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 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 Jobs.ac.uk 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.

On the eighth day of Christmas

On the eighth day of Christmas
my VC sent to me:
Eight interventions
Seven Staff a-plotting
Six Student Surveys
Five REF Stars
Four Closing Calls
Three French Exchanges
Two DVCs
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.

“Yes, Trish?”

“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?”

“Sorry, Anita?”

“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?”

“The Intervener?”

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?”





“Critical friend.”

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?

On the seventh day of Christmas

On the seventh day of Christmas
my VC sent to me:
Seven Senior Plotters
Six Student Surveys
Five REF Stars
Four Closing Calls
Three French Exchanges
Two DVCs
And restructure of the university

Geoff looked around him carefully. No, nobody he recognised. Phew.

At the bar, he ordered a pint. “Dr Sanders!” said the girl behind the bar.

Not girl. Woman. Geoff corrected his thoughts, “Er. Yes. Er. Have we had the pleasure?”

“Oh, you won’t remember me.” She smiled at him. “I know how many people you see every day. I’m a second year in Biology. You came and talked to us at induction last year. Telling us all about the course, and all the important research in the department.”

Geoff smiled vaguely. “Of course. How are your studies going?”

“Oops, I’ll need to watch what I say, won’t I? Fine,  thank you.” She giggled. “That’ll be three pounds sixty, please, Dr Sanders.”

Three sixty? Bloody hell, this place was expensive. Although he supposed he hadn’t been out for a while. Maybe that was how much a pint cost, these days.

He handed over a fiver. “Keep the change.”

“Are you sure? Thanks, Dr Sanders.” The woman beamed at him and turned to the till.

Geoff took a sip of his pint. He turned from the bar and scanned the room. Still nobody he knew, apart from the bar-maid, bar-person, whatever they were called nowadays. Damn. It was a pity she’d recognised him, but she probably wouldn’t recognise the others, so it would be ok. He started off towards a large table in the far corner which looked big enough for the group.

He settled himself so that he had a view of the room. God, it was pretty rank in here. He could be sitting at home on his nice, comfy sofa, enjoying the last few days of peace before his father-in-law arrived for Christmas.  Why did people come out to pubs?

He tried not to think about the VC’s restructuring plans. He’d been there for years, surely he’d get a good payoff? He tried to tell himself that he didn’t really care either way. His department wasn’t being singled out, after all. Everybody was being thrown into the blender. Or cast into the corner. Or something.

He was half-way down the pint before the others arrived, in two clumps of three. The first group looked as morose as him, subdued, as though they hadn’t been talking to one another on the way over. Perhaps they’d just met at the door. Like him, they scanned the bar furtively, as though hoping not to see anyone they recognised. They each nodded as Geoff as they looked round the room, then ordered separately and in silence. As they made their way over to Geoff’s table, the second group came in. In contrast, they were boisterous, chatting loudly, and clearly making the bar-woman blush. One of them turned to the room as the orders were being placed. Catching Geoff’s eye, he mimed a glass being raised. Geoff’s pint seemed to have disappeared. He lifted the empty glass, and nodded. His colleague said something to the bar-maid, who looked over at Geoff, then pointed to one of the pumps. Geoff shuffled in his seat. So much for going incognito for this meeting.

Finally, all seven of them were seated round the table. Geoff decided to go easy on this second pint. God knows, he wasn’t really used to drinking beer. He could already feel an uncomfortable pressure in his bladder, and he was completely hemmed in. He took a sip, anyway.

A few pleasantries were exchanged, but gradually the group fell silent, and eyes turned to Julian, who appeared oblivious to the attention. He seemed to be downing his pint in one. The others watched as he drained the glass and slowly tipped his head back forward, opening his eyes and smiling broadly at his audience. “Good to see you all. Seven heads together, we don’t do it often enough. Great beer they have here. I needed that. Right, just let me get another one, then we’ll get started, shall we?” He managed to imply that the others were keeping him waiting. “Anyone for a top up?”

There was a collective shaking of heads.

They all watched as he crossed to the bar, striding between the tables and plonking his empty glass down forcefully  on the sodden bar towels. He seemed to be keeping up a stream of banter as the person tending the bar was pulling his pint. When he looked back at their table, bending conspiratorially towards her and whispering, they all looked away hurriedly. The silence while they were all watching Julian became awkward as they looked at each other, searching for appropriate small talk. From the bar, they could hear hearty laughter.

Silence reigned at the table until Julian’s return.

Julian’s chair was exactly as he’d left it, set slightly away from the table, but he lifted it up and moved it slightly further away, before sitting down heavily, feet apart, and putting his pint down forcefully. He rubbed his hands. “Right, let’s get started, then.”

He looked around the table at his silent colleagues. “Cats got your tongues?” He grinned. “Never known you all be so quiet. Bet you’re wondering why I’ve set this meeting up.”

There were a couple of nods.

“Something to do with the restructure?” ventured Ramsi.

“Exactly.” Julian lowered his voice. “I hope I can trust all of you?”

