Team-building

It was three o’clock. The Biology department academic staff sitting in their rows, looking balefully at Camilla, the cheery young trainer from HR. They were flagging, despite, or maybe because of, their above-average lunch. A whole series of new quality procedures had been presented, and possibly immediately forgotten. They’d been told what they needed to do to achieve professional recognition from the Higher Education Academy. Chris had berated their overall research performance and made it clear that the Biology REF submission was entirely dependent on the efforts of his own group.

These weren’t the best conditions for their team-building activity. Unless you could count the fact that they were united in their demotivation.

Phil leaned over and whispered to Alison. “If she tries to make us fall backwards with our eyes closed, I’m leaving.”

Alison sniggered. “It’s probably just another lecture about something or other we’re supposed be doing, but aren’t” she whispered back. “Theme of the day.”

Camilla cleared her throat a couple of times and balanced on tiptoes in excitement. “Hello everybody! Lovely to see you all still here! Well done!”

“Jesus. Like we had a choice.” Phil muttered. Alison pursed her lips in an effort not to snort.

Camilla showed no sign of having heard any noises off. “I know you’ve all been sitting quietly all day, so let’s start with a bit of movement. Can you all stand up, please?”

There was some rustling and grumbling as they all got up reluctantly from their comfortable chairs. Suspicious looks were exchanged.

“Great! Now, I’d like you all to walk across the room and find someone you haven’t spoken to today.” The rest of the sentence was drowned out as they all followed the initial instruction. Eventually, everyone had reached somewhere. They all turned expectantly to Camilla.

She raised her voice a little. “Great! Now. Tell your partner something that you really like about them. I mean about their work.”

A silence fell across the room. Pairs of biology staff looked at each other. There were some muffled giggles, then they reluctantly complied. The level of noise grew as they lapsed into conversation again.

Camilla clapped her hands.  Eventually silence fell. “Marvellous! I hope you heard something you appreciated! I’m sure you did! Now. Let’s not go back to those rows of chairs. Can you give me a hand to move them out of the way?”

A reasonable amount of chaos ensued as the adage of ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ was comprehensively demonstrated. After about ten minutes, the chairs were stacked more or less tidily at the sides of the room. People looked with trepidation at the empty space in the middle. Alison was struggling to keep a straight face. “At least we’re getting paid for this,” she murmured to Phil.

Camilla frowned. “Oh dear. Not as much space as I’d thought. We’ll have to go in two circles.”

Circles? The word generated a collective shudder.

She moved into position. “OK everyone. Can you form a circle from here,” she pointed to her left. “Round to here,” she pointed to her right. “And then another one behind. Concentric.” She swept her arms from behind her round to the front, then back again, showing what a circle looked like. “Maybe a third if we need it,” she added, uncertainly.

After a fair amount of shuffling, grumbling, and groaning from those who hadn’t sat on the floor for some time, they were settled. “I wonder if she’s going to tell us a story, once we’re all sitting comfortably,” Phil whispered. Alison snorted. Camilla turned her head to find the source of the noise. She looked hurt. Geoff looked daggers at Alison. “Sorry,” she mouthed.  She looked hard at the pattern on the carpet. Strangely swirly.

Camilla lifted her hands above her head. When the room was silent, she started to talk in a different tone from her previous one. Calmer. Slower.  “Burston Central is successful. But to make it so, everyone has to work so hard. This is an opportunity to take a step back. We all lead such busy lives. Can you all close your eyes, please?”

The level of sniggering rose significantly. People looked at each other, half embarrassed, half hysterical. Geoff glared around the circles until everyone he could see had complied with the request.

Camilla slowed her speech still further. “Now. We’re going to visit the temple of the dolphins.”

Suppressed giggles rippled around the room.

“To get to the temple of the dolphins, we have to fly over the oceans….”

Alison had no choice but to tune out. There was no way she could listen to this without tipping over into complete hysteria. She focused back in on what she needed to do to sort out collecting in the dissertation marks. That would probably take most of Monday. It was always hard to get everyone’s marks. Sometimes she thought it might be easier to mark all ninety herself.

Camilla continued. Every now and then, Alison tuned back in. “…the dolphins work together to find food. They are committed to the Temple. In the dolphin nursery, the young are cared for by…..”

“Anthropomorphic nonsense,” thought Alison. “What is the fucking point of this?” She opened her eyes suddenly, worried that she may have spoken the thought out loud. Everyone was still sitting, heads bent. Probably doing the same thing as her.

The description of the dolphins seemed endless, but eventually, Camilla came to a stop. She leaped to her feet. “Aren’t they marvellous, the dolphins?” She didn’t wait for an answer. She seemed to be re-energised. She bounded over to the computer. “Now, let’s watch this video of dolphins, and see how they work together in teams. Probably best if you just stay sitting there. It’ll take too long to get the chairs back out. ”

Obediently, they swivelled on the floor until they could all see the screen. Camilla pressed ‘play’.

The title came up. ‘What Dolphins Can Teach Us About Teamwork’. What followed was a fairly dire compilation of clips, narrated by an enthusiastic American who was clearly just making things up as he went along. Camilla watched rapt, oblivious to the raised eyebrows and sarcastic expressions being exchanged around the room.

Fortunately it was only about ten minutes long.

Once it had finished, Camilla turned back to her group, still sitting in their ragged circles in the middle of the room. “Wasn’t that marvellous?”

There was no response. “Now, can you each tell the person sitting next to you what you’ve learned about team-work from this journey to the temple of the dolphins?”

