Christmas Presents

Seriously, are you still in the office? Even Geoff has managed to leave, even if he’s only got as far as Cheeky’s…

Parts one and two of this episode may help to make sense of this. Or maybe not.

Geoff carried the mugs over to the table. The Chengs had been talking to each other – he presumed in Chinese- while they waited, but they fell abruptly silent as he returned to the table.

“Thank you.” They spoke almost in unison. Both of them looked at the milky beverages.

Geoff wasn’t sure what to say. While he was thinking, he took a sip of his coffee. It was scalding hot. And disgusting. He winced.

“So, as you staying in Burston for long, Mr Cheng?”

“Ah, no, sadly, we’re going to London tomorrow.”

“Oh, that’s a pity.” Geoff wondered whether to follow up by asking whether Mr Cheng had had a chance to see much of Burston, but he couldn’t think of anything which Mr Cheng might have liked to visit.

“What will you be doing in London, then?”

Both of the Chengs smiled. “Shopping, museums, concerts.” said the father. “I’ve got tickets for a couple of shows, as well. I like the shows.”

“It’s a pity you weren’t here last week, for the University carol concert.” Geoff despised himself. No, it wasn’t a pity. He hadn’t even bothered attending himself. “Maybe next year.”

Mr Cheng inclined his head politely. “Yes, maybe.”

Cheng junior slurped his tea. Geoff was racking his brains. “So, how’s your first term at Burston Central been, Mr Cheng?”

As soon as the words were out of this mouth, he knew it was a high-risk strategy. He had no idea what was going on with the first years. The chances were, Mr Cheng’s first term had been crap. Or he was just trying to get enough marks to secure a move to Burston University, and hadn’t been anywhere except the library.

Cheng junior beamed. “I love it.”

Geoff didn’t manage to hide his surprise, but Cheng père was looking with pride at his son, and didn’t notice.

“It’s great. The tutors are nice, and they give me help, and the Chinese Society organises lots of things. The only thing I don’t like…” he tailed off. Here it comes, thought Geoff. “…the days are very short. I miss the daylight.”

Geoff stared at the earnest young man. He wondered if he’d misheard. Young Cheng did have a bit of an accent. But he couldn’t think of another word that sounded like ‘daylight’ that he could have mistaken it for. Delight? Possible. Dilate? Not a noun. Deloitte?

The Chengs were looking at him. He went for his first guess. “Oh, the days will be lengthening now. By the time you get back, we’ll be practically in the spring. Burston in the spring. You’ll love it.”

What the actual fuck was he saying? Nobody enjoyed Burston in the spring. It rained all the time. Why the hell was he here, sitting in an appalling little café with two complete strangers, talking complete crap? How had things come to this? He was sure that the other heads of department, the rest of the so-called Burston Resistance Movement, were sitting in a nice pub somewhere together, sinking pints, bantering, enjoying themselves. Definitely enjoying themselves.

Geoff had a moment of clarity. He’d forgotten how to enjoy himself, that was the problem. He needed to have some fun. Take a bit of ‘me-time’. Nobody ever thought about what he wanted to do, did they? His staff were too demanding. They couldn’t do anything without him, and they never wanted to do anything for him. The University Exec had no idea how hard his job was. They put far too much pressure on heads of department. Initiative this. Initiative that. Target-driven. Sort your NSS scores out. Improve retention. Nobody ever told them how they were supposed to do it. And his wife seemed to have given up on him. She didn’t even complain when he said he’d be working late, again. Even the BRM. They’d stitched him up like a kipper with the sit-in. Bastards.

Geoff pressed his lips together. Nobody appreciated him. His eyes misted over.

“Are you ok, Professor Sanders?” Cheng Shan had put a hand on his arm.

Geoff blinked and tried to focus on him. Pull yourself together, Geoff. “Oh. Yes. Sorry. I was just thinking about…” what had he been talking about? Oh, yes. “…spring in Burston. The flowers. The blossom. The new hope.”

Mr Cheng was nodding vigorously. “Oh yes. Spring is marvellous. That’s why we have spring festival, what you call Chinese New Year. In fact, you must visit us for New Year!”

Geoff had recovered. “I’d love to.” OK, he could do this. A bit of chit-chat, then he’d need to get home. He knew he wouldn’t be going to China. But he could pretend.

Mr Cheng was listing the delights of spring in Shanghai. Geoff smiled and nodded, adding the odd encouraging comment. He could definitely do this.

Eventually, Shan tapped his father on the hand and said something in Chinese. Mr Cheng looked behind him. The woman at the counter was noisily tidying up and wiping down the surfaces. Cheng looked at his watch. “Yes, you’re right, Shen. Closing time. We must go.” He looked at Geoff. “We have a dinner reservation, anyway. Would you like to join us, Professor Sanders?”

“I’m terribly sorry, my wife will be expecting me.”

“Of course, we’ve already kept you too long.”

“No, no, it’s been a pleasure. Lovely to meet you.” Geoff was already calculating the chances of getting to the station for the next train home. Slim, but if he got a wiggle on…Mr Cheng was holding out a business card. “Thank you. Er, I don’t have one on me, but…”

“No problem, Professor Sanders. I know where to find you.” Mr Cheng winked at him.

Geoff wasn’t sure how to respond to this. Mr Cheng continued. “I’ll get my personal assistant to contact you about the visit.”

Geoff put out his right hand. “Marvellous. Marvellous. That would be marvellous.”

“And I’m thinking about making a donation to the department. We can talk about that when you come to Shanghai.”

“Marvellous. Lovely idea.”

“A new lab, maybe? Anyway, think about what might be useful.”

