Advent Episode 7: An Inspector Calls

A bumper double episode today from Burston Central. Who’s teaching your students?

alison. phone di bones. 0208 654 2304. alex.

Alison took the note down. Di Bones? She couldn’t remember anyone called Di Bones. Diana? Diane? She called Alex’s number to see if she could find out any more about the caller, but the administrator must have finished for the day. She wondered whether to call now or wait until tomorrow. Oh what the heck, she might as well get it out of the way. It was probably a reference request from an ex-student.

She dialled the number and was surprised when a man answered: “D. I. Bones”

“This is Alison Fraser. I had a message to call this number”.

“Ah yes, Mrs Fraser”, he said, “thanks for calling me back so promptly. I’m sorry to contact you out of the blue like this, but I need your assistance with an enquiry”.

“Um. Enquiry? I don’t really understand.”

“I think it would be easier if I popped over to see you,” Bones continued “it is fairly urgent. Could I see you this evening?”

“Um. Well. I have to go home soon” Alison answered, rapidly calculating who needed to be where tonight and how late she could stay at work, “What time were you thinking of?”

“Oh I can come over to see you at home,” DI Bones said, briskly “Shall we say 7 o’clock? I’ve got the address”

“Um. Well. OK, I guess…” Alison trailed off.

“Excellent. See you then”.

“Um. Yes. Bye” Alison started to say, but D I Bones had already rung off. Alison sat down heavily at her desk. What on earth could this be about? She did a mental count of her close family and friends. Surely if it was something to do with one of them, the officer would have said something. She scrabbled in her work bag for her mobile phone and called her husband.

“Derek?” she squeaked with relief when he answered.

“Who else would it be?” Derek started to laugh, but checked himself “what’s wrong?”.

“I don’t know” Alison realised that she was shaking. “I got a call from a policeman, but he didn’t say why. Are the kids ok?”

Derek’s turn to do a mental reckoning. “Yes”, he said “Ben’s just kidnapped his fourth prostitute since he got in from school and Emma’s upstairs doing her homework. What’s going on?”

“I don’t know”, said Alison “but he’s coming round tonight to talk to me about an enquiry. I’d better get back and tidy up a bit.”

“Coming round? Why?”

“Honestly, no idea. But as long as you guys are ok, I’m going to try not to worry about it. I haven’t done anything I shouldn’t. See you shortly,”

Alison put the phone back in her bag, scooped up the unfinished review and the following day’s teaching plans, and then paused. She put everything down and retrieved the phone again.

Pressing redial, she didn’t wait for Derek to finish saying “We’re all still fine, you don’t need to phone every two minutes” before screeching “Kidnapped a prostitute? What the hell are you talking about?”

Derek giggled. “It’s a video game. Obviously.”

Alison opened her mouth and took a deep breath in, then remembered the police officer.

“We need to talk about that later. I’m leaving now”, and she gathered up her work again and set off for home.

On the bus, she couldn’t stop worrying about what the police officer could want. Not the family, so that was the main thing.

A graduate who’d run amok? Exciting, but unlikely and anyway she shouldn’t get excited over people’s mental health issues. She straightened her face.

Unpaid speeding tickets. If so, they must have been from cloned number plates, they hardly used their ancient estate car, and it probably couldn’t break any speed limit.

One of the children in so much trouble at school the police had been called in? Too melodramatic, and anyway they’d have phoned home, not work. No, it must be something to do with the University. She was stumped. Also, how did the Detective Inspector have her home address? She didn’t like the sound of this much.

At home, she found Derek and Ben in front of the TV. Ben was steering a fancy looking car around a film noir set while Derek was offering suggestions and encouragement,  “over there – shoot…shoot! SHOOT! Oh for God’s sake, Ben, I told you he was behind you…”

Alison sighed, but neither male reacted. She turned on her heel and went into the kitchen, which looked … she turned her back on that, too, filled the kettle and put it on to boil.

Automatically, while the kettle was heating up, she started gathering up dirty crockery and stacking the dishwasher, while a familiar refrain replayed in her head “honestly, you’d think it was a hotel around here. How hard is it to put something in the dishwasher when you’ve finished with it? Or even to scrape the plates when you’ve finished?” she thought self-righteously. Although in fact she was quite happy to put her own dirty plate on the worktop to sort out in the morning.

The plunge back into domestic routine made her forget about the strange phone call earlier. She was back at home, everyone was safe, the house was in its usual state of entropy and she was engaged in the usual ineffective tussle against the creeping chaos of everyday life. It was comfortably familiar and she muttered away as she swept crumbs from the worktop. “Can’t even use a plate for their toast…”

The pattern of her thoughts was interrupted by the doorbell. “Can one of you …” she started, then realised it was probably futile – if they hadn’t heard the bell, they wouldn’t hear her shouting either.