One or two people stood up at this point. Camilla frowned. “Bad back.” one of them offered. She looked more sympathetic, and nodded understandingly. This was a cue for a mass movement, with colleagues united in helping each other up.

Camilla clapped her hands. “So, what have you learned?”

“I’ve learned that dolphins are very sensible not to have an HR department,” Phil said under his breath. Apart from that, nobody spoke.

“Don’t be shy! What do you think?”

Jan put up her hand.

“Yes! Do share!”

“I’ve learned that dolphins aren’t like people, particularly not like academics, and I can’t see any connection at all between them and us. We’re all individualists.” There was another outbreak of sniggering.

Camilla looked as though someone had slapped her. “Oh dear. That wasn’t what I was hoping you would learn.”

Geoff took pity on her. “Thank you, Camilla. I’m sure we’ve learned that by sharing goals and working together, we’ll achieve something greater.”

She brightened a little. “Exactly. So important.”

Geoff looked at his watch. “Well, thank you, Camilla, that was absolutely, er, fascinating.”

Everyone was still standing. Geoff couldn’t really see everyone. It wasn’t ideal. Much better if they’d been sitting in rows looking at him, as they had been earlier. He raised his voice. “Well, thank you for coming, everyone.” The crowd began to move towards the edges of the room, where coats and bags were stacked.  He raised his voice. “Just before you go, there was another announcement I forgot to make this morning.”

The rustling died down again. He cleared his throat. “It’s just about arrangements for resits.”

Resits? They all knew the arrangements for those. His team looked impatiently at him.

He cleared his throat again. “Er. There’s been a decision on high to make some changes this year.”

He took a much-folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket. “Resits will be in the second week of August, as usual. So that we can do the marking when you’re back in for Clearing, as usual. But there will be some changes to the, er, arrangements, beforehand.” He looked at the paper and read out the rest of what he had to say very rapidly. “We are expected to give more formal support to resit students between the exam board and the resit. Someone from every module must be on duty every day to give students advice and guidance. Alison will be sorting out a rota so please  don’t book any annual leave until that’s done. Right. Thanks for coming, have a good break, see you next term.”

He kept his head down as he refolded the paper and put it back in his pocket, and then began to edge towards the door. A silence had fallen. Briefly. Then the outrage of his team began to be expressed much more forcefully. They began to move towards him.

“It’s the only time we can get away.”

“I’ve already booked my holiday.”

“When CAN we take leave then? Exam-marking time? Clearing? Induction? Middle of term?”

Geoff kept inching towards the door. “I’m sure we can sort it out. Edict from on high. Got to go along with it. Need to support the students, don’t we?”

He reached the door. “Got to go to the loo.” He wrenched the door open and hurried down the corridor. In the Gents, he locked himself in a cubicle and resolved to stay there until they must all be gone. He shuddered. What a bloody disaster of a day. Waste of money.


Wading Through Treacle is entirely fictional. 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. For last year’s advent calendar, see The Unknown Tutor.

Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.

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Staff Development

It was Monday morning. Alison was feeling particularly grumpy. She’d had to work through most of the weekend, marking dissertations. And today had been blocked out for the Biology Department staff development session. She couldn’t think of a worse way to spend the day. It was the first day of the vacation. She had a pile of admin to finish off, and she needed to start chasing up the other dissertation markers before they disappeared on actual holidays.

Not only that, but the venue for the ‘Awayday’ was on the other side of town, and required her to take two buses, with a good mile of walking between them. And it was pouring with rain.

And to cap it all, at the end of the day the department were all  going out for a meal to mark the departure of a long-standing colleague. If anyone had asked her, she’d have thought that he’d left years ago, for all the impact he had on the department.

Derek, Emma and Ben kept well out of her way.

Eventually, she was on the bus. She opened her iPad and started reading a journal article which she’d downloaded several weeks previously and hadn’t quite got round to during term-time. Now she was reading it, she couldn’t for the life of her remember why she had thought it would be interesting. It seemed pretty irrelevant to her research interests. She skipped to the reference list. Nothing she recognised.

She closed the app and opened up a game of Solitaire instead. Sod them.

The conference venue was a shiny new building which formed part of the University of Burston expansion. Alison peeled off her soaking wet anorak at the Reception desk. “Burston Central Biology.”

“Good morning, Madam. That’s marvellous. You’re in the Shattock room, just down at the very end of this corridor.”

Alison was sure the receptionist was being sarcastic. She looked at him suspiciously. Was he making some kind of ironic comment about them being from a poorer university, without its own conference facilities? “Is there anywhere I can leave this?” She flapped her anorak towards him, causing a shower of raindrops to fall onto the highly polished wooden surface.

He reached under his desk for a cloth and started rubbing at the water. “Of course, Madam. The cloakroom is just over here. Shall I take it for you?” He looked as though he would rather walk across hot coals.

“No, that’s fine. I’ll manage.” Alison bent and gathered her things together.  It took a while, somewhat spoiling her attempt to look dignified.

She took her time hanging up her coat. Then she visited the Ladies. Then she went back to Reception.

“Is there anywhere I can get a coffee?”

“There are refreshments in your meeting room, Madam.” The receptionist managed to convey his disappointment that she could think that such a thing would have been overlooked in his establishment. Or perhaps that the standard of service was so much poorer at Burston Central?

“Oh. Thank you.”

She couldn’t put it off any longer. She walked slowly down the corridor to the Shattock room.

She was hoping that the meeting would be about to start by the time she got there, but inside the room everyone was still standing around.  The chairs were laid out in neat rows facing a screen.