Geoff was still shaking Mr Cheng’s hand. He was struggling to process what was being said, again. New lab? He must have misheard. But no obvious alternative presented itself. New lamb? New lav? He let go.

“That sounds very generous.”

Mr Cheng waved his hand. “If Shen is happy, I’m happy.”

They all gathered up their coats and bags. Shen took the mugs over to the counter. He beamed at the woman. The corners of her mouth twitched up slightly. Pouring the contents of the mugs in the sink, she complained. “Summat wrong with the tea?”

“Oh, no. We were just distracted. It was lovely.” Shen smiled again. “I’ll come again.”

The woman shrugged.

Outside Cheeky’s, Geoff stuck out his hand again. “Lovely to meet you, Me Cheng.” he said, again. “Have a lovely evening, and enjoy London.”

Geoff stood for a moment outside Cheeky’s, wondering if he’d imagined the whole encounter. But if it were real, what a coup!  Were donations REFfable? This could really give him some kudos.He grinned to himself.

The Chengs were about fifty yards away when he realised that he needed to go in the same direction as the Chengs to get to the station. He’d have to go a very long way round not to bump into them again. Bugger.


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 a cheesy novella about sessional staff, see The Unknown Tutor.

Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email:


A trip out

Still in the office? Here’s part two of a three part special focusing on poor old Geoff. Part one is here.

The mysterious visitors had left. Geoff resumed his pacing.

As he crossed the room, he realised that there was a scrap of paper by the door which hadn’t been there before. He bent over to pick it up. It was torn from a notebook.

“Professor Sanders, I came to introduce my daddy and to wish you happy holidays. My daddy would like to meet you. He is here from Hong Kong.” It was signed Cheng Shan, with a phone number. There were a lot of students in biology, and normally Geoff wouldn’t have known who any of them were, but this name rang a bell. Was that the student whose father was said to be unbelievably wealthy, a Hong Kong financier or something? It was assumed that he’d applied to Burston Central by mistake, instead of the University of Burston, but nobody had dared to ask. Other than that, Geoff knew nothing about him.

He stepped over to the window. He could see two figures just emerging from the tower block and walking towards the park. Why not? It was a good excuse not to go home. He switched on the office light, and picked up the phone.

“Mr Cheng?”

“Dr Sanders here. You just put a note through my door?”

“Ha, ha. Of course I’m still here! Lots to do. I must have just stepped out for a moment.”

“Always switch the lights off when I leave the room. Can’t have the biology department wasting precious resources!”

“Yes, well, anyway. I just called to say that I’d be delighted to meet your father. Would you like to come up? Or I’d be pleased to take you for a drink somewhere?”

“Well, of course, tea, whatever. Where are you now?”

Geoff could see the two figures standing at the entrance to the park. Even from this height, he thought he could see them shivering.

“Oh, that’s great. Not far away! Can you hang on for a moment, and I’ll come down to you? Why not just pop back into the building? ”

“Perfect. See you in a minute.”

Geoff hung up. He opened the top drawer of the desk and took out a packet of mints. He popped one into his mouth, then put the packet into his pocket. He’d possibly had more whisky than one mint would mask.

He had a quick look round the office. Was there anything he needed for the holidays? He looked at his laptop. No. It could stay there. He picked up his coat and keys, kicked the desk drawer again, to no effect, and left the room.

Downstairs, there was no sign of any security staff. The student and his father were standing in the semi-dark near to the revolving doors. They looked cold. Geoff advanced towards them, holding out his hand. “Mr Cheng, lovely to see you again. And this is your father, also Mr Cheng, I presume?”

The student shook his hand limply. He looked surprised. As well he might – Geoff had probably passed him dozens of times in the corridor without showing any signs of acknowledgement, or welcome. “Yes, sir, professor, I present you my father, Mr Cheng. Visiting.”

“Quite so, quite so.” Geoff shook hands vigorously with Mr Cheng.

He looked carefully at Geoff. “Nice to meet you, Professor.”

“Oh, call me Geoff. We aren’t too formal here! And I’m not a professor, anyway, just a humble doctor,” he added, almost sotto voce.

“Geoff. Fine. I am Cheng-Gong.”

“Cheng-Gong.” Repeated Geoff. “Marvellous. Lovely to meet you. How are you finding Burston?”

“Cold.” Mr Cheng shivered, as if to emphasise the point.

“Oh dear. Well, it is winter. Shall we go and find somewhere for a cup of tea?”

“I wouldn’t like to keep you from your work, er, Geoff.”

“Oh, I was just about to leave anyway. It’s quiet at this time of year.”

“So I see.” Mr Cheng looked up at the darkened building.

“Yes, well, it’s good for everyone to get a break. My team work so hard all term.”

Mr Cheng said nothing. Geoff wondered if he’d raised an eyebrow, but it was quite dark. Difficult to be sure.

“Let’s go.” Geoff led the way out of the building. There was no catering on campus on Christmas Eve. He paused outside the building and looked up and down the street. Burger bars. Fried chicken shops. Convenience stores.  Not really what he was looking for. He walked past these establishments every day on his way to the station, but never really registered them. Why would he go out of the office for coffee, when he could make his own at a fraction of the price?

Where would be suitable? He vaguely remembered someone in the department mentioning a place down Challoner Street. Chicky’s? Cheeky’s? Smiling at the Chengs, he put out his arm in an encouraging gesture, and ushered them towards the main road.

Challoner Street was dimly lit, but he could see the café about half-way down. He led the Chengs confidently to the door and thrust it open, ushering them inside with a magnanimous gesture. A bell clanged somewhere as the door opened. His face fell as he looked around the room. He hadn’t realise that such places still existed. The orange plastic chairs surfaced dim memories of Wimpy Bars from his childhood.