Episode 8. Have you seen this man?

Grumbling under her breath, she opened the door to a tall, serious-looking man in a dark grey suit. “Hello”, she said, looking at him with an air of irritation

“Mrs Fraser?” he said, fairly rhetorically.

“Dr”, Alison said by way of reply. “How may I help you?”.

“I’m DI Bones”.

For a fraction of a second Alison continued to look blankly at him, and then she remembered.  “Of course, DI Bones! Come in!” she almost shouted, over-compensating for her lapse, “come through into the kitchen, the boys are on their video game in the sitting-room. Excuse the mess”, she continued. “I’ve just got in from work” hoping that this would explain everything.

DI Bones surely knew that she must have just got in from work, as he had phoned her there earlier, and would also surely be able to tell that the disorder in the house was formed in geological layers which were unlikely to have appeared during a single day at work. She changed the subject “Well, DI Bones, do sit down, I’ll just clear these newspapers for you. Can I offer you a cup of tea? The kettle’s just boiled.”

DI Bones glanced around the kitchen. “No thanks, Dr Fraser”, he said “I’ve just had one.”

Alison sat down opposite him. “So, to what do I owe this pleasure?” she said, putting on a cheery tone, as though a police officer in her kitchen was an everyday occurrence.

DI Bones bent over and took a plain manila folder from his bag. He opened it and took out a small photo, and some printed notes. He passed the photo across the table. “We were wondering if you knew this man?”

Alison looked at the photo “No, I don’t think so. Should I?”

“His name is Gareth Jones”, continued DI Bones, looking fixedly at Alison, who was looking again at the photo. She was still thinking.

“Gareth Jones? Gareth Jones. That rings a bell. Was he an ex-student?”

“We don’t know much about him at all. We were hoping you could tell us.”

“Me? I don’t think so”, she declared, passing the photo back. “What’s he done, anyway?”

“He hasn’t done anything, well, not that we know about. I’m afraid Mr Jones is deceased”.

“Oh dear, poor chap, how sad for his family” murmured Alison, automatically.  “But what’s this got to do with me?” she tailed off, feeling that she sounded callous, which she didn’t intend, but really, it had been a long day, she still hadn’t had her cup of tea, and the situation felt quite bizarre; this Gareth Jones had nothing to do with her.

DI Bones cleared his throat. “Mr Jones was found dead and we don’t know much about him. In his rucksack we found a payslip from the university. We phoned your HR department and they said he worked in your department, and the head of department said his records were that he taught part-time on a Biology course, and you were the course leader so you must know him.”

Alison felt a bit confused by the number of characters introduced in this sentence and particularly by the shower of pronouns which tangled her relationship to Gareth Jones still further in her mind. She focused on the end of the sentence.

“So, this is a photo of Gareth Jones, who Geoff thinks teaches on my course” she paraphrased.

DI Bones sighed. “I was certainly hoping you might be able to confirm that, Dr Fraser”.

“I don’t know” she said, simply.

There was a short silence. DI Bones sighed again. He hadn’t had much to do with people from the university before. Were they all like this? “Is this Mr Jones, Ma’am?”

“I’ve never met Dr Jones” said Alison, “in fact I’d forgotten all about Dr Jones.” She realised that this must sound very odd. “Look. We do employ a couple of post-docs – young academics – from the university down the road to teach on the course. But I just don’t have time to keep up with what they do. I needed someone in a hurry at the beginning of term, someone recommended this guy, I didn’t have time to meet him, I just spoke to him on the phone and he sounded OK, he had a good reference. It was just for a 15 credit course, and I did mean to meet up with him, but it’s been busy since the beginning of term…” she tailed off.

She had absolutely no idea what Gareth Jones had been doing with her students. God.  “Anyway, what about him? Has he done something wrong?”

DI Bones looked at her for a moment. “As I mentioned previously, Mr – Doctor – Jones is, er, deceased. We’re trying to trace his next of kin and we hoped you’d be able to help us. But it looks as though we need to try elsewhere. I won’t take up any more of your time, I’m sure you’ve got a lot to do,” he added, looking around the kitchen again, “Thank you for your help, Dr Fraser”.

Alison led the way to the front door. As they passed the sitting room, a slightly muffled cry of ‘Kill him! Kill him!’ could be heard. Alison cleared her throat loudly and bustled DI Bones to the door. “Video game. Lovely to meet you. D I Bones. I hope you find out what you need to know soon.”