Vigorous nods. Maybe Julian had some extra gossip.

“Are you all agreed that this restructure is ridiculous?” Nods which were almost enthusiastic; one guy – Geoff thought he might be the head of philosophy – even murmured ‘hear, hear’.

The seven of them were leaning perceptibly towards Julian now. He continued. “I think we need to organise a resistance movement.”

Geoff wasn’t sure that he’d heard properly. Julian was on the other side of the table from him, and he was practically whispering. He couldn’t have said that, it wasn’t a … “You know, like in the war, in France.” Julian added. “We need to look at this VC and the chair of Council as enemy invaders. They’re occupying our space. They’re going against everything we stand for in a university. They’re reducing scholarly activity to a market transaction. They’re undermining our values. We need to organise, brothers!” Julian had straightened gradually, and his speech had increased in volume, so that by the end of this call to arms he was sitting straight up, projecting his voice to the wall behind Geoff’s head. In response, the group had also moved away from their huddled positions, so that they too were sitting straight-backed, listening intently to their leader.

Julian glanced behind him to make sure that his last words hadn’t attracted attention. He lowered his voice again. “Are you with me?”

Ramsi shook his head slightly. “With you in what way?”

Julian waved his arm vaguely in the direction of the university. “Well, you know, with me, against the restructure.”

Ramsi shook his head more vigorously. “Do you have something concrete in mind? I’m sure we all agree it’s a bad idea, but what do you think we should do?”

Julian looked briefly at a loss. “Well, here we all are, seven representative members of senior staff, heads of department, I don’t want to dictate things to you, we need to make some democratic decisions.”

Harry stepped in. “We could think about what the Maquis did in the war?”

Ramsi looked at him. “Which war?”

“The second. Second world war. Sorry. Cultural assumptions. Anyway,” Harry sped on, “they tried to undermine the occupation, the German occupation, by trying to disrupt normal life. Blowing up railway lines, stealing jeeps, that sort of thing.”

Julian was nodding. “That’s it. We can’t be seen to be deliberately working against the Executive. Then we’d all lose our jobs, and that would be counter-productive, wouldn’t it? Our staff need us.”

Geoff wasn’t sure what to say. What the hell? What the? What?

He wasn’t very strong on history, but he wasn’t sure what the French Resistance had achieved. Hadn’t it needed D-Day to finish the war in France?  And what did maquis mean?

There was a long silence. To cover it, everyone lifted their glasses and took a sip. It wasn’t a toast, but Julian gestured slightly with his glass. “To resistance.”

The others fixed their gazes on the table. Geoff was dying to go to the loo. How long before he could get away?

To be continued….

On the sixth day of Christmas

On the sixth day of Christmas, the VC sent to me
Six Student Surveys
Five REF Stars
Four Closing Calls
Three French Exchanges
Two DVCs
And restructure of the university

Pam sat in the open plan office, trying to remember what it was she’d wanted to concentrate on, if only the distractions of people coming and going would reduce enough to let her get on with it. It was there somewhere, hovering around the edge of her thoughts…

There was a cough right behind her. She spun her head round.

“June! You gave me a fright!”

June spoke in a stage whisper. “Sorry. I don’t like to disturb everyone by clumping in.”

Pam raised her eyebrows. “Most considerate. Thanks. I’ll try not to disturb them by shrieking when you come up behind me. Anyway, what can I do for you?”

“His nibs wants a report on the department’s response to student surveys on his desk by Monday.”

“Which surveys? Why now?”

“All of them. Because the new DVC wants a report from each department,”  June lowered her voice, “and because they’re deciding before Christmas who’s going to head up the new teaching hubs .”

“Teaching hubs?”

June bent closer to Pam’s ear. “You know, the reorganisation. No more departments. Just three teaching hubs. And what will the rest of them do then?”

Pam fought the urge to wheel her chair fractionally away from June’s face. “What?”

“Don’t you read the all-staff newsletter?”

“I must have missed it. Been busy with, oh, teaching, marking, exam-setting, pastoral support….”

June shrugged. “Well, whatever. He said you could give him a ring after seven tonight if you need to talk to him.”

“Tonight? But I’ve got choir…” Pam trailed off. “OK. Whatever. Did he say how long it should be?”

“Nope. But he usually says ‘no more than a page’ for anything going upstairs.” June looked upwards to indicate the direction of travel of the report.

“OK. Well, thanks for coming to tell me.”

“No choice. You never answer my emails, and your phone goes straight to voicemail, and he said it was important.”

“Oh. Sorry. Well, you know how it is. Students come first.”

June’s expression indicated that she didn’t think her place in the pecking order should be quite so low, but she simply said. “OK then. Monday?”