Not for the first time, he marvelled at the difference between Burston city centre and Rumchester, where he lived. Twenty minutes on the train, and it was like another world. Rumchester was bursting with chi-chi coffee bars, each serving their own special blend of estate coffees to be sipped whilst installed on fine leather sofas reading an uncreased copy of your choice of broadsheet, or using the free wifi to catch up on Buzzfeed on your iPad.

The Chengs were looking at him. He gestured them towards the nearest table. There were no other customers, but the bell had summoned a woman to the counter. Behind her, he could hear a TV.

Geoff recovered himself. “Thought you might like to see a bit of local charm. Famous for its coffee.” He laughed nervously. “What can I get you? My treat.”

Mr Cheng looked carefully at him, as though trying to decide if Geoff was mocking them. Then he looked at the counter area. “I think I’ll have tea. Same for you, Shan?”

His son nodded.

“Great. I think I’ll try the famous coffee.” Geoff took the two paces to the counter with great decision. He smiled at the woman. “Two teas, please, and one black coffee.”

She nodded, and picked up a kettle, filled it, and switched it on. Geoff watched as she took three mugs from a shelf. She put tea bags in two of them, and a teaspoon of instant coffee in the third. The kettle boiled. She filled the mugs, stirred them all, extracted the tea bags, and then added generous quantities of milk to each. Geoff opened his mouth to say something about the coffee, but it was too late.

“There you go. Three pounds, please.”

Geoff fished in his pocket for change. He wondered if he’d stepped into a timewarp.

Part three is here.

What’s it all for?

Should you be unlucky enough still to be stuck in your office for the rest of the week, here’s part one of a three part special, focusing on poor old Geoff.

It was mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve. Burston had been shrouded in grey gloom all day. One or two office windows were lit in the tower block at Burston Central University, but it was almost completely dark. A few stray pieces of tinsel in some of the admin offices occasionally caught the light from passing cars on the overpass, and occasionally a corridor light came on for a brief period, presumably as an occupant sprinted to the toilet, or to the lift. Apart from these sporadic interludes, the building looked as though it had been long deserted, perhaps as a prelude to demolition.

Up on the tenth floor, Geoff paced the floor of his unlit office. His office was quite small. Four small paces were enough to take him from one end to the other. Twelve paces made a little circuit round the desk, if he made a little shimmy to squeeze through the gap between the filing cabinet and the desk. From time to time he paused to sip from his glass. There was really nothing important for him to finish off. He could easily have gone home, knew that he should have gone home, but he couldn’t quite face it. Carol would be at fever pitch with arrangements for cooking Christmas dinner. He checked his watch. According to Delia, it was now T-23 hours, and she should probably be stuffing the turkey by now, or something. He wondered how she was managing to do that and keep an eye on her father, who had arrived a week earlier and had been roaming restlessly around the house looking for DIY jobs. As he had done for the last thirty years, he had been making it clear that he didn’t think much of Geoff’s skills in that area. If anything, age was loosening his inhibitions. Geoff thought that Carol should defend him a bit more, rather than nodding when her father made a comment about standards slipping since his day. She said that he was just an old man, and she was just humouring him, but Geoff was starting to think that she secretly agreed.

Even if he did go home, he wouldn’t be able to slump in front of the TV as he usually did, because his father-in-law had taken possession of the remote control. He had chosen the ‘Gold’ channel and spent hours every day watching seventies’ sitcoms of dubious political correctness.

So Geoff had come unnecessarily into work instead, pleading the cares of a Head of Department. But there was nobody around. No emails to answer. No decisions which couldn’t wait until January. Instead he was pacing the floor of the office, thinking about his job and the way it was going.  He paused for another sip of whisky. He looked around the office. It was horrible. OK, it was a corner office, so it had two sets of windows, which would have made it light, if Burston were not usually shrouded in cloud. It was north-facing, so he was spared the gentle cooking effect experienced by those on the other side of the building on the rare occasions the sun emerged.  He supposed that was a good point. On the whole, though, it was gloomy, and it really was horrid. The cheap padded plastic chairs, which were meant to create a less formal space for chats with his team were ugly. The desk and filing cabinet were crammed in, and neither was big enough for him, so there were papers and folders always piled up waiting for something else to be removed to make space for them. Every now and then a pile toppled over, and he had to spend ages trying to make sense of it all again.

When he’d been an undergraduate, even a postgrad, Heads of Department had had secretaries to come and magic papers away. Their offices were spacious, yet cosy. Usually on the ground floor in some listed building, with a fireplace. Maybe a rug in front of the fire. Maybe someone to come in and light the fire, too. There would have been proper wooden bookcases, sofas for guests, and probably a drinks cabinet for sherry to offer those guests. Over sherry, he and the guests could have solved a problem or two of biology. Maybe a Nobel prize would have resulted.

No matter that his fantasy office was probably from a CP Snow novel set in an era long before his. He was trapped in this cell, ten floors up, with draughty aluminium window-frames and venetian blinds which didn’t seem to have been cleaned for twenty years.

Geoff was feeling very sorry for himself. He didn’t want to go home. He didn’t want to be Head of Biology. It had been a horrible year. Alison had left. The new joint course leaders didn’t know their proverbials from their elbows, and quality procedures had changed so much, he had absolutely no idea where they were going wrong. Jan had nearly caused utter disaster with the third years, and just before the bloody NSS as well. Not to mention that parent who was a solicitor picking up on the regs cock-up, and then the appalling son trying to bribe him to find more marks.