There was a concentration of people to the left of the room, presumably where the refreshments were. Alison pushed her way gently through the groups, murmuring brief hellos. Her frigid expression helped to create a small space around her. She helped herself to coffee. Fucking staff development days. What a waste of time.

There was a large plate to the right of the coffee flasks, containing quite appetising-looking pastries. She was unable to prevent herself from thinking that this was a big treat. ‘Pastries. Ooh.’  She helped herself.

“They’re really good.” Sally came up to her. “What a treat. Pastries!”

Alison allowed a small smile to form. How feeble they all were. A pound’s  worth of cake, and they were all happy. Still, the pastries were good.

Geoff was hovering near the screen at the front of the room. “Er. Colleagues.” He raised his voice. “Colleagues. Shall we make a start?”

Reluctantly, they shuffled towards the seats. A small queue formed around the flasks again, but eventually, everyone was settled.

Geoff was moving impatiently from foot to foot. “Right then, colleagues. Let’s make a start. Lots to get through. Just before we get going, I’ve got a couple of announcements.”

He looked down at his notes. “Right. OK. Well, I’m pleased to say that Phil and Sally have agreed to step in as Joint Acting Course Leaders following Alison’s departure. They’ll be shadowing Alison until the summer. We’ll advertise during the autumn term.

“And there’s something else I just want to flag up. We’re going to need to do a review of assessment practices before September. I’ve asked Sally to co-ordinate this. We’ll need to look at everyone’s assessment strategies.” He looked hard at Jan, but she was staring at her phone, and didn’t seem to be listening.

“OK. Let’s get on. We’ve got a packed programme today, so we need to keep to time.” He looked around the room, making eye contact with as many people as possible. Alison was fighting back the urge to giggle. She looked at the window in an effort to distract herself. Outside, there were trees in blossom.

Geoff continued. “OK. Well. This morning, we’re going to hear from Diane, from the Quality Department, about the new procedures for,” he looked down at his notes again. “For engagement monitoring.  And plans for the QAA visit in three years’ time. And then Hazel from the Centre for Academic Practice has kindly agreed to come and explain the new, er, professional recognition scheme. Then it’ll be time for lunch, which I’m told is very good here. After lunch, Chris is going to come and update us on progress towards the Research Excellence Framework submission, and we’ll finish off the day with a team-building session from HR.”

A chorus of sighs greeted this dispiriting agenda, providing an appropriate audio accompaniment to the eye-rolling which had met each of the topic announcements.

Jan raised her hand.

“Yes, Jan?”

“Geoff. I thought you told us that attendance was compulsory.”

“Yes, and thank you all for coming along, of course.”

“Where’s Chris, then?”

“Chris? He’s coming along after lunch.”

An expectant silence fell.  Geoff realised that something more was needed.

“He’s got important research obligations this morning.”

There was an outbreak of muttering. Geoff rushed on. “Anyway, let’s get going, shall we? Diane, over to you.”


Wading Through Treacle is entirely fictional. 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. For last year’s advent calendar, see The Unknown Tutor.

Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.

Reposted from earlier in the year: The Bunker

Bob looked up from his screen and stretched his arms out. It was eight o’clock in the morning, and he’d been sitting there for an hour and a half already. He smiled over at Sheila, who was sitting on the other side of the double desk. She didn’t notice. She was writing in her notebook.

They were sitting in a tiny room with no windows. There was just about space for the two desks pushed together, two filing cabinets, and a small occasional table for the kettle and two mugs. It wasn’t the most promising location for the great white hope of Burston Central University. But Bob thought it was fitting. At the moment, only he and Sheila were working on the project. They didn’t need any more space, and as an ex-forensic accountant, he approved of the parsimony being shown at this stage in the project. Later on they’d need to demonstrate their financial backing, and they had a guarantee of half a million pounds of investment from the VC’s special projects fund.

Sheila looked up. “Everything alright?”

“Yes, boss. Just thinking about resource allocation for the refurbishments.”  He tugged on an imaginary forelock. They both smiled.

“I’m just trying to get this recruitment strategy thought through.” Sheila said. “We’re going to have to advertise vacancies fairly soon, or we won’t be able to get admissions going in time. But once we do that, the whole thing’s going to go public.”

Bob grimaced. The plan to set up the new University College of North Burston was pretty well developed, but the timings they were working to were all disrupted by the secrecy of the project.

The door handle was pressed down and there was a thud outside. They both started. It was pretty quiet in the basement and nobody but them ever usually came into the office. They held meetings off-site, or up in the Vice Chancellor’s suite. The door burst open.

“Bloody hell, what’s wrong with that door?” Bill Noakes was in the room, breathing heavily.

“It sticks, Vice Chancellor.”

“So I see. Bloody hell, you want to get that seen to.”

“We’re sort of used to it.” Sheila was usually cool around the VC. She didn’t like him much, and unlike Bob, she wasn’t intimidated by him. “What a pleasant surprise, Vice Chancellor. We don’t usually see you down here.” Actually, they’d never seen him down there. She was surprised that he knew there was a basement.

“What? Oh, yes.“ The VC looked round, as though he’d mislaid something. He turned slightly and put an arm back out into the corridor. “This is Steve.”  He pulled someone into the room.

It was now rather crowded in the tiny office. Bob and Sheila stood up automatically to greet the new arrival. Steve looked to be in his mid-thirties, neatly dressed in an inexpensive suit and a plain tie. He had a small rucksack.

Bob put out his hand. “Bob. Nice to meet you.”

Sheila did likewise. They all turned to the VC expectantly.