She closed the door and leaned back against it for a moment. She felt completely bewildered. A policeman had just been in her house. One of her colleagues was dead. She hadn’t a clue who he was. She had put him in charge of her students and she hadn’t a clue who he was. She went back into the kitchen and switched the kettle back on, then crossed over to the fridge. There we probably still a couple of glasses left in last night’s bottle of wine. She took two glasses from the cupboard, carefully shared out the remains between them, then downed one of them in one, put the empty glass in the dishwasher and sat down at the table. She sipped the second glass of wine contemplatively. She wondered if this was the last straw.

Follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter to be informed of updates from 1 December, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of the screen to get new episodes by email. Tomorrow’s episode: Worries


Advent Episode 2: The Last Straw

Bob was staring blankly at his computer screen. He was finding it difficult to concentrate. Martin hadn’t been too happy about the broken kettle. He was sitting muttering to himself, nursing a super-sized Americano which Bob had gone down to get for him from the coffee shop.

Bob was answering emails from students about the assignment which was due in at 5pm. He was trying very, very hard not to think about Alan’s frankly bizarre behaviour in the toilets that morning. He just wanted to come to work, teach students, do his paperwork, and go home.

He didn’t expect the job to be stress-free, and he didn’t mind working long hours, but he did expect it to be reasonably predictable and, well, safe. Being a forensic accountant had been fine, while he was sitting analysing files, but he’d never really enjoyed having to confront people at the sessions where he presented his findings, or, worse, had to ask them why documents were missing or didn’t tally with each other. The rules had been clear enough, and he was good at auditing. He could just never get to grips with the general deviousness of some of the clients.

University life, by contrast, was pretty straightforward. People thought they were creative and original, but they worked within well-defined parameters. The year was tightly structured. There were clear rules of behaviour and most people stuck to them. Annual appraisals didn’t have numbers on, but were based on vague objectives which were subject to a wide range of gentle interpretations.

Students did the same kinds of things every year, made the same kinds of excuses, dipped in performance at the same times of the year, sometimes made the same kinds of startling progress, and were generally, or at least on the average, charming.

Staff were usually courteous to one another. Hardly anyone raised their voices, which was nice, even if perhaps there was sometimes rather too much muttering. People covered classes for each other when someone was sick, or needed to attend the nativity play, or got a paper accepted at a special conference.  He liked it here.

He’d never heard of anyone else being ambushed in the toilets by senior management. So why had it happened to him?

His phone rang. He was almost relieved when it turned out to be a student. An extension request, perhaps?

“This really is the last straw…” spluttered Martin. He reached for a tissue to wipe flecks of coffee from his keyboard and reread the email which had just landed in his inbox.


From: Justin Marks, head of campus communications

Subject: Car Parking Charges

All staff will be aware of the University’s commitment to Sustainable Development. As part of this policy, we are committed to encouraging staff to travel to campus by public transport. We will therefore be introducing a charge for car parking with effect from 1 January. Charges will be competitive compared with other local facilities at £8 per day, or £35 for a full week…

Martin didn’t bother to read the sections on subsidised rail season tickets, bus concessions or the provision of extra bicycle racks. He continued to fume, more or less silently. The rules of office-sharing dictated that they should try to be quiet when the other was on the phone. Bob was involved in a protracted conversation.

“I’m terribly sorry to hear about your grandmother”, repeated Bob, “and if you’d like to collect a Mitigating Circumstances form from the Student Support Office…” he tailed off. A pained expression crossed his face and the sound of noisy sobs could be heard through the receiver.

“From the Student Support Office”, he continued, “and submit it together with any supporting evidence by Friday,” – he speeded up – “itwillbeconsideredbythepanelwhowilldecideifyoucanbe givenanextension for the assignment. Now, I have another call waiting, so I’ll confirm this to you in an email, and I really do offer my deepest sympathies on your bereavement. Goodbye”. He replaced the receiver, then took it off the hook again and turned back to his computer.  He sighed.

Martin had been simmering as he waited for Bob to finish on the phone. “HAVE YOU SEEN THE LATEST?” Bob looked up, guardedly.  “Um…probably not”, he ventured. “I was just trying to remember whether that was the student who’d already claimed special extensions for grandparental bereavements or not. What have I missed?” He wasn’t sure that he wanted to know.

Martin didn’t really let him finish the sentence before continuing “CAR PARKING!” he shouted. “They’re even going to charge us to come to work now!” Bob located and opened the car parking email in his own inbox. He read it through carefully.

“Oh dear. And they’re going to reduce the number of places, too. Didn’t you say it was already difficult to park unless you get in before seven-thirty?”

Bob cycled to work most days. If it was very wet he took two buses instead. He had no real idea of whether it was difficult to park or not. Still, he felt an instinctive sympathy for the reaction the email had provoked in his colleague. Martin complained regularly about the difficulties of driving into work and finding somewhere to park when he’d arrived. He often arrived in the office slightly out of breath and pink-cheeked, as though he had run to work. Actually, the effect would have been produced by sitting in his car and getting angry with the nameless idiots blocking his way and taking his parking space.