The University had issued even more incomprehensible edicts than usual. And to cap it all, Chris had nearly got them into the most horrendous Health and Safety trouble by trying to cover up a phage attack in the labs. And had trashed quite a few experiments in the process. If Chris hadn’t redeemed himself by getting the University’s only 3* rating in the REF, that could have been a lot more difficult to sort out.

Oh God, he felt so trapped. What was the point of this job? Of the department? There was nothing to look forward to any more. NSS results never went up. The REF result was crap, no matter how much the marketing department tried to spin it as a success. All of the good students left after a year and went to the University of Burston, unless they were completely lacking in ambition. His staff were a complete shower.

The glass was empty. He walked over to his desk and bent over the bottom drawer, where he kept the bottle. It was stuck – the furniture was all cheap crap. He put the glass down and knelt down on behind the desk so that he could pull at the drawer with both hands.

Just then, there was a knock at the door. Geoff froze. Who the hell could that be? He could have sworn there was nobody in. Lucky he hadn’t put the light on. He stayed put. Putting his head back a little, he could see that the corridor light had come on and he could see two figures through the frosted glass set into the door – it was about the only perk of being a Head of Department, having frosted glass instead of clear glass.

He heard voices, but couldn’t quite catch what they were saying. Then there was a slight rustle, and the figures moved away. He sat back on the floor for a moment. When the corridor lights had gone out again, he resumed his efforts to open the drawer. Inevitably, it came free with a jerk. There was probably a joke lurking there about the parallel with his department, but he felt too gloomy to smile even to himself. He poured another generous measure – he was taking the train home – and kicked the drawer to close it. It stuck open. He kicked it again, this time in irritation. Bugger it.

Parts two and three are here.

On the twelfth day of Christmas

On the twelfth day of Christmas
My VC sent to me:
Twelve Students Striking
Eleven TEF Measures
Ten New Professors
Nine Heads of Service
Eight Interventions
Seven Senior Staff
Six Student Surveys
Five REF Stars
Four Closing Calls
Three French Exchanges
Two DVCs
And restructure of the university

Geoff looked longingly at the cupboard next to his desk. It would be impossible to open the door discreetly, never mind extract the bottle, pour a drink, knock it back and hide the evidence. He sighed heavily.

“What’s up, prof?”

Geoff looked wearily at his nemesis. “What’s up? What’s up? I don’t know. Maybe the sun?”

Quentin looked quizzically at him. “You’re not making much sense, prof. Come on, get in the spirit.”

Geoff turned and looked out of the window. The lights of Burston spread away from the tenth floor office. Far below, the blue lights of an ambulance sped past. They were too high to hear the siren.

At the foot of the Burston Central University central building, he could see a couple of black-uniformed figures standing in a small group with three or four men in suits. He very much hoped it was Security planning his rescue.

There were twelve students in his office. The last time he’d seen that many students all together was at an induction session years ago, before he’d delegated pep talks to his course leaders.

They took up a ridiculous amount of space in the office. And they smelled unpleasant. The great smells of Lynx, or Sure, were layered over bodies which hadn’t had time for a shower in the morning. The fustiness of clothes which had been considered clean enough to be worn until the end of term, rather than bother with the over-priced launderette. Boxes of pizza strewn over the floor – to be fair, those had smelled pretty good when they arrived, but now the remains were congealing, and an unpleasant mix of anchovy, ancient oregano and cheap cheese was making him feel slightly nauseous.

He banged on the window. Damn those architects in the seventies who’d thought we’d never have to open a window again. There was no response from below, but Quentin moved languidly over and placed a hand on his arm. “Easy, prof. You’re safe with us.”

This was all Julian’s fault. The ‘Burston Resistance Movement’ had met again. Different pub this time, a little further away from campus. As Julian said, seven senior members of staff being seen regularly in the same pub might attract attention. The Blacksmith’s Arms was on the edge of what students called ‘no-man’s land’. If they got the apostrophe in the right place.

Geoff had felt a little uncomfortable walking over. He hadn’t actually seen anyone else on the streets, but he was sure there were other people around. And if there were others, they weren’t wearing sensible shoes and a Berghaus anorak, or carrying a rucksack large enough for a laptop. He’d tried to walk purposefully, and fast.

Despite his best efforts to be a couple of minutes late, nobody else from the BRM had arrived yet. Geoff waited at the bar. Didn’t want to get hemmed in at the table again. There were no stools, so he leaned back onto the bar. His pulse rate began to return to normal. Sipping his pint, he thought he probably fitted in not too badly.

The front door opened, and Geoff turned to the sound, hopeful that it was his colleagues. As he did so, there was a slight feeling of resistance in his shoulder straps, followed by a slow tinkling as his rucksack gently propelled a tray piled with glasses along the bar.

“For fook’s sake,” the landlord dived sideways, managing to catch the tray and a couple of the glasses. “Ya twat. Watch what ya doing.”

Geoff stared hopelessly at the damage. “Oh God. I’m so sorry. Let me help.” He made as though to come round the bar.

“Na, ya’ve done enough already.” The landlord waved him away. “G’an siddown out o’t’way.”

Mortified, Geoff slunk off to the only large table and slid round to the corner. Without thinking, he drained his glass. Still no sign of the rest of the BRM. He couldn’t go back to the bar. He couldn’t sit there on his own any longer.  He didn’t want to walk back into Burston on his own. He sat hunched in the corner.

Long, long, minutes passed before the door burst open again and Julian and the other five members of the BRM tumbled in, laughing and jostling each other. They chattered noisily while they ordered their drinks. Nobody looked at Geoff.

Eventually, they were all served, and Julian turned to survey the room. Geoff raised a timid hand, and Julian beamed at him. “There he is! Brilliant!”