“Er, Steve’s going to help you out with the UCNB project. He’ll be working on an international angle.” Bill fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper torn from his notebook. “Franchising, new business model, available to new markets.” he added. He shoved the piece of paper into Bob’s hand.

“Right, better get off, interviewing for the new DVC today, mustn’t be late.” The VC squeezed past Steve and disappeared.  Bob and Sheila looked at Steve.

“I’ll go and find another chair.” Bob put the paper in his pocket and also squeezed past Steve, who hadn’t moved from the doorway, and followed the VC out into the corridor. Bill was already over at the lift, which was still at the basement floor. He gave Bob a slight wave and stepped firmly inside. Bob sighed and headed off in the opposite direction. There were a couple of chairs down by the laundry room. They’d seen better days. He leaned experimentally on the one which looked stronger. It seemed safe enough.

Back in the office, Sheila had got the kettle on and had managed to get Steve to sit down in Bob’s chair.

“Bob, this isn’t Steve. It’s Stefan.”

Bob automatically stuck his hand out again. “Hello, Stefan. Nice to meet you.”

Stefan nodded at him.

Sheila handed Stefan a cup of instant coffee. “Milk? Sugar?”

He shook his head.

Bob wondered if he could speak at all. Although Sheila must have managed to talk to him. He sat down on the new chair and waited.

“Stefan was the manager at Subway, Bob.”

He looked at her blankly.

“You know, the one down Challoner street, down from Cheeky’s. The sandwich place. You know, Subway, the sandwich chain.”

Bob finally understood what kind of subway was being discussed. “I thought it was closing down.”

“Yes, that’s why Stefan is here.”

Stefan took a sip of his coffee, and winced.

Bob felt none the wiser. What was the connection between the University College of North Burston and the manager of a failed sandwich shop? “Oh.” he offered.

Sheila smiled at him. “No, I haven’t a clue either.”

Bob felt relieved. He pulled the VC’s piece of paper out of his pocket. It was headed ‘new international strategy’, in terrible handwriting. There were two columns. One was headed Subway, and underneath, it said:  raw ingredients, recipes, Health and Safety, training manuals, marketing information.

The other column was headed Burston Central. Its column included teaching materials, regulations, and degree certification.

“Any clarification there?” Sheila put her hand out for the piece of paper.

Bob handed it over. Subway. Universities. International. “Not sure. Yes. Maybe. I wonder if the VC is thinking about franchising.”

Stefan nodded vigorously. “Franchising. Yes. Subway is franchise.”

Bob tried to place the accent. Eastern European?

Sheila shrugged. “God knows what it’s all about. But we could do with some help around here. Stefan, do you have a CV?”

“Of course.” Stefan bent over and took a neat folder out of his backpack and passed it to Sheila.

She flicked through it. “Has the Vice Chancellor seen this, Stefan?”

He shook his head. “No. He said no need. Could see my special skills.”

Sheila rolled her eyes. “OK. Did he give you a contract or anything?”

“No, not yet. He said you would sort out.”

“OK. How about a job title? And when did he say you could start?”

“Special Project Assistant. Grade 6. Now.”

Sheila wasn’t sure whether Stefan was a man of few words, or whether his English was limited, or whether he was just feeling out of his depth. Or all three. His CV was actually pretty impressive, if the translation was accurate. First degree in economics from the University of Warsaw, classification A1* – she presumed that was good. Masters in enterprise development, worked as a management consultant to small companies for ten years after graduation. Then it looked as though he’d come to the UK in 2009, and then things got a bit less graduate-like. Waiter, Assistant manager at a series of fast food places, followed by nine months at the local Subway. Not very relevant to a university.

She sighed. What was Bill playing at? She wouldn’t be able to talk to him today, if they were interviewing for Alan’s replacement.

Stefan was looking at her expectantly. She passed the CV over to Bob.

“Stefan. We’ll need to sort out a proper contract for you. And take up some references. There will be a probationary period of, er, three months. During that time, you’ll be working for Bob and me helping us out with our big project, and then we’ll see about this special, er, franchising project. How does that sound?”

Stefan shrugged his shoulders. “Sounds fine. I can start now.”

Sheila looked round the office. “Well, as you can see, we don’t have very much space at the moment. And you’ll need a contract, or you won’t be covered by our insurance. And I’ll need you to sign a confidentiality agreement. So it does need a bit of organisation. Is this contact information current?”

Stefan nodded.

“OK, I’ll get in touch with you tomorrow, with a view to you starting next week. How’s that?”

Stefan shrugged again. “OK.”

“I’ll need to see all of your qualification certificates, and your passport,” she continued.

Stefan took another folder from his rucksack. “All here.”

“Great,” said Sheila. “I’ll just go and copy these, that’ll be one less thing to sort out.”

She took the folder and stood up. “I’ll be about ten minutes. The copier’s on the first floor. Perhaps Bob will make you another coffee while you’re waiting.”

Stefan shook his head. “No thanks.”

Sheila left the office. There was a silence. Bob thought he’d better say something. “So, Stefan. How did you meet the Vice Chancellor?”

“Vice Chancellor?”

“Professor Noakes. The man who brought you down here.”

“Oh, Mester Noakes. He come in for Subs often. We chat sometimes. The other week, I tell him we are closing, and he says he has job for me. So I am here. ”

Bob wasn’t sure what to say. “What do you know about Burston Central University?”

Stefan shrugged. “Not so much. Big university. Many students. Not so good as other one maybe? Less money?”

Bob smiled. “Something like that. Here’s a prospectus.” He passed one over.

