Popularity contest

Hot on the heels of the latest mid-cycle UCAS application figures, which had been disastrous for Burston Central, HEFCE had published detailed analysis of applications and acceptances for the last two full academic years. Burston Central’s head of Strategic Planning, Shannon O’Reilly, was poring over the figures, and she was scratching her head. Obviously, she’d known their own figures for some time, give or take a bit of fluctuation in the first term. Despite the brutal imposition of full-cost tuition fees, applications and enrolments had held up fairly well for 2012. But she’d been very worried about their position in the top 20 for applications.  How were their benchmark institutions doing?

For many years, Burston Central had been really popular. The VC put it down to a combination of location, location and location. Burston had a reputation as a party town. God knows why, looking at the town centre, but the students seemed to like it. The university performed indifferently in the National Student Survey. Class sizes, staff- student ratios, accommodation costs were all firmly average.

There were no real research stars, unless you counted that guy from Sociology who was on telly every time urban youth got restless, and the woman from Chemistry who had something to do with debunking the claims of cosmetics companies. All the numbers were resolutely average. The Council got very agitated about the situation, and it made the VC cross.

But despite all of this averageness, students still liked to come. Shannon didn’t think it was that strange. The staff were mostly pleasant and welcoming, and interested in their disciplines. They knew enough, even if they weren’t leading lights. Plus, they were very accommodating to students with disabilities, students with caring responsibilities and students who’d been looked after, and had good links with agencies and colleges who might encourage potential undergraduates. 74% of their students came from within a 50 mile radius. For those students, it was either Burston Central, or University of Burston, which had a different kind of reputation, or no HE at all. Really, it wasn’t that surprising that applications were usually high. It was difficult to provide evidence for that perspective, though. I wasn’t something that numbers could capture. So she was worried that this year could be different.

No. Almost no change in the top and bottom 20 in terms of the numbers of applications. Leaving out London Met’s figures, the rankings for this year looked remarkably like last year. It was a relief, but what did it mean for strategic planning? Were numbers the same because this year’s intake were already on their trajectory before the increase in fees? Was this coming year going to be the big drop? And was it going to be the same for all institutions? It didn’t look good for actual numbers of applications this year, she had to admit.

And yet. And yet. There must be some way of capitalising on their attractiveness to the local region, even if that popularity wasn’t really based on any objective measures.  Could they focus on those students for recruitment, rather than constantly chasing the diminishing pool of 18 year olds? Probably not worth suggesting it. The VC was very keen on the Head of Marketing, and she tended to think the Widening Participation applicants were more trouble to chase than they were worth.

Was there any way of offering something new at lower cost, and advertising it as ‘better value’? She couldn’t see how they could cut expenses any further. The Chief Financial Officer controlled costs with an iron rule. And he didn’t appreciate suggestions from other departments, either. Plus it might make existing courses look like poor value by comparison.

And just to ice the cake, the PVC for students had suddenly got a bee in his bonnet about white, working class males and how they needed extra input. She had no data to support that view. In fact, her data showed that Asian males were more likely to perform badly compared to their A level results and to drop out. And what was that ‘extra input’ supposed to look like? And cost?

How was she supposed to come up with an objective strategic plan when there were certain areas she couldn’t mention, or when the data she’d analysed was trumped by another Vice Chancellor’s newspaper article, or when she had no access to cost data? Shannon put her head in her hands. Everyone else was long gone. She was feeling so sleepy, and she still had to finish this analysis before she went home. Maybe she’d just rest her head on the desk for a minute. She pushed the papers aside and leaned forward onto her arms.

She woke some time later. For a moment, she felt panicked. Where was she? Why did her arms hurt?

She raised her head from the desk and realised what had happened. Falling asleep at her desk. Great. She looked at her watch. Quarter-past nine. Shit. She still had to finish the report.

Shannon stood up. She’d take it home with her. She packed her briefcase and crossed the room to get her coat from the hooks by the door.

Just then, there was a sound. It sounded like a door being closed somewhere else on the corridor. She stiffened. Surely there was nobody else around at this time of night. She tiptoed back over to her desk and took a small torch from the top drawer. The pointless motion-sensitive lights in the corridor never came on before she got to the lift.

She opened the door cautiously. The corridor was completely dark, but there was someone coming towards her. She aimed the torch towards them.

“Cheers, Shannon. Can’t stand those stupid lights.”

Just then, the motion-sensitive lights came on. It was Sunita from the International Office.

“Sunny!” Shannon gave a sigh of relief. She switched off the torch. “You gave me a fright.I wondered who the hell could still be here at this time of night.”

“Very brave of you to come out and challenge me, then. And anyway, what are you doing, still here at this time of night?” Sunita seemed quite cheerful, despite the time.

“I could ask you the same question. I was just on my way out, though. Give me a sec to get my bag?”

“Sure. I’ll stand here and jump up and down a bit to keep the lights on.”

They both smiled. Shannon went back into the office to put the torch away and get her coat.

“This is getting ridiculous, isn’t it?” said Sunita. Her mood seemed to have changed.

“The working hours?”

“Yes. I don’t mind if it’s occasional, but this is beyond a joke. By the time I get home, I’ll just collapse into bed and then it’ll all start again in the morning. And I’m going to India next week with the VC, so that’s another four days away from home.”

“Anything in particular that’s taking up more time?”

Sunita sighed. “It’s the VC.”

Shannon nodded in sympathy. Wasn’t it always the VC?

“He’s got some idea about developing international….I don’t know what exactly….just international projects in general. He’s asked me to write a scoping report. But I don’t know what to scope.”

“Tell me about it. I’m supposed to be writing a paper for Council on how to move up the league tables. I just don’t know where to start. We need to focus on something, and invest in it, but he hasn’t said which areas he’ll support.” They both sighed deeply.

Shannon made a huge effort to change the subject. “How are the kids, Sunny?”

“Very well, as far as I know,” Sunita sounded bitter. “I hardly ever seem to see them.”

Shannon thought she must have made a huge faux-pas. “Oh dear, Sunita. I didn’t know. Have you and Dev, er, …?”

“We might as well have done, for all I see of them all at the moment. This job is killing me.”

They fell silent as they crossed the atrium from the lifts and buzzed to open the main doors. Outside, Shannon turned left towards the main car parking area. “Are you parked over here, Sunny?”

“I couldn’t get a parking space this morning. I’m over in the Council car park. Not too pleasant at this time of night, as you can probably imagine.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Why had she said that? Car parking policy wasn’t her fault. “Well, see you tomorrow.”

“Yes. See you soon.” Sunita gave a little wave and started walking briskly towards the centre of town.

Shannon sighed again. There must be more to life than this.

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