Geoff absorbed some of the glow of the group as they made their way over to his table and settled themselves on either side of him. He wished he’d got himself another drink. He was hemmed in again.

Julian looked at his watch. “Right. We’re running a bit behind, so let’s get on.” As at the previous meeting, he leaned in a little, and lowered his voice. “OK. I’ve had an idea.”

“This has all gone too far. This restructure. Look at us.” He gestured round the group. “Seven senior staff. Do you think we’ve got a cat in hell’s chance of getting a look in to the research institutes?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “No. Because we’ve all been doing the thankless task of keeping the university running.” His colleagues nodded. “And saying the three teaching hub managers will be picked from the so-called highest-performing teaching departments. Well, fuck that. How’s it going to be measured?”

Geoff took this for a real question. “Um, didn’t the VC say that he’d be using the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework measures from the Green Paper?”

Julian had been waiting for this. He pounded his fist on the table. “Do you call that a measurement? Come on, Geoff. I thought you were a scientist.”

Geoff shrank back into his seat. Was he still a scientist? And anyway, how would he know anything about social science measures? Julian lowered his voice again. The fist-pounding had attracted some attention. “Look, this is all a pile of crap. National Student Survey, Graduate Employment Rates, Progression. They’re all proxy measures for teaching excellence, right? I mean, nobody knows what teaching excellence is, right?”

The BRM nodded collectively. Nobody was going to attempt another answer to Julian’s questions, which were now revealed to be rhetorical.

“Look, we can’t do anything about this. We’ve been castrated. Emasculated. Disempowered.”

In his intense state of anxiety, Geoff misheard the last word as ‘disembowelled’. He shrank back still further .

There were murmurs of ‘too true’, ‘bloody exec’, and ‘what happened to academic freedom?’

Julian continued. “We can’t do anything, but you know who can?”

Peter put his hand up. Julian indicated with a nod that he could speak. “The Senate?” he suggested.

It was just like QI. Julian was hoping for the wrong answers, so that he could sound a verbal klaxon. “The Senate? The Senate? Who’s on Senate?”

Geoff raised his hand a fraction. “I am.”

Julian spread his hands out, palm up. “Exactly. Exactly. What on earth could you do about all this?”

Geoff shook his head. “Nothing. Nothing.”

Julian’s use of the rhetorical device of repetition appeared to be infectious.

“So who can influence the VC?”

Nobody dared to make a suggestion.

“STUDENTS! The VC will have to listen to students.”

There was general assent around the table. Of course. Students had all the power nowadays. Academics counted for nothing in the consumerist world of modern higher education. Spoon-fed, cosseted, always put first.

Geoff didn’t join in with the murmurs of support. He never saw students getting much chance to speak at Senate. Sure, they were represented. Sure, there was an item marked ‘student agenda items’, but it was always about what was happening in the Students’ Union. They hardly ever spoke about any decisions Senate was taking, and when they did, the VC could be pretty sarcastic.

Geoff tuned out of the main discussion as he thought about what use students could possibly be in affecting the decisions of the University Executive. He couldn’t see it.

Julian was really getting under way now. “Let’s organise this where it has maximum impact. No good getting my students to do it, everyone knows that Sociology students will protest at the drop of a hat. We  need to pick a department where people will be more surprised, where there’ll be more press coverage, where we’ll get national attention.”

Geoff realised that the other six members of the BRM were looking at him.

“Biology!” Julian said in triumph. “Biology! Nobody expects militant biologists!”

At that moment, Geoff realised that he’d been set up.

And now, here he was, trapped in his office with twelve smelly students. If the inactivity below was anything to go by, there was no press coverage, no national attention, nobody who was actually bothered. Well, maybe his wife was bothered, but it was more likely that she thought he was working late, or in the pub. She’d probably say it served him right for not ever telling her when he was going to be late back. The students had ‘borrowed’ his phone and unplugged his computer when they’d ‘stormed’ his office according to Julian’s plan, so he didn’t really know if anyone was looking for him. The pizza delivery man hadn’t encountered any security staff on his way up. Nobody had knocked on the door to offer to negotiate. The little group downstairs might just be having a chat.

He sighed. It could be a long night. Maybe he could talk to the students about teaching excellence.

That was the twelfth day. The singing is over. But will Geoff remain in his office until the University shuts down on 24 December? It depends whether those students have booked Advance tickets to go home, probably.

On the eleventh day of Christmas

On the eleventh day of Christmas
my VC sent to me:
Eleven TEF Measures
Ten new professors
Nine Heads of Service
Eight interventions
Seven Senior Staff
Six Student Surveys
Five REF Stars
Four Closing Calls
Three French Exchanges
Two DVCs
And restructure of the university

Shannon looked up. It was completely dark around her, apart from the light from her screens, which was enough to illuminate the keyboard. There was no light coming through the office door. Behind her, the orange glow from the streetlights of Burston was weak and sickly. The council was using some kind of energy-saving system whereby they dimmed progressively until about 10pm, when they went out altogether.

It was dark, and almost completely silent. Occasionally, a bus went past outside, resulting in a slight rumble up here on the eighth floor, but within the building, there was nothing. No lifts, no photocopiers, no foot traffic in the corridor. Shannon shivered slightly. She really needed to go home.

For a minute, she contemplated packing up her laptop and finishing the job at home, with a glass of wine, but she knew she would probably just fall asleep on the sofa. And the big screen made it easier to have government documents open at the same time as her report. No. One last push here.