“It’s all right for you. You don’t drive to work. What am I supposed to do? Well, if they don’t want me to come in to work, I’ll just work from home more. Let’s see how they like that! I wonder what the union has to say about this?”

He bent over the keyboard and started tapping frantically.

Bob sighed again and turned back to his own computer, remembering that he’d promised to email the bereaved student with confirmation of the arrangements for requesting an extension.

He supposed it must be fairer to make all of the students apply for extensions in the same way, using the same forms, but it did seem to be a lot more hassle than just agreeing on the spot to a student who sounded genuinely upset. It felt so impersonal. And Sally Smith was such a nice genuine sort of girl. It seemed cruel to make her prove her grandmother had died when she was obviously so upset. He was still trying to remember if she’d asked for an extension for that before. It didn’t mean she was cheating. She did have four grandparents. Had had, anyway.

He sighed yet again. He had a class at two and he hadn’t yet managed to nip out for anything to eat.

There was a loud knock at the door. Both men stiffened slightly. Martin hissed “ssh…they might go away”. They sat motionless for a few seconds. There was a second knock, more hesitant this time, and then the person outside tried the door handle tentatively. The door was locked. There was a short silence, followed by some rustling outside, and then a note appeared under the door.

The building was too noisy to distinguish footsteps retreating down the corridor, but after a decent interval had passed, Martin went over and picked up the note. “Dr Barker”, he read aloud “Hah! It’s for you, Bob. I told you it was a good move to put that dark paper over the window in the door. We’d never get any work done if they could see in.” He passed the note to Bob and went back to his email to the departmental union rep.

Bob unfolded the scrap of lined paper “Dr Barker”, he read “came to c u 2day, but ur not in. I need an extension cos my housemate was sick. Susie B.” Bob looked deeply pained. He turned back to the computer.

Susie B? He had 127 students in the class which had an assignment deadline that day. He knew the names of about 42, he reckoned. This one didn’t ring a bell. He brought up the student records programme, highlighted the relevant class, and searched on First Name: Su*. Susan, Susanne, Suzanne, Sue…good. Only one whose surname began with ‘B’. Susanne Brough.

He started an email, then stopped again. He couldn’t send it right this minute, as it would be obvious that he had actually been in his office when she put the note under the door. Then he started again – he could have been in the loo, couldn’t he? Or gone for a sandwich? That reminded him – what time was it? He looked at the clock in the corner of the screen. One-forty. Time for a quick sandwich before the lecture? Probably not. His stomach rumbled in protest.

He realised that he wouldn’t have time to get food after the lecture either. He’d have to go straight to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s office. His sigh could probably be heard in the next corridor. He forced himself to concentrate on what he was doing right now.

He finished the email which redirected Susie B to the appropriate part of the university website to apply for mitigating circumstances, pointing out gently that a friend’s illness wasn’t usually considered a good enough reason, and sent it. What was the modern equivalent of paper-pushing? Email-sneaking?

Shit! Shit! Shit!  Ten to two, and he hadn’t got all his stuff together for the lecture. Handouts? Notes? Where were they? He pulled the USB disk from its slot, ignoring the sanctimonious message about properly ejecting it, gathered up a pile of likely looking papers and headed for the door. Martin was still composing his email to the union, muttering quietly to himself as he typed, deleted and retyped.

Bob sighed again as he turned the lock with his little finger, then pushed down the door handle with his elbow and edged the door towards him, getting a foot in between it and the frame so that he could force his way out without dropping anything.

He emerged from the haven of the office, bearing his armfuls of material as though they were a shield to protect him from the parries of barbarian hordes. “Into the fray,” he muttered melodramatically to himself, as he dodged and weaved through the cheerful crowd of undergraduates.

This is an HE advent calendar for 2012. If you would like to find out what happens next at Burston Central, why not sign up for email updates when a new post is published, or follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter? Tomorrow’s episode: Fighting Back.

Advent Episode 6: In full spate

Sally Firth was in full spate. Alison liked the sound of that expression.  She tapped discreetly on her iPhone : ‘in full spate idiom’ and was rewarded with ‘a current of water at abnormally high level’ which wasn’t quite what she had been thinking of. Although the thought of Sally surfing triumphantly along the surface of a flooding river was fairly diverting.

Alison gazed attentively at Sally, seeing a trail of debris bobbing in her wake. She fell into a reverie. Was it debris, or was it a slew of drowning committee members?  She pulled herself together and looked back to the agenda, hoping to jog her memory about what Sally was so agitated about. Surely they hadn’t got to car parking yet?

