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