“Did you have a specialism when you were a management consultant?” Bob asked.

“Lot of general help for small businesses. Lot of small manufacturers supplying multinationals. Cultural context, western-style costing, accounting. And all that health and safety, ethical business, human resources. You know.”

Bob nodded at him. “Sounds interesting. Do you miss it?”

Stefan shrugged yet again. “Yes, a little. But it’s OK here. Different. “

Bob gave up. “I’m sure you’ll find this project very interesting, given your background. Sure you don’t want another coffee?”

Stefan shook his head. “Is there anything I can do before next week? I like to be busy.”

“I don’t think so. It’s a rather confidential project. I know it doesn’t look like much at the moment.” They both looked rather gloomily round the office.

Sheila came back in. she handed Stefan back his folder of qualifications. “That’s great, Stefan. Impressive qualifications. I’m sure we’re going to enjoy working with you.”

She looked meaningfully at Bob. He stood up. “Yes, just leave us to sort out the paperwork, Stefan, and we’ll look forward to seeing you next week.”

Stefan took the hint. He shook their hands and squeezed past them into the corridor. “I’ll see you to the main entrance.” Bob said. “It’s a bit of a rabbit warren down here.”

Sheila shut the door behind them and sat back down at her desk. There were times when she wondered if the Vice Chancellor was just having a huge joke at their expense. Or someone else’s expense.  She sighed and added Stefan to her ‘to-do’ list. Bill hadn’t told anyone in HR about their project yet, so she couldn’t sort it out with them. She’d have to put Stefan on a consultancy contract to start with. Well, that would cover the probationary period. By then, the company would be incorporated and they’d be able to issue their own contracts. She wondered if Bill had the slightest idea about the nuts and bolts of running a business.


Wading Through Treacle is entirely fictional. 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. For last year’s advent calendar, see The Unknown Tutor.

Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.

Moral Panic

Spring was definitely in the air at Burston Central.

Ajay walked across the park. He felt that he was starting to get the hang of things a bit. That lecture had started and finished on time.  Everyone seemed to have taken part in the activity he’d included to break up the rhythm a bit, and four different students had answered questions. He’d had time to include reference to the exam and how what they’d covered that session might be related to it. He’d made an appointment to sit down with the lecturer he was replacing, Bob, to discuss the exam and the marking schemes. He smiled to himself.

“Mr Metha! Mr Mehta!”

Ajay took a moment to realise that someone must be calling him. Nobody ever called him that. He turned round.

A young woman was trotting towards him. She caught up with him and took a deep breath. “Mr Mehta. Have you got a minute?”

Ajay didn’t recognise her, but he presumed she was from the Corporate Accounting lecture which had just finished. There were three hundred students in the group. He hadn’t made any attempt to remember faces, let alone names. “Sure.”

He waited.

“Could we go and get a coffee?”

Ajay thought for a second. He’d finished teaching for the day, but he had some preparation to do for his PGC session that evening. It shouldn’t take too long. He was good at speed-reading, and nobody really checked up whether they’d done it or not.

“Well. OK.” As he said it, he wondered if he was actually allowed to go for coffee with a student. Nobody had said anything about it, but he couldn’t remember anything like that ever happening when he’d been an undergraduate. “I haven’t got too long. What’s it about?”

The woman smiled. “I’ll tell you in a minute.”

They fell into step. At the exit to the park, Ajay turned slightly to the left, towards the main building. There was a coffee shop on the ground floor.

“Oh, let’s go somewhere else,” said the woman. “I know a nice little place just down here.” She touched Ajay lightly on the arm and set off down Challoner Street.

Ajay followed her. He was about half a pace behind. His cheerful mood had dissipated and he felt very anxious. He looked round to see if he could see anyone he knew. He wasn’t sure if that would be a good thing, or a bad thing.

He was just trying to think of an excuse for leaving when the woman turned into a run-down looking café.

“Coffee’s not great, but it’s quiet,” she offered.

Ajay inhaled deeply. He was probably jumping to all of the wrong conclusions.

They stood at the counter. There was a laminated price list printed in tiny font, propped up against some sauce bottles.

Tea £1

Coffee £1.20

Hot choc €1.50

‘Euros?’ thought Ajay. ‘Euros?’

The woman behind the counter cleared her throat.

“Um. Do you have any herbal tea?” As soon as he’d said it, he knew what the answer would be.

“From the university, are you?”

He nodded.

“Never mind, ducks. PG all right?”

“Of course, of course. And, er, er, what are you having?” He turned to the student.

“Coffee. Black, no sugar.”

“Cups or mugs?”

Ajay stared at the waitress. “Er. I don’t know. Mugs?”

“Two-twenty, duck.”

He paid for the drinks. He was still wondering what the difference between cups and mugs was was when they sat down at a sticky table in the corner.

“Cups are paper.” said the woman.

“Sorry?”

“You asked what the difference was. Cups are paper, mugs are, whatever these are.”

“China.” Ajay completed the sentence automatically. “Did I?

“Did you what?”

“Did I say that out loud?”

“Say what?”

“Never mind. Anyway, er, er, what was it you said I could help you with?”

“I didn’t say you could help me, did I? I just asked you if you had a minute.” She winked at him.

Ajay felt a deep blush forming. He picked up his mug and held it in front of his face. The student leaned over the table towards him.

Ajay was as far back towards the wall as he could manage. He sat rigidly, holding the mug up and slightly away from him. His mind was completely blank. What was he doing there?