Pam nodded. At least that solved the problem of wondering what she was meant to be working on. As June walked away, Pam sighed deeply. What on earth was June talking about, three teaching hubs? And what had that got to do with surveys? And why a report on surveys? What use would that be? She opened her notepad and began to make a list of surveys which their students had completed in the last few months:

  1. National Student Survey
  2. Burston Intermediate Survey
  3. Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey
  4. Postgraduate Research Experience Survey
  5. Domestic Student Barometer
  6. International Student Barometer

She decided to discount the last two. Response rates were never over 15% and they never got useful data at departmental level. Especially the international one – they only had about ten international students on the course, anyway. They were just a pet project of a previous PVC. And there was no way Geoff would remember about them. PRES and PTES were slightly better in terms of response rates, but they hardly had any postgrads, so absolute numbers were low. She decided not to bother with them, either. So. NSS and BIS, the survey for first and second years which was intended to prepare students for the NSS to identify problems in a timely way . What useful information could she put together at departmental level? She could write the summary without rechecking the detailed data: “Results have varied slightly from year to year, but on the whole, Biology students at Burston Central are about as satisfied as their counterparts in other similar institutions. Student comments indicate that we still have work to do to improve timetabling and feedback on assessed work. Programme teams continue to address the issues raised by students as part of their annual improvement planning.” She wished that ‘upstairs’ had read the ‘Making it Count’ report, because surely if they had, they wouldn’t ask for a summary of departmental reports. Everyone knew that the results of the National Student Survey were disciplinary-dependent. Didn’t they?

Pam sighed again. Surveys had seemed to be a perfectly sensible idea – taking a snapshot of what was happening. How had they generated such an industry of analysis, comparisons of un-related data, report-writing, and teacher-shaming? And why had she agreed to be the departmental survey co-ordinator, complicit in perpetuating this activity? Or was she just being cynical? Was the original aim still being served, at least at course level, if not at institutional level?

Pam stared into the distance for a while. She could write an excoriating critique of the process. That would probably be the honest, academic, thing to do. But to what end? Geoff would just have to write something else himself to pass ‘upstairs’. He’d be pissed off with her, and it wouldn’t make any difference to the end result. The path of least resistance was to produce a short, bland report which would satisfy Geoff. If it helped him in his mission to become head of a teaching hub, who was she to argue? Reaching for the headphones, she clicked on her Spotify account and looked at the genres offered. In the absence of one marked ‘chasing your tail’, she picked ‘Oldies  Pop Christmas’.

She opened a new Word file on her computer and started typing.

On the fifth day of Christmas

On the fifth day of Christmas, the VC sent to me
Five REF stars
Four closing calls
Three French exchanges
Two DVCs
and restructure of the university

News from Burston Central

This month’s highlight is a profile of five of our research stars. Now of course, we don’t get individual reports on our ‘REFfable’ researchers but we do know who ‘got submitted’, as we say, and here are some great examples of our five ‘five-star’ people!  These stories will give everyone something to aspire to.

We were lucky enough to recruit Professor Janice Goldman from a very large school of occupational therapy in August 2013, and she brought with her a fantastic collection of publications and grants acquired over the previous five years. Janice was looking to return to the region after a long period away and says she’s relished the opportunity to get back in touch with her roots and share some of her vast experience with researchers at Burston Central. Sadly for us, but happily for her, Janice is planning to retire before REF 2020 but we know she’ll leave a legacy of best practice and fabulous ideas for the future. Thanks, Janice!

Modern historian Professor Nigel Trewell is one of our rising stars. Elevated to a personal chair in 2013, his take on the liminal spaces between sociology, politics, and modern history is fresh, spiky, and truly ground-breaking. It was a challenge to know which REF panel to submit Nigel’s work to! When he’s not got his head buried in a printed artefact of some kind, because of course modern history transcends the traditional book format, Nigel also does a bit of modelling, and has even appeared as an extra in popular TV programmes such as The Bill and Casualty. What a star! We’d also like to congratulate Nigel on his recent engagement to eminent historian Carly Romero, from Burston University, who coincidentally chaired the Modern History sub-panel. What a combination!

Jay Howard is a specialist in logistics, which is very much an up-and-coming area in the Business area of the Research Excellence Framework. Jay worked for many years for Burston City Council before joining Burston Central to strengthen the strategic management team. At the Council, he was responsible for co-ordinating environmental collections – a huge organisational role. Jay has secured a series of large consultancy contracts for Burston Central, bringing his waste collection expertise to a wide range of local authorities and generally being the brains behind the binmen. We definitely call that impact!

Dr Ye Chen straddles the departments of Modern Foreign Languages and Economics with apparent ease. Whilst her research focus is firmly in the latter, as she studies the impact of Chinese investment in traditional British cultural industries such as football, she somehow finds time to teach Beginners’ Mandarin, allowing the Languages department to offer a full range of relevant subjects to our lucky students. Go Ye!

And of course we also have four-star home-grown talent in the form of Professor Chris Fletcher, our microbiology expert who’s made mould into one of our fastest growing products. Chris’ work has particular application in the community, and in fact he’s currently collaborating with logistics expert Jay Howard to look at ways of making environmental collections even safer, from a microbial point of view. Smelly work, but someone has to do it!

Note for journalists: If you would like to interview any of our five research stars, or for more information about Burston Central University and our directory of experts, please contact Justin Marks, University Press Officer.