Geoff was, as usual, failing to chair the meeting effectively. She wondered if he was even listening. Although his face was turned to Sally, he looked slightly distant.

Next to her, Paul raised his hand diffidently. She longed to grab his hand and wave it more assertively in the air, or maybe shout “Geoff! Paul has something to say!”. She smiled encouragingly at Paul, willing him to interrupt Sally. He raised his hand a little higher, but still tentatively. COME ON PAUL, she urged him silently.

She shifted rather ostentatiously in her chair.  Geoff started slightly, as though he had just woken up, although his eyes had certainly remained open, and looked over to the source of the movement. Paul waved his hand gently. A look of relief crossed Geoff’s face. Without waiting for a break in Sally’s flow, he harrumphed “thank you Sally, you’ve made that point so eloquently, we really must take all of that into account, I completely agree about that. I think Paul may wish to make an observation now”

Alison sneaked a look at her watch. 4.15pm. Possibly they were up to item 8, or maybe 7c, Sally might conceivably have been very annoyed about either of those. Only five items left, or possibly four if they were on item 8, and one of those was Any Other Business, of which she could only hope there wouldn’t be any.

Paul was about half way through a rambling introduction to his point. He seemed to be very grateful to Sally for making her cogent defence of the current system, and he wanted to support her suggestion that the committee should report back to the centre that it wasn’t necessary to make a change at this time.

Good God. What on earth were they all doing there? Who were ‘the centre’? Why not change? It would probably be quicker in the end than these pointless discussions. Paul tailed off.

Geoff paused for a moment, and looking carefully to the left of Sally, where there was nobody sitting, he said “well as I explained earlier, that was just an item for information, so there’s no vote to take. Let’s move on to item, er, 9. Car Parking”.

A forest of hands suddenly sprouted in the room, but people didn’t wait for Geoff to call them to speak, and a loud hum of competing voices filled the room. “It’s a tax on going to work”, “I can’t get the bus because I need to be able to get back if my elderly mum falls out of bed,” “I have to drop three other people off on the way to work,” “I can’t get back for nursery closing-time if I take the train,”  “It’s not fair”.

Geoff ignored the hubbub. One by one the voices fell silent, as their owners realised that the unwritten rules of university meetings had been broached. They all looked towards Geoff. Geoff cleared his throat and looked down at a paper in his hand. It looked as though he had prepared a speech.

This was far from the truth. He had been given a message to deliver.

“Colleagues,” he began, “as you know, the University is completely committed to reducing its carbon emissions and doing its bit for the local community by supporting public transport and reducing private car use. Charging for car parking is a well known ‘nudge’ policy to push people into desirable agendas” (mutters of ‘where’s the evidence for that?’ could be heard)

“Also, we want to make sure that the, er,” he looked up from the provided notes, “School of Sciences”, he smiled. He continued, looking down again at his instructions, “that the School of Sciences has appropriate facilities for the 21st century. By reducing the area of the car parks, we will free up some building space. It’s a win-win strategy”, he finished triumphantly, looking up from the notes and beaming round the room. “Now, this is an information item, so I don’t think this is the forum for discussion. You can email the head of Facilities if you have a comment to make. Let’s move on to item 10!”

The minutes crawled away, through items 10, 11 and 12. Geoff saw the finish line. “Any other business? No, that’s great. Next meeting  9 January, see you then, or more likely at next week’s timetabling meeting, must be off, another meeting to get to”, Geoff rushed through his last duties, gathered up his papers and ran for the door, head down to avoid delaying eye contact.

Alison felt the heavy weight of tedium still upon her. Three hours of her life she wouldn’t get back, as her teenage children would say. She exchanged a few pleasantries with colleagues and headed back to the office. Almost five o’clock. Was it worth starting anything else? She had been hoping to finish reviewing a paper after the meeting, but that didn’t seem feasible in her current state of ennui. As she turned into the corridor, she noticed something stuck to her office door. It was a Post-it.

alison. phone di bones. 0208 654 2304. alex.

This is an HE advent calendar for 2012. If you would like to find out what happens next at Burston Central, why not sign up for email updates when a new post is published, or follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter? Tomorrow’s episode: An Inspector Calls

Advent Episode 5: A Secret Project

The door to the VC’s office burst open and Bill Noakes strode into the anteroom. He was definitely a man who made his presence felt, someone who expected to be the centre of attention in every situation. Bob had met plenty of Chief Executives like that when he’d worked in industry. Not all of them had turned out to be entirely honest.

Bob jumped up. He forced a smile. “Vice Chancellor” he murmured with a slight nod, as though in response to a verbal greeting, although in fact Bill hadn’t said a word: he’d just looked at him. Bob wondered briefly if he should have tugged his forelock to go with the nod, and a real smile flitted across his face.