The student smiled. She leaned back in her seat. “Don’t worry, Prof, I don’t have any evil intentions.” She paused.  “Although….”

She burst out laughing. “You should see your face, Prof.”

Ajay tried to look as though he didn’t know what she was talking about. “I’m sorry. Have I missed something?” He wished he knew her name. He felt at a complete disadvantage.

“Well. I’m the course rep for Accountancy. A few of us, we’ve got something we want to bring up, but it’s, er, a bit delicate. So we thought we’d try to get some advice.”

Ajay must have continued to look as though he hadn’t a clue what was going on. Which was now true. “Advice,” she went on. “From you.”

“From me? Advice?”

Ajay couldn’t imagine why anyone in the university would ask him for advice.

“It’s about Martin.”

Ajay felt really lost. “Martin?”

“Yeah. You know, Martin, another lecturer in Accountancy?”

Dimly, Ajay made the connection with his office-mate.

“Martin. What about him?”

“We want to make a complaint.”

“Complaint. Complaint. Complaint?” Ajay had never heard of students making a complaint. Large-scale grumbling, yes. He’d done plenty of it himself when he was a student. Shafting the department  anonymously in the National Student Survey, yes. You only had to look at the figures. But a complaint sounded much more serious.

“Yes, Prof. A complaint. Inappropriate behaviour.”

Once again, Ajay was assailed by pure panic. It had been bad enough ten minutes ago, when he’d thought the student was trying to get him to engage in some inappropriate behaviour. Now he was about to be presented with someone else’s? He tried to think of a suitable response.

“Oh dear.” That probably wasn’t strong enough. “That sounds very serious.” That was better. “What exactly is it that Martin is supposed to have done?”

He wondered if he should be asking for any details at all. Maybe that wasn’t the procedure. What was the procedure?

The student blurted out a list of complaints. “He’s just generally unprofessional. Turns up late. Cancels sessions without notice. His teaching notes look ancient. He never uses recent cases. He doesn’t seem to be up to date with the legislation.”

She stopped, and took refuge in her mug. She seemed deflated now that she’d told him.

Ajay felt relieved. It could have been worse. That sounded fairly normal, if his own experience as a student had been anything to go by. Not that it was professional behaviour, but he didn’t think it was anything that would be taken seriously in the department.

“Well, er, er,” dammit, it was such a handicap not knowing people’s names. “ Thank you for mentioning your concerns. I’m not sure what the official procedures are. I haven’t’ been here very long. Leave it with me. If you just write down your email address here, then I’ll let you know when I find out.”

He pulled an undistributed handout from his bag, and felt around for a pen. “Here we are.”

He wrote ‘complaints’ on the back of the handout and then passed the paper and pen across the table.

“Right, well, as I say, thanks for letting me know. I’ll be in touch soon.” Ajay took the paper back and stood up.

“I won’t get into trouble, will I?” The student had lost all of her previous bounciness. “It won’t affect my marks? You won’t tell Martin it was me who complained?”

“No, no, of course not. We’re a professional organisation. We always treat concerns in confidence and we value your feedback.” He had absolutely no idea, but that’s what they always said in the accountancy firm when customers complained.

“Right, I must be off. I’ll be in touch soon.” He waved the paper at her.

As he opened the door, he was sure that he heard the waitress whispering something about herbal tea to her colleague. They giggled.


Wading Through Treacle is entirely fictional. 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. For last year’s advent calendar, see The Unknown Tutor.

Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.

Reposted from earlier in the year: Speed-dating

Bill Noakes is in India. He’s been inspired, and has now started to develop his marvellous internationalisation idea.


Later that day, the tent had been reorganised into rows of tables. Each table had a little flag on it, indicating the non-Indian institution being represented. All of the Gujarati delegates were standing at the entrance to the tent, waiting for a signal. Two chairs were placed on the each side of each table. Bill and Sunny sat together. Sunny was giving Bill a last minute briefing.

“So, we’re agreed that we want to look for institutions who are interested in a mixed relationship.”

Bill looked at her helplessly. “Mixed relationship? Is that something to do with our diversity policy?”

Sunita sighed. “Vice Chancellor. You know, we discussed it on the plane. A mixed relationship is one where we have a range of joint activities. Some courses which are partly taught in India and then students come to us for the final year. Some exchanges, where our students go to India and some of their students come to us. Some shared staff development.”

Bill nodded absently. It sounded routine.

Sunny finished her list. “No simple accreditation deals, remember the University of Wales, but some courses which are franchised.”

Bill tuned back in. “Franchising?” How did she know about his ideas?

Sunny raised her eyebrows. “Yes, Vice Chancellor. When the partner institution runs our courses, exactly as we do. OK, here we go.”

Bill didn’t have time to ask her any more. A bell rang, and the Indian delegates surged forward. They spread out quickly and selected tables. Two people sat down at the Burston Central table, proffering business cards. Bill took one. It was in Hindi.  “Er, thanks, Dr, Professor, Sir….”

“Professor Mumtasa Singh, Ahmedabad All-India Institute for Legal Studies.” Professor Singh took the business card back, turned it over, and passed it back to Bill. “It’s in English on that side. This is my colleague, Dr Mehta. And you’re from Burston Central University? I know Burston well. I spent two years at the University of Burston, doing my Masters. ”

Bill had recovered. He put out his hand. “Yes, Professor Bill Noakes, Vice Chancellor. And this is Sunita Hundal, Head of International Partnerships.”