It was a ridiculous rush, anyway. She knew perfectly well that nobody would look at her report until just before the consultation closed in January. The VC was deluding himself if he thought he was going to use it to plan staffing for his new Teaching Hubs. Everyone knew that staffing would be organised in exactly the same way that children picked teams in playgrounds. The biggest hitters would take turns to choose the best researchers until their teams were full, and everyone left after that would be allocated to the teaching hubs according to their subject area. The miniscule number of cross-disciplinary teachers would pick their own hubs, probably according to who was the Hub Leader, and the job would be done. There was no way that the Teaching Excellence Framework would influence the process.

She was getting too cynical. She really needed to get another job.

Shannon sighed, and forced herself to look back at the screen.

Teaching Excellence Framework

Paper for Executive: Ten ways Burston Central University can prepare

She deleted the word ‘Ten’ and replaced it with ‘Eleven’. Another measure was on the list. The TimesHigher had splashed all over an ‘exclusive’ pre-report from the Higher Education Academy about the UK Engagement Survey. With the buzz phrase of learning gain liberally spattered all over it, she was pretty sure it was going to loom large in the final version of the Teaching Excellence Framework at least if the report was accurate in its prediction: ‘THE understands that ministers are interested in looking at the results for later stages of the TEF‘.

She scanned the magazine report again. It didn’t seem to say when the full report would be published. She’d have to use what she could for her own report. But it was very confusing. Was the study about engagement, or outcomes? Academic assessment of skills, or self-assessment of skills? How did it fit in with the latest CBI report saying that students weren’t ‘job-ready’?

“particularly in STEM subjects, students are not rating themselves highly in terms of developing soft skills”. Shannon pasted this quote into her document, and then typed: ‘One thing that course teams could consider is finding ways to highlight to students that they have developed particular soft skills. We could try some of the techniques used to point out to students that they are currently getting feedback.’feedback

She read on. Was this survey intended to replace the NSS?  ‘“You could be happy and not learn much,” the chair of the survey steering group had said, “You could be engaged and not learn much, but it’s less likely.”’ Shannon wondered if there was any evidence for this statement. How much less likely was it? Wasn’t ‘how much was learned’ exactly what academic staff were assessing? Wasn’t that the most important thing? She sighed again. How the hell could she produce a policy paper from this? She gritted her teeth and carried on. ‘If student engagement is going to be so critical, we need to put measures in place to….‘ she hit the backspace key, ‘to put systems in place to measure engagement. The proposed attendance monitoring system will do this from September 2016.’

Right. That was all eleven aspects with a proposal against them. Time to go home. She saved the document and shared it in an email to the VC. Over to him.

On the tenth day of Christmas

On the tenth day of Christmas
my VC sent to me:
Ten New Professors
Nine Heads of Service
Eight Interventions
Seven Senior Staff
Six Student Surveys
Five REF Stars
Four Closing Calls
Three French Exchanges
Two DVCs
And restructure of the university

“Can we make a start, please, gentlemen. And, er, lady.” Sam smiled graciously at Karen, who was sitting to his right.

Karen did not return the smile. Prat. Pity he’d been confirmed in the DVC’s post.

The others made their way from the refreshments table. They were in no hurry. Karen caught snatches of their conversation. If boasting counted as conversation these days.

“…high H factor…”
“…really competitive, but the reviewer said we’d almost done enough…”
“…higher than…”
“…almost REFfable already…”

She sighed, and tried to tune them out. Would anyone notice if she brought the website up during the meeting ?

Sam cleared his throat loudly. There was a very gradual reduction in the noise level, and eyes began to be turned in his direction.

“Right, well, let’s get on.”

“Now, first, Julie from the Secretary’s office couldn’t be here to take the minutes, so, Karen, I was wondering if you could do it?”

Karen’s look was glacial. “No, sorry. I’m leading on two items, I can’t take minutes and present them.”

“Oh, yes, of course. Alright then. Um. Any volunteers?”

The other members of the Research Committee fixed their gazes on the table.

Sam sighed. “Well, OK, I guess I’ll have a go. That way they can say whatever I like, I suppose!”

“Right. Well. First item. Chair’s report.” He looked at his notes. “I don’t have much to say, actually. Nearly Christmas, bit of a dead time for research news, isn’t it? Um. Let me see. Nope, I don’t think I’ve heard about any new grants since last time. Anyone else?”

There was a collective shaking of heads. Karen raised her hand slightly.


“The library have secured a large grant from the EU to research student attitudes to electronic library use.”

“The library? Is it proper research?”

Karen sighed. “Well, it’s Horizon 2020, if you count that as proper research.”

Sam wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic. “Well, that sounds marvellous. Can you send me the details over? And get it into the weekly newsletter?”

“Again? OK, if you think people won’t mind it appearing for a second time.”

Sam was leaning towards ‘yes, she’s being sarcastic,’ but he still wasn’t completely sure, so he played safe. “Oh, gosh, I must have missed that week. Maybe it was when I was in China on university business.”

“Maybe so. I’ll send you the summary.” Karen stopped herself from adding ‘again’. Keep your powder dry, she told herself. She even forced herself to give a pinched smile, to show she wasn’t really being sarcastic. Even though she was.

“Great. Well, well done to the library. Can we minute that?” He looked at Karen. She looked back. “Oh, of course, it’s me. I’ll minute that!” He wrote on the pad in front of him.

The Research Committee sat in silence while they waited for him to finish his notes.

The meeting droned on. There were so many standing items that Karen was sure it was an exact repeat of the last meeting. And the one before that. She contributed her reports mechanically; they were received without interest. She was just looking at the details of an likely looking job in London when a change in Sam’s tone caught her attention.

“Right. Item eight. Oh, this is exciting.”

The Research Committee did not look particularly excited.

Sam looked up. “Yes, this is great. Remember that meeting we had just before the REF submission, where I challenged you to help me to recruit some stars? In fact, one of them is sitting here now – take a bow, Nigel!” Nigel nodded his head gently in recognition.