Bill looked at him sharply, then stared rather despondently at Alan. “Hello, both of you. Come on in. Lovely to see you both” he added, insincerely. “Coffee?”

“No thanks” mumbled Bob “just had one” and Alan said “Yes please, Bill. Milk, two sugars.”  Bill nodded at his PA, added “and I’ll have one too please, Phyllis”, and swept them both into his office.

He sat them down at a small meeting table opposite his desk. Bob sat with his back to the wall, giving him a good view of the office. Again, it was nothing special. The furnishings didn’t shout out ‘here’s a man who earns £220,000 a year’. It wasn’t particularly large, although it was big enough for a sizeable desk, an angled sofa and this meeting table which would take six people. Also, there was a nice view over the city, which made a change from the wall of the next door building, which was all that could be seen from Martin and Bob’s office.

A bookcase lined one wall. It was filled with books about management and leadership. Bob was surprised Bob by this. He knew that the VC was a chemist by background. He couldn’t see any chemistry books at all. He craned his neck to look at the books on the lower shelves. Had he left his discipline completely behind?

The VC sat down and launched straight into a spiel “Right. Thanks for coming in to see me at such short notice. Alan, how much does Bob here know about the project?” So it’s a proper project, Bob thought. And how did the VC know his name? They’d never been introduced, not even just now in the ante-room.

“Well” Alan was saying “nothing, really, except that he’s really pleased to be on board”. He nodded cheerfully at Bob.

Bob was seriously wondering if he had suffered a short but severe memory lapse at some point in the last hour. It was difficult to keep the investigative process to the front of his mind. “Great,” the VC continued “well, let’s get down to it, then.”

Phyllis opened the door, carrying two mugs which she placed unceremoniously down in front of Bill and Alan. “Thanks, Phyllis” they both said, and Phyllis nodded and left the office, giving only the faintest hint of someone who had been deeply inconvenienced by coffee-making.

“Right. Where was I? Oh yes.  As you know, Bob, the university is facing challenging times,” he looked very stern, “very challenging. Universities like ours are going to be very squeezed by the new government fee policies. And so it’s time for some radical thinking!” he put on an expression which might have been intended to show innovation and go-gettingness. Bob wondered if he’d had some kind of drama coaching.

“The Senior Management Team has come up with a fantastic plan to ensure that we continue to support the local community and encourage more people to go to university. We want to bring Higher Education to more local people! “ He looked very sincere, and then continued “But local people are going to find this very expensive in the future. As you know, students now have to pay all of the costs of going to university and we’ve set our fees at £8,990 per year.”

Bob nodded; this was definitely a fact. He was safe to agree. “and of course, since we announced our fees, they’ve said that institutions which set their fees at below £7,500 a year can have as many students as they like.”

Bob nodded again: it may have sounded odd, but it was in the public domain, so it must be true.

“We can’t afford to offer degrees below £7,500 a year without seriously compromising our standards” said the VC, looking very solemn at the mere thought of compromising standards, “but FE colleges can. They don’t do any research, they offer a very limited range of courses, their terms are longer and the staff have different contracts.” he rushed rather over the last two points, as though it was better not to dwell on them.

Bob nodded yet again, wondering what the point of this was, or whether he had, as he had suspected, missed the elusive point during the period in which he had suffered the severe memory lapse he was convinced had occurred at some time between entering Alan’s office an hour ago and now.

“So, what’s the obvious solution?” the VC finished his short lecture with a question for the audience. Alan looked expectantly at Bob.

Bob wasn’t sure why he was expected to answer. After all, Alan presumably knew all about it already.

He reached for the most ludicrous answer which popped into his head “Become an FE College?” he said, timidly, and smiling to show that it was intended to be a ridiculous answer.

“My goodness, you said this guy would be on the ball, Alan, but I must say, I didn’t really believe you. Especially based on past experience of your judgement.” Alan winced.

“Yes,” continued the VC, “you’re right on the money, er” he looked at Alan, “Bob” Alan helpfully supplied.

“Ah yes, Bob. Right on the money. Well, not become an FE College. Haha. Of course that would be ridiculous, we are a university, with very distinguished foundations and history, of course. But we’re going to set up a special new institution. It’s going to be called the University College of North Burston and it will offer Business and Accountancy courses to start with, followed by Law and, well, we’ll see after that. What do you think?”

Bob realised just in time that his opinion was not really being solicited. “It sounds very exciting, Vice Chancellor. In tune with the times” he added, trying to think of something which sounded like an opinion but which was not actually committing him to a belief.

This was apparently sufficient for the VC, who continued “top secret, of course, we don’t want this to get out until we’ve developed our plans and it’s all done and dusted. So, er, Bob, we’re looking for someone to head up this project and see it through to that point, with of course the possibility of continuing with it into implementation if that’s mutually beneficial when we get to that stage of the project.”