Sunita touched her hands together and murmured “Namastay, Professor Singh. Dr Mehta.”. She handed their business cards over to their guests. “We don’t have very long, do we? What kinds of international collaborations might interest you at the AII Legal Studies? We’re very keen to focus on franchising arrangements. Our Law, Business and Accountancy programmes are proving popular, and we can guarantee Professional Body accreditation with them, which is recognised by the Indian government.”

Bill stared at her. She’d got the wrong end of the stick. He didn’t want to partner with existing institutions. He wanted to set up a whole chain of mini-Burstons. Ninja Burstons, sharing the principles of lean delivery and value for money across the sub-continent. They needed to be staffed by fresh teams, tutors who weren’t obsessed with research, or jaded by institutional politics. This was going to be a brave new world. There would be no room for established hierarchies in his vision.

Professor Singh was quizzing Sunita in some detail. Dr Mehta was taking notes. The bell rang again. “Chello” said Professor Singh. They stood up. “Thank you, Ms Hundal. Professor Noakes.” He shook hands with Sunny and nodded to Bill, and they moved along to the next table.

“Is everything alright, Vice Chancellor?” Sunny asked. “Did you need me to update you on anything?”

Bill looked at her. “I was just wondering if this franchising to other institutions was the right way for us to go.”

Sunny’s jaw dropped. “It’s what the International Partnerships committee agreed at its last meeting. I think you sent your apologies. But I went over it with you on the plane.”

Before they could discuss it any further, another pair of academics sat down in front of them, holding out business cards. This time, Bill was ready. “Professor Noakes, Burston Central. We’re pretty booked up now, so we probably won’t be looking at new partnerships. But was there anything special you wanted to ask us about?”

Sunny forced a smile. “Just his little joke, gentlemen. You know, keeping the session fresh, so you remember us!”

The two men smiled weakly. “Ah, the famous British sense of humour. Ha, ha.”

Sunny continued. “We’re very interested in finding out more about your institution and the possibility of partnerships, aren’t we, Vice Chancellor?” She glared at him. She would have like to kick him discreetly, but she didn’t quite dare. Bill said nothing.

“Vice Chancellor, you look a little pale. Do you perhaps need to get some refreshment, while I talk to our esteemed colleagues for a moment? Perhaps catch up on your urgent messages?”

Bill narrowed his eyes. He knew an operator when he saw one in action. Not bad, actually, although she did need to remember that he was the VC and he could make life very uncomfortable.

Sunny stared coolly back at him. He paid her to look after international partnerships, and that’s what she was going to do. It had taken her months to get an invitation to ICAI, and about the same time again to persuade Phyllis to get Bill to come along. Burston Central was the only post-92 in the bottom quartile of the league table to get invited, and she was going to make the most of the opportunity.

The two visitors were watching the sideshow. Bill realised that they weren’t giving the best impression of Burston Central. Ah, what did it matter about the speed-dating whatsits today? It wasn’t really competition He could veto anything he didn’t like later. He summoned up one of his fake smiles and glanced down at the business cards he was holding. “No, Sunita, I’m really keen to hear more about, er, the Gujarat Normal College and the possibilities for partnership with Burston Central.” He might as well get a bit of market research out of them while he was there. He fixed the smile into place, and took out his notepad.


Wading Through Treacle is entirely fictional. 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. For last year’s advent calendar, see The Unknown Tutor.

Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.

Justifications

On Tuesday morning, Geoff got into work early. He dialled Jan’s number. He didn’t expect her to be there, but he thought it would be a good idea to leave her an early voice mail.

“Jan, it’s Geoff. Tuesday morning. Can you come down to my office as soon as you get in?”

He replaced the receiver with a heavy sigh. He’d hardly slept since Saturday. How was he going to tackle this? What would he say to Jan? What if there was something wrong with her, and she collapsed or something when he challenged her marking? She’d already been very difficult with him after he’d challenged her over offering extra marks to students who were nice to her, and docking marks from those who were late, or discourteous. Given that one of the students from the module had offered him a bribe, possibly, he had to wonder whether the peak in good marks was entirely natural. And the fact that there hadn’t been any moderation….if the Quality Assurance Agency found out….

He sat at the desk for a while, fretting.

He wondered if it was too early for a nip of whisky. Well, he knew it was too early. But it was an exceptionally difficult day. He kneeled down next to the cupboard and unlocked it. Turning over a glass, he poured a generous shot, downed it in one, then locked the cupboard again.

Leaning heavily on the top of the cupboard, he hauled himself up and flopped back into his executive chair. This was not how he’d imagined the role of Head of Department. He’d thought that the department just ticked away quietly more or less on its own, staffed by autonomous and independent academics. His idea of the role had been to ditch his teaching, carry on with his research, attend senior staff meetings and then just do a bit of admin to join things up a bit. How was it that he’d had no idea about recruitment targets, quality action planning, TRansparent Approach to Costing, audits, or the endless cycle of course reviews? Why was it so difficult to replace and recruit academic staff? And that was without thinking about the discovery that the Dean was a micromanager of epic proportions. Nor the seemingly permanent disputes about car parking, timetabling, photocopiers and small electrical devices. He shuddered.

The door banged open. Geoff started, making the executive chair snap upright. His knees banged hard on the side of his desk. “Ow. Fuck.”

He automatically looked for his whisky glass, but it was already safely out of sight. He wished he’d had another shot.

Jan was standing in front of him.  Geoff sighed. “Jan. Thanks for coming in.”

He rubbed his knee. “Sit down, Jan.”

She remained standing. Geoff looked up at her. She looked weird. Was she glaring at him?

“Hello, Jan. Why don’t you sit down for a minute?”