“Right. Well. We’ve been given some more money to do the same again. In fact,” he paused, the better to prepare his audience for the full impact of his announcement, “in fact, we can recruit TEN new professors between now and September. What do you think of that?”

It was plain that the Research Committee didn’t know what to think. They sat in silence. Eventually, Nigel put up his hand.

“The thing is, Sam. It’s great that you’ve got some funding for more research, I think we’re all delighted about that. But is this really the right place to be spending it? I mean, professors, you know, they’re expensive.” Nigel’s use of the third person implied that he disapproved of the professorial salary scale. “I don’t know if I speak for my colleagues here, but, you know, I could really do with a few more young researchers on the team, I mean, we could get two post-docs for the price of a professor, maybe even two and a half, and think how much work they could do. We could go stratospheric with publications! And we wouldn’t be tied into permanent contracts and all of the expense that brings.”

There were nods of approval around the table. The Research Committee became almost animated.

Sam looked as though he’d been expecting this line of discussion. He leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms behind his head. “Ah, well, the VC’s one step ahead of you there.”

“We’re going to get post-docs as well?”

“The new professors will each be allowed to recruit one post-doc and two research students ‘on the house’, as they say. Plus of course any more  they can afford with the funding they bring in. So you’re right, we’re expecting very big things.”

There was a short pause while this sank in.

Nigel seemed to have taken on the mantle of group spokesman, perhaps as a result of having been identified as one of Burston Central’s stars, or just because he was quite new, and perhaps idealistic about the possibilities of research at the university, or bravado, or a combination of all of those things. He tried again.

“I must have got this wrong, Sam. It sounds as though you’re proposing to recruit ten completely new research groups, rather than consolidating existing ones.” This was exactly how Nigel himself had been recruited. Though there’d be no mention of post-docs and research students that time round – since on that occasion, existing publications had been the key selling point of the candidates.

“Well, I prefer to call it ensuring that we have a well-rounded portfolio of activity, Nigel.”

“But, you might, you might, you might end up with new research groups in competition with existing ones. Surely we need to have some input into the strategy?”

“Now then, I think you can trust me to work strategically to get the right balance of exciting new work with the existing situation.”

Sam looked at his watch. “We really do need to get on. Now, we’re going to follow the same process as last time. We’ll have a search committee, nominations to me by the end of December, I’ll follow up with personal communications. Please treat this as confidential. It’s a very specialist process, as you know. Advertising won’t get us the candidates we need, and I don’t want to raise people’s expectations.”

Phil raised his hand. Sam nodded to him.

“Would you consider internal candidates?”

Sam tilted his head to one side. “I’m inclined to think that we offer opportunities to internal candidates through the Research Recognition Scheme. If people haven’t been successful in that…”

“But internal appointments are different. They don’t have additional staffing…” Phil tailed off.

The other members of the Research Committee were carefully looking elsewhere: at the table, at their devices, at Sam. Poor old Phil. Professorial applications were each considered by the Committee. Obviously, Phil had had to leave the room while his was discussed, but he knew the process. The consensus had been that he should have known better than to attempt an application.  As Sam had said at the time, ” If we gave them out like Smarties, where would we be?” It was a shame he had to continue on the Committee, but his head of department had insisted.

Sam broke the silence. “Right. Names to me by the end of December. I’ll be checking my mail all through Christmas, so keep them coming. I’ll need names, contact details, brief CVs. Next meeting, er, do we have a date yet?” He looked at Karen. She looked back at him, making no effort to check her iPad.

Phil was tapping away on his. “26 January.”

“Great, thanks, Phil. See you all then. Oh, and have a good break.” he added.

Sam got his head down and busied himself with his notes until the rest of the Committee had left the room. One or two lingered, perhaps hoping to speak to him, but his resolute attention to the page deterred them all. Once the door had closed, he looked up, scooped up the notes, picked up his coat, shovelled the last of the biscuits from the refreshment table into his bag, and walked to the door. Four o’clock. Hardly worth starting anything new now. He headed for the car park.

On the ninth day of Christmas

On the ninth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
Nine Heads of Service
Eight interventions
Seven Senior Staff
Six Student Surveys
Five REF Stars
Four Closing Calls
Three French Exchanges
Two DVCs
And restructure of the university

“Right, everyone, let’s get down to it.” John Jenkinson looked around the table. All of his heads of services were present and correct. Excellent. “Now, as this is the last meeting before Christmas, I thought we’d do something a bit unusual. There are just to items for the agenda: Communications Strategy, and Focus Strategy for 2016. I’ve had a few emails asking me about the Focus Strategy, but don’t worry, all will become clear later on, when we get to that item. Let’s start with the communication strategy.”

He paused for a moment, and pulled a manila folder out from under his iPad.

“Now. I think we really have to work on the image of the Professional Services Directorate. Everyone depends on us, and we need to make sure that our services are visible, and included in all relevant planning activities. We need a marketing campaign. So I’ve asked Belinda to devise some activities for us to help us to put some ideas together today which she can take away and do her magic on.”

Belinda stood up and bustled round the table to John’s place. She took the manila folder from him, and pulled out nine thick pieces of card. “I thought we could start in a really fun way, by saying what we all think the other services do! If we don’t know, how would anyone else?”

The others waited expectantly.

Belinda flourished the pieces of card and began distributing them, one to each of her colleagues. She gave the last one to John. “I’ll just watch and take notes.” she said. “Now, you can turn them over.”

Her colleagues obeyed. Each piece of card was a glossy A4 photo of one of the other Heads of Service. Some of them were professional-looking shots, one or two were hugely blown up and pixellated versions of tiny website photos, and one looked as though it had been taken with a long lens by a private detective. They craned to see each other’s.