He stopped and looked expectantly at Bob. “I see” said Bob, again realising that some kind of response was required and making a connection, dimly, between Alan’s earlier talk of a special mission and this proposal.

“There’ll be a small honorarium, and your support will definitely be remembered if the belts tighten any further. And maybe we can be thinking about involving you in our succession planning, too.”

Alan winced again.

Bob acknowledged to himself that he needed to pull himself together and make some kind of definite response before the whole situation slid hopelessly away. Although it probably already had. Alan’s earlier threats, though veiled, were certainly not idle. Alan was more frightened of the VC than of behaving spitefully and irrationally towards other members of staff.

“What exactly would you like me to do, Vice Chancellor?” he said, hoping that this formulation would make him seem willing to serve, but also extract more information about what was required.

“Oh details, details” said the VC airily, waving a hand. “we’ll sort that out later. I just wanted to make sure you were on board. S,o no more for the moment. Remember, this is a secret mission.” The VC tried to look as though this idea was amusing.  Alan obediently provided one of his strange offerings. “Hur, hur.”

The VC stood up and went to the door. Alan and Bob followed, and the VC ushered them out. As a parting gesture, he put his finger to his lips and winked. Alan nodded and winked back. Bob recoiled inwardly.

What on earth was going on?

This is an HE advent calendar for 2012. If you would like to find out what happens next at Burston Central, why not sign up for email updates when a new post is published, or follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter? Tomorrow’s episode: In Full Spate.

Advent Episode 4: Not as anonymous as he thought

After his lecture, Bob made his way up to the sixth floor. He’d never been up there before. The Deputy Vice Chancellor’s office was well signed from the lift, with some rather ornate looking wooden boards, lettered in gold. They didn’t really match the rest of the décor: the usual sixties office block look of scuffed off-white paint and grey woodwork.  Bob went through an ante-room, empty but for what looked like a secretary’s desk, a filing cabinet and a couple of plastic chairs. The door to the next office was open. He knocked timidly. “Come in!” boomed a loud voice.

“Bob” Alan looked up. “Thanks for coming in. Come and sit down. Coffee?”

“Um. No thanks, Deputy Vice-Chancellor. I’ve just had one”. Not true, but he just wanted to get this over with.

Alan looked slightly disappointed. “Oh. OK, I’ll wait then.”

“Don’t wait on my account “ Bob protested. “It’s just that I’ve just… “ he tailed off.

Alan forgot about the coffee as quickly as he’d thought of it. “Never mind about that, Bob. I expect you’re wondering why I asked you to come up:”

Bob looked neutral. “Um. Yes.”

“You’re going to love this, Bob. It’s so exciting”. Bob relaxed slightly. At least Alan thought it was good news. It probably wasn’t about job cuts, then.

Alan drew himself up. “The Vice Chancellor has asked me to oversee an exciting new development. It’s all part of our commitment to ensure that we continue to support the local community and encourage more people to go to university.” he declared, speeding up as he got near to the end of the string of platitudes.

In spite of his suspicion that Alan wasn’t entirely committed to all of these great things, Bob started to feel a bit more interested.

“So,” Alan continued “we’ve decided to scope out a really innovative idea to bring Higher Education to more local people. Now, this is in the nature of a special mission. Hur hur!”

Bob winced at the addition of the conspiratorial titter. There was a bit too much effort going into this performance. Alan was starting to remind him of a dissembling client from his industry days.

“So. This is strictly confidential. Are you in? Hur Hur !”

Bob blinked. “Um. Well, I’m not sure what it involves yet.”

Alan waved his hand dismissively. “Oh, we can get into details later, Bob. The main thing today is to find out whether you’re with us or not. The VC asked me to find someone special, and I immediately thought of you.” He looked slightly aggrieved. “I was sure you’d be interested, especially with all these rumours of cuts and everything. You were my first choice for this special mission. Hur hur” he added, rather disconsolately.

Bob felt very confused. What on earth was going on? His investigative antenna were starting to prick up, although they seemed to have been rusted by years out of industry. He needed to sharpen up. He made a quick reckoning:

  1. Chummy, but with an undercurrent of threat.
  2. ‘Exciting project’, but somehow clandestine.
  3. Says he’s picked me specially, but can’t possibly know me from Adam.
  4. Talks about the VC as though he’s a mate, but clearly terrified of him.

It really didn’t make sense. He realised that Alan was waiting for him to say something. Searching for a distraction, his eye was drawn to the strange overflowing heap on the corner of the desk. Scrunched up papers, apple cores, sandwich wrappers, disposable cups…

Alan followed his gaze. “It’s these new desk-top tidies that we’ve got instead of bins” he said defensively. “I reckon it must cost more for me to walk down the corridor to empty it than we save in rubbish disposal costs. Senior managers emptying their own bins! Ha!”