Reluctantly, she pulled the chair slightly further away from the desk and sat down. Knees together, fists curled, back hunched. She looked rather like one of Geoff’s children when they’d been going through their difficult teenage years. He’d never know how to deal with them when they’d been in trouble at school, or had done something else to disappoint their mother.

But Jan was in her late fifties. And had previously been a normal and valued colleague. Reliable. Not much research, but always a reliable teacher. Backbone of the department. He looked at her again. Stroppy. That was definitely the word that was coming into his mind now.

Geoff sighed again. “Jan. Thanks for coming in,” he repeated. “I just wondered if, I just wanted to, would you mind if we….”

Jan still hadn’t spoken. It was unnerving, the staring. He looked away from her and opened the folder he’d made over the weekend. There was only one sheet of paper in it. He lifted it up.

“I was just looking at the marks distribution for Foundations of Biology. You know, ahead of the exam board. Like to be prepared.” This wasn’t true. He usually just looked at all of the printouts as the results administrator passed the sheets to him during the board meetings.

“It’s a bit unusual. Very interesting, in fact.”

He looked up. Jan had raised an eyebrow. He looked back at the paper.

“I’ve never seen one quite like it, so I thought it would, er, be useful to, er,” he hesitated, then had a brainwave. “To, er,  find out how you’ve managed to get such startling performances from the students.” He smiled cheerfully at Jan.

She took the bait. “What do you mean?”

“Well, it looks as though some students have performed much better than we would have expected, given their marks on other modules.” He felt ridiculously pleased with himself. Tactful. He’d worry about the poor performers later.

Jan pulled her chair a little closer, so that she could see the paper with the graph on it.

“Hmmm. I hadn’t seen them like that. Interesting.”

“Yes. Usually we’d expect a normal distribution of marks, wouldn’t we?” Geoff traced an imaginary line on top of the paper. “This is very unusual.”

Jan leaned in. “That’s probably because I’ve made an important discovery. I’m glad you’ve noticed.”

Geoff moved back very slightly. “Oh?”

“You’re always telling us we need to focus on employability, aren’t you?” Her tone was certainly assertive. Maybe even bordering on accusatory.

“Well, yes, it’s a strategic objective to…”

She cut him off. “Well, I’ve decided to assess professional values as well as academic performance. Just like you’ve told us to.”

“Told you to? I don’t remember…”

Jan kept going. She sped up. “If that’s how you want things to go, not bothering about how much they know, never mind if they don’t know any biology, as long as they can get a job, I’ve decided to reward their behaviour.”

“Behaviour?”

“I told you, earlier in the year. Punctuality, courteousness, neatness, attention to dress. All that.”

“But. But. But. I thought we’d agreed that wouldn’t….” Geoff felt his heart rate increasing. “Jan. Have the students had their marks back yet?” He knew they probably had, but just in case…

“Of course. You should know that. You’re always reminding us about the marking deadline.”

“And. Er. How have you moderated the marks?”

“No need. I wasn’t basing them on one single piece of work, after all, but over performance across the whole module. And I got peer verification.”

Geoff sighed with relief. “Oh. OK. Great. Why didn’t you say so? Who did it? Phil? Sally?”

Jan frowned. “I said peer verification. You know, asking the students to mark each other?” She spoke slowly, as though explaining a new concept.

“But. But. But. It didn’t say anything about that in the module brief. You have to stick to what’s in the documents, Jan. You know that. What if we had an unexpected audit?”

Jan shook her head. “Don’t be daft. It’s only eighteen months since the last one. We aren’t due one for another four years, and by then, you’ll see the effects of my strategy. Anyway, it’s what you told us to do.”

Geoff forgot about his tactful approach. “I don’t think it is. That’s ridiculous. You’re on your own with this one. I want to see some samples of their work, Jan.”

“They haven’t handed anything in. All done on their performance in class.”

“But. But. But….” Geoff was really struggling to process this. “But there are three hundred in the class. How did you…” Actually, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

Jan stood up. “It was bloody hard work. Got to go. Teaching now. Let me know if you want to report back on this at the annual staff development day. I think you’ll see the benefits.”

Geoff barely noticed her departure. He was staring at the graph again. This was far worse than he’d thought. Jan was clearly completely mad. And yet, she seemed to think it was all rational. He’d asked for employability to be embedded in the curriculum. He hadn’t really thought about what that would mean. How could anyone think a biology course should be assessed depending on the student’s neatness?  How could he have predicted that? Should he have done?

What was he going to do now? He got down on his knees in front of the cupboard again.


Wading Through Treacle is entirely fictional. 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. For last year’s advent calendar, see The Unknown Tutor.

Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.

Reposted from earlier in the year: The Germ of an Idea

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 seemed a bit on the small side. They 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 nagging him about losing weight for months. She said it was definitely her business; part of her PA duties included keeping him on form and fit for work. He had been ignoring her. That was one thing she couldn’t enforce. But maybe she had a point after all.

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. No suits and ties, but open-necked shirts with jumpers over the top, although these were starting to be peeled off now. He didn’t dare 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 sighed loudly 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. He sighed. Happy days, before the cares of his office had overcome him.

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 figures were looking very bad for the next couple of years. Last week’s UCAS figures 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.

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 it was probably against Burston Central’s principles, too, he thought self-righteously. 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 so 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 frilly stuff Ron Barnett had suggested 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 as soon as he got back. Even though Alan had left him in the lurch, he now had those two ex-business 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 into line.

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 is entirely fictional. 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. For last year’s advent calendar, see The Unknown Tutor.

Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.