“Where did you get these?” Asha was one of those whose photo was captured from a website. “This is off my Twitter profile. My private Twitter profile. My work one’s got the departmental logo on it.”

“Aha,” Belinda said, “Well, that’s our starting point, isn’t it? How visible is the Head of IT to her user community?”

“It’s not about me,” said Asha, “It’s about the service.”

Liam had his hand raised. “Yes, Liam.”

“I’ve got a picture of myself. Is that ok?”

“No, could you swap with Fiona?” Fiona and Liam complied.

“OK, everyone got something?”

They nodded.

Belinda strode over to the flipchart easel. “The first task is to write on the back of the photo something you know about the person, something you know about his or her service, and how you’d expect to come across the service in your daily working life.” She lifted the cover sheet of the flipchart to reveal these three points in summary.

“OK. You’ve got ten minutes. No conferring.”

There as a short silence, then Neil raised his hand. “Anyone got a spare pen?”

Fiona unzipped her pencil case and looked inside. “Any colour?”

He nodded, and she selected one and rolled it down the table to him. “Cheers. Never seem to need one these days.”

This exchange had broken the silence, and there was some muttering and sniggering around the table.

“How much are they paying us, again?”

“Bloody hell, look at Mike. He looks like the co-respondent in a dodgy divorce case.”

“I wonder when this one was taken. Still, nothing a bit of plastic surgery wouldn’t fix.”

Belinda cleared her throat. “No conferring!” she trilled at them, smiling to show it was for their own good.

A chorus of sighs accompanied their descent into concentration.

After ten minutes, Belinda clapped her hands to signal the end of the activity.

“Alright, everyone, if you could pass the photos up, then we’ll do a quick review, and I’ll get them typed up afterwards.”

She collected in the photos.

“OK, I’ll put these under the document camera and we can see where we’re up to. Let’s start with me, get it over with!”


  1. Belinda, Marketing
    1. Something I know about Belinda: She has a horse and two labradors
    2. Something I know about her service: It’s mainly external-facing
    3. I come across her service when I need to get leaflets designed, or get the website updated – which always seems to take forever.

Belinda laughed nervously. “Ooh. I can see I’ve got a bit of work to do there! They’re golden retrievers, by the way. Well, it’s interesting to see how you perceive me. Let’s move on. Who’s next? Arabella!” She turned over the next photo, and put it under the camera.

  1. Jim, IT Services
    1. Something I know about Jim: Most of his staff have beards
    2. Something I know about his service: It’s everything to do with computers
    3. I come across his service every day when I switch on my PC, till 5pm when I switch it off.

“Seems like a good summary. Any comments, Jim?”

“Does this mean we’re the most important service? If everyone needs it all day long? Do I get a pay rise?”

“Ha, ha, not sure we can agree that by committee, Jim.” Belinda picked up his photo and replaced it wit hthe next one. “Ah, Marjorie.”

  1. Marjorie, Quality Department
    1. Something I know about Marjorie: She’s worked at Burston Central for at least 25 years (I saw her at the long service cocktail party two years ago)
    2. Something I know about her service: It’s like the police
    3. I come across her service when someone tells me I can’t change something because of the regulations

“Interesting. Is that what you expected, Marjorie?”

Marjorie’s face was a deep, deep, shade of red. Apart from the tip of her nose, which was white. “I don’t think it’s very responsible of whoever it is to perpetuate these stereotypes. You all know perfectly well that our role is enhancement, not enforcement. Who was it? It’s not funny.” She swept her glare around the table. Her colleagues all looked fixedly at the table. “I do know your handwritings, you know. Let me have a look.” She started to get up. Belinda scooped the photo off the projection desk and whisked it into the pile of other photos. She looked desperately at John.

He made a kind of pretend laugh. “Very funny, I’m sure, whoever that was. I know it’s getting near to the end of term, but I do expect you to take these kinds of exercises seriously. Belinda had put a lot of time into devising that activity, and I did expect better from you.” He frowned.  His team were still looking at the table, except for Marjorie, who was scanning the faces of her colleagues, possibly for signs of guilt.

“I’m sure we can get these typed up later. And circulated, if I think they’ll be useful. Now, we’re running a bit short of time. We haven’t got much time for the Focus Strategy. But let’s make a start. Belinda, can you give everyone a Post-it note?”

While Belinda was going round the table, trying to pass out the paper without making eye or physical contact with Marjorie, John continued. “Right. Focus Strategy. The idea for this is that you’ve all been telling me, in your annual reviews, that you think that we’re too diffuse in our efforts, that we’re trying to do too much. We aren’t going to get any more resources, so we’re going to have to prioritise more strongly. And that’s what the Focus Strategy will help us with.”

John took a sip of water. “OK. I’d like you to spend a minute or two thinking, then write down on your Post-it the one thing we should focus on across this directorate.”

They wrote in silence, then passed their post-its up to John. He laid them out in front of him and sighed deeply. “It looks as though each one of you has written down the name of your own service. Except for one, which says ‘students’. I agree with you that they should be the priority, but what aspect of ‘students’ should we focus on?”


John looked at his watch. “We haven’t got time to do this again now. We’ll return to it at the first meeting after Christmas. Meanwhile, think about this very carefully. I’m determined to put a Focus Strategy in place.”

The team filed out of the room. John collected up the post-it notes and stuck them carefully together, before walking over to the paper recycling bin and dropping them in it. Was there any way of getting his heads of service to work together? Would it be easier to reorganise them, and start again?

Not the best team-building technique, but if you want to learn about another one, try this.