Bob opened his mouth to explain that the tidies were meant to help with recycling, and needed to be emptied regularly to stop the ‘wet waste’ contaminating the paper. He closed it again in the nick of time. Alan was a member of the Vice Chancellor’s Senior Executive Group. He must be fully aware of all of the green policies.  It was obvious that he was just having his own dirty protest about this particular one.

He’d better change the subject.

He tried to look focused. “Well, Alan, maybe you could tell me a bit more about what you’d like me to do.” he hedged. “It sounds awfully exciting” he added, encouragingly.

“Good man! I knew you’d be a perfect choice! Right, let’s pop straight up and give Bill the good news. He’s waiting for us.” Alan levered himself up and bustled round the desk.

Bob followed in his wake. What on earth was going on?

They left the Deputy Vice Chancellor’s office and hurried down the corridor to the Vice Chancellor’s suite. Alan was still prattling about secret missions and right men for the jobs.

Alan opened the door with a flourish, sweeping his gaze around the room and resting on the VC’s personal assistant, who didn’t look up. “Hello Phyllis. How are you today? He’s expecting us, I think” he said cheerily, as he continued across Phyllis’ office.

Phyllis waited until he was half way across, then said crisply “He’ll be ready in a minute, Alan, Take a seat.” Alan sat down, looking deflated.

Phyllis relented slightly. “Can I get you both a coffee while you’re waiting?”

“Yes please, Phyllis. Milk, two sugars.” Alan sounded quite meek.

She looked at Bob. “Oh, no, thank you. Just had one” he said, weakly. Actually he now felt in dire need of a stimulant of some kind. Phyllis just nodded and looked back at her computer. “He won’t be long” she said, starting to type.

Bob sat down and looked around the anteroom. Not too ostentatious – the same cheap office furniture as any departmental office, really. A bit more spacious, of course; it was rare to see an expanse of carpet these days. Most offices were shared between two and three people. It was usually difficult to squeeze between filing cabinets and bookcases.

He felt obscurely pleased by this lack of luxury in the VC’s suite. It made the right impression in times of economic difficulty. If he’d been auditing, it would have made a good start.

He realised that these musings on the interior décor were an effective distraction from the very serious worries which were trying to push its way up through his thinking: what was he being asked to do and why was it secret and why was it so important that he was being threatened with ‘departure’ if he didn’t go along with it?

It couldn’t be anything illegal; universities were struggling a bit, but things hadn’t got that bad. What was that weird phrase which had appeared in the last VC’s pep email, ‘There must be no slippage’?

He’d puzzled over that for days. It had an unfortunate echo of Stalin’s famous radio broadcast ‘there must be no room in our ranks for whimperers and cowards, for panic-mongers and deserters…’ Did whatever this was involve keeping his job at the expense of others? Perhaps he would be asked to denounce colleagues who didn’t ‘perform according to the standards expected by the institution’?

He twisted the strap of his rucksack tightly. Surely not. It wasn’t anything to do with him, if people cancelled lectures week after week and the Head of Department didn’t notice. Or if they locked the door of their offices so that students couldn’t bother them? Or marked systematically at 10% below their colleagues and when challenged, said that the others could dumb down all they liked but they were keeping to standards?

He realised that the rucksack strap was twisted into a tight rope. He let go of it and forced himself to breathe slowly. He tried to think like an investigator.

Alan didn’t notice his discomfort. He looked as though he had his own worries.

This is an HE advent calendar for 2012. If you would like to find out what happens next at Burston Central, why not sign up for email updates when a new post is published, or follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter? Tomorrow’s episode: A Secret Project.

Advent Episode 3: Fighting Back

Sheila Thompson jumped as the phone rang. A moment of pure panic assailed her. She took a deep breath and forced a smile onto her face. It was a technique her counsellor had taught her to help her to deal positively with whatever might be sprung on her when the phone rang. If nothing else, he liked to say, you can’t grind your teeth when you’re smiling.

She lifted the receiver. “Hello, Sheila speaking.” Her voice sounded bright, but completely fake.

“Sheila! It’s Lilian!” Without letting the smile slip, although it froze slightly, Sheila held the receiver away from her ear, reached carefully over her desk and pressed a small red button. The sound of a police siren could be heard approaching, passing the office, and then receding into the distance.

Smiling more genuinely now, she put the receiver back to her ear “Lilian! How lovely to hear from you! Sorry I didn’t hear any of that, there was a siren going off”.

Lilian was cut off in mid-rant. “Would you mind very much starting that again?” Sheila asked, sweetly. She smirked.

Lilian paused for