On the eighth day of Christmas
my VC sent to me:
Seven Staff a-plotting
Six Student Surveys
Five REF Stars
Four Closing Calls
Three French Exchanges
And restructure of the university
“Mmmm, first one of the season. Thanks, Hazel.”
“First one? Where have you been? I’m sick of them already.”
Hazel had brought mince pies to the monthly team meeting.
“OK, everyone, let’s get down to it. Sooner we start, sooner we finish, eh?”
The chatter died down. There was a loud slurp from the corner of the table.
“What? The coffee’s scalding.” Rich smirked. Carol giggled.
Hazel frowned. “Come on, everyone. It’s all very well, but we need to get on.”
Looks were exchanged around the table. Staff meetings were informal in the Centre for Academic Practice. There was usually a bit of messing about. The rest of the time, the team didn’t see that much of each other. Their offices were distributed around corners of the campus and meetings were a chance to catch up both socially and professionally. Clearly, something was up.
“The DVC has asked us to support a series of interventions in courses which, er,” Hazel looked down at her notes, “er, need improvement.”
Rich raised his hand. “Surely the very definition of quality enhancement used by the QAA means that all courses are constantly in need of continuous improvement.”
He looked around the table for approbation. Nobody caught his eye.
“Well, indeed, Rich, but,” Hazel paused. There must be a ‘but’. “But these are courses which may need, er, more improvement than the rest.” She knew she’d fallen into the trap. She sighed and waited.
“More improvement, measured how?”
Hazel looked around the table for help. Everyone was looking at their notes, or their device. “The usual ways, Rich. Survey scores, progression rates, employment rates.” She looked him in the eye. “All of the things which are going to be measured in the Teaching Excellence Framework, according to the Green Paper.”
Rich opened his mouth, but Hazel carried on talking. “Which we don’t have time to discuss now. There are other places where you can express your views on the Green Paper.”
She carried on. Anyway, there are eight courses which have been identified as needing additional interventions. I’ll just pass round this list.” She took the top paper from the pile in front of her, and passed the rest on. There were a few groans as her colleagues scanned the list.
“As you can see, I’ve allocated each of you, at least, each of the academic staff, to two courses. I’ll have oversight of the process, so I won’t get too involved with any particular course.”
Trish raised her hand.
“Is this list fixed in stone, or can we, like, swap?”
“I’d rather you didn’t. I’ve tried to balance things out.” Hazel mentally crossed her fingers that nobody would ask her what that meant. Actually, she’d already circulated the list to the relevant heads of department. Plus, it had been based on considerations such as ‘I can’t possibly let Rich work with Chemistry. Economics will eat Trish alive. Philosophy will run rings round Ruth.’ She couldn’t think of any diplomatic way of sharing her thought processes. “Look, one course is pretty much the same as another.” Even though they spend hours telling us how special they are, she added. Hopefully only in her head. “Let’s agree some general rules of engagement.”
“Is it a war, then?”
Hazel looked wearily at Rich. She didn’t say anything.
“Rules of engagement. They’re for wars.”
“OK. Let’s agree some general, common, approaches to working with these courses, then.” Knowing she shouldn’t, she continued, slightly petulantly. “Does that suit you better, Rich?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Right, let’s carry on, then. The DVC – yes, Rich?”
“Which DVC is that?”
“There’s only one DVC at the moment, Rich. I don’t think they’ve even started the process of appointing the second one.”
“Yes, but, suppose this DVC gets the other job, the research one, and the new DVC gets the teaching one, then he might change everything. It’s not worth doing any special projects for this DVC, surely?”
Hazel looked blank. She had lost the thread of DVCs and ones early in the sentence.
“He OR she.” Hazel swivelled to look at Trish. What the hell?
Trish continued. “The new DVC might be male or female, Rich. Don’t make assumptions.”
Hazel had completely lost the thread. “Let’s just go back at bit, shall we?” She looked at her notes. “I think I may have presented this badly.” She smiled at them all, as though they were very stupid children who hadn’t listened to her. Half right. “Let me try again. We will be providing additional support to the eight courses on the list I’ve just passed round, and you’ll be working with the courses allocated to you on that list. Now, let’s just settle a few common approaches.” She exhaled noisily. “Anyone?”
Just as she was about to start speaking again, Anita piped up. “Do you need us for this bit?”
“It’s just that if this is all academic stuff, we’ve got things we need to do for the exam board and that, so, we could be getting on.” Anita managed to imply that the admin team were both excluded from and supremely uninterested in the forthcoming discussion.
Hazel looked desperate. “I, er, well, you’re always very valuable to the work of the team, it might be good for you to know what’s happening, for room bookings, etcetera…” She tailed off. However much she wanted to build a multi-disciplinary team, she couldn’t think of any reason for them to stay. “No, OK, well, fine. We’ll update you later.”
Anita and Alex gathered up their things and left the room. They were followed by some longing glances.
“Right.” Hazel tried again. “Let’s try an speed this up, shall we? We need to be out of the room by half-past.” They’d only just got to the important bit, and there were only ten minutes left. She sighed, yet again. “Here’s what I suggest. Personal emails to each course leader from the relevant person, what shall we call that person?”
There were some smirks, but nobody said anything. They could tell Hazel was getting rattled.
“Come on, Rich, that’s not even a word. How about ‘supporter’?”
“If we’re going with sporting analogies, how about ‘right prop’?”
“Thanks, Rich. Actually, that was quite funny. But, no. Any other ideas?”
Hazel sighed. “It’s all a bit nineteen-eighties, but I do think ‘critical friend’ is probably the best we’re going to get. OK. Personal emails to each course leader from the critical friend, setting out what’s happening. Do you want me to draft something we can all use and personalise?”
Trish raised her hand a fraction. “Yes, Trish?”
“Do the course leaders know about this yet?”
“Good question, Trish. I’m not sure. It’s come from the DVC, I presume he’s told Heads of Department, so I think we can assume that they will have passed that on to their own staff.”
Eyes rolled around the table. “OK. Maybe that’s a bit too much of an assumption. I’ll think of a way of phrasing it in the email.” Hazel made a note. “OK. Then, a process for the interventions.” She read from her notes, quite rapidly. “How about, meeting with the course leader, meeting with the course team, agree some staff development, make changes, evaluate changes, report back?”
She looked at her watch. Twenty-five past. The significance wasn’t lost on the team. There were nods around the table.
“Right, great.” Finally, she remembered how she’d decided to present this idea, after a sleepless night pondering its futility and lack of rationale. “This is a great opportunity to influence enhancement where it’s most needed. Let’s get to it.”
The team headed for the door, leaving Hazel to clear up the remains of the mince pies. Would any of it make any difference?