him.

“Have you ever met Martin, my old office-mate?”

Sheila shook her head. “Don’t think so.”

“Well, he’s quite active in the union. And he’s just been elected staff rep on Academic Board.”

“That doesn’t explain a petition.”

“No. Quite. Let me go back a bit. About six years ago, actually, not long after I got here, Martin got into a bit of trouble.”

“With the management?”

“No. The police.”

Sheila raised her eyebrows.

“It wasn’t anything really bad. It was basically a domestic incident. Not that I think there’s anything trivial about those, of course,” he added, hastily, seeing Sheila’s eyebrows rising further. “His girlfriend dumped him. Martin found out she’d got another bloke, and he went over to her flat when she wasn’t in, and cut up all her clothes.”

Sheila looked as though she couldn’t decide whether to smirk or look disapproving.

“She realised it was him, called the police in, he got done for criminal damage. Community service sentence. The University tried to discipline him, but he managed to argue it was nothing to do with his work, so nothing came of it.”

“I suppose… not very good for the University’s reputation, though.”

“Well, no, but it soon blew over. The World Cup was on at the time, it was the summer, no students complained about him. Well, not about that, anyway. His modules don’t get very good ratings, but they don’t seem to be able to do anything about that, either.” Bob realised that he might sound a bit catty. “He’s a nice bloke, really.”

“Hmm. We can’t run an organisation based on people being nice.”

“Maybe not. But it doesn’t hurt if they are. Anyhow. Somehow, it’s all being dragged up again. ‘Violent lecturer elected to key decision-making body in University.’ It doesn’t sound good, does it?”

“Hmm. You weren’t thinking of involving him in the University College of North Burston?”

Bob flinched. “Certainly not. He’s nice, but he’s not the kind of teacher I had in mind.”

“We should be OK, then. At least we aren’t using the Burston Central name. I might just check with Bill what his damage limitation strategy is.” Sheila jotted something in her notebook. “Oh, and, Bob. Unless you really feel strongly about it, I think it would be best to keep out of it.” She looked at him.

Bob looked quizzically at her. “ Are you ordering me not to exercise my democratic rights, boss? I can just see the Union press release now ‘UCNB CEO rides roughshod over academic freedoms.”

Sheila laughed. “No, just giving you some advice. As I said, if you feel strongly…”

“Good advice. I think it will probably blow over again. It’s hardly edifying for anyone. It’s got to be a spent conviction by now, surely?”

“That’s five years, so it should be fine. But if he’s carried on working for the University all that time, then they can’t really bring it up again now anyway. They can’t do anything about the election, either, unless he misrepresented himself in some way. You’re right, it should blow over.”

They both went back to work.

Upstairs, Martin seemed to be doing his best to make sure that it didn’t all blow over.

All characters appearing in these works are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, unless it says otherwise.

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Training for Research Excellence

The Centre for Academic Practice has been tasked with making sure that all academic staff are qualified teachers. They’re making plans.

Off they went, thinking about how to ensure that all teaching staff at the University were in possession of some kind of accreditation of their teaching skills.  Clearly, Hazel intended this discussion to be productive brain-storming. Chris wondered if it would be more accurate to describe it as defeatist whinging.

“We could try workshops, but nobody will come.”

“Can we get HoDs to make it compulsory?”

“We could do all of the support online.” Chris snorted involuntarily and tried to disguise it into a coughing fit. He turned to the wall slightly and rolled his eyes in a direction nobody could see. Hell was likely to freeze over before anybody at Burston Central completed an online course.

The brainstorming session was well into its third cycle of repetition before Hazel decided to call a halt.

“Well, thanks, everyone! Some great ideas there.”

Chris closed his eyes, the better to roll them in peace. He really didn’t think the cheery tone was warranted.

Hazel continued. “Ruth, I saw you taking lots of notes. Could you write us a little summary before our next meeting, please?”

Ruth looked pleased. “Sure. Although I may have written down what I wanted to hear more than what was said, haha. I was just taking notes for myself, really.”

“I’m sure they’ll be terrific.” Hazel looked down at her iPad again. “Now, we really must move on.  What’s next? Oh, yes, research.”

There was a collective groan, followed by the Pavlovian response triggered whenever the team heard the word ‘research’.

“It would be fine if we had time.”

“I’d love to do more, but we haven’t got the right journals.”

“Well if the conference budget would only stretch…”

“What would you like us to stop doing instead?”

“With the quality of most research in Academic Practice, I’m not sure it’s worth bothering.”

Hazel sighed and waited for the familiar responses to be fully rehearsed. She cleared her throat. “Well, I’ve had a meeting with the Research Director, and he agrees with me that we don’t really have anything to contribute to any of the obvious units of study for the REF. Or any units of study, in fact. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.”

She looked round the room. This was a new topic. She wondered if there would be any novel responses. “The Research Director has suggested that we work with, er, with HR…”

She was rudely interrupted.

“Work with HR? Ha bloody ha.” Rich had, after all, found a familiar refrain. “That’ll be the day. They have glacial timescales for getting anything done.” There were murmurs of agreement.

Hazel ignored him. “Work with HR,” she continued more strongly, “to improve the package of support for research staff. The Research Centre wants to aim for the, the,” she looked at her iPad again, “the HR Excellence in Research Award from the European Commission. To get that, we need to, er, have robust implementation plans to show how we attract, manage and develop research staff.”

She looked up. “So, our part of that would be the ‘developing’. We need to put together a special academic practice programme for research staff. HR will probably carry on with all the usual stuff about induction to the university, plus some generic career development material, but we need to think about things like, er, ‘what it means to be a researcher in 21st century Burston Central’, or maybe ‘standing in for your supervisor when je can’t make a lecture’ and that kind of thing. Any other ideas?”

Nobody commented. Chris closed his eyes again. Christ on a crutch. It was hard enough being a PhD student or a post-doc without having pointless staff development inflicted on you. He suspected that wasn’t the kind of comment Hazel was looking for.

“Well, great. Rich, you’ve got research experience. I’d like you to take the lead on this one, please. Can you canvass some views, set up a meeting with the head of Training in HR, and the Research managers for the Schools, and get some ideas together by, say, the last staff meeting of this month?”

Rich preened slightly. “Well, it’s nice to see my previous work being recognised. I’ll do my best to squeeze this in. Does anyone else want to contribute?”

Nobody commented. Chris, the only person in the room with a PhD, sat silently. No chance. Whoever took this on would be lucky to get away with mild abuse of the ‘Those who can, do research. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, become Academic Practice tutors’ variety. Rarely would so little be inflicted on so many. He was pretty confident nobody would remember his research credentials.

Rich smirked. “Oh, OK then. Well, I’ll see if I can get some active researchers to give us some ideas.”

Hazel winced. She wondered if Rich was the most tactful choice. But in all honesty, it wasn’t top of her list of priorities, and he was probably safer on this than on the HEA accreditation. She’d had complaints about his teaching observations before.

Rich read her mind. “Not sure how much time I’ll have for the HEA stuff, though. Sorry, chaps.”

Hazel nodded. “Well, you can’t do everything, can you?” She smiled weakly, and checked her iPad again. She brightened. “Right, everyone, I think that’s all I wanted to tell you about. Anything else anybody wants to chip in?”

It was nearly lunchtime. Nobody said anything. People started to close their notebooks and pick up phones and keys. Chris caught Carol’s eye. She looked as though she did have something to say, but had lost the will to bother. They grinned sheepishly at each other. Rumbled.

“OK, well, thanks, everyone. Same time next week.” Hazel was already almost out of the door.

Chris waited for Carol at the door. “What were you going to say?”

“Oh, nothing really. Just that I got a paper accepted for the HEA conference in July.”

“That’s great, Carol. What’s it on?”

“You know that student partnership thing I was working on? I did some evaluation and wrote it up. Thought it might be worth a try.”

“Brilliant. You should have announced it. I bet nobody else is doing any proper research.”

“Oh, proper research. I don’t know about that. It was just a bit of evaluation.”

Chris smiled at her. “Don’t be so modest. It’s more than most people can manage. Shouldn’t you be contributing  to Rich’s project? It would give a bit of credibility, recent research experience and everything.”

Carol winced. “I seem to be a bit too busy…”

They both giggled. “Fancy a coffee?” said Chris. “We can have a therapy session. No, I mean we can talk about professionalising the academic workforce. Make plans.”

“Good idea. I’ll just get my coat.”

They headed off to the campus coffee shop.

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 Facebookto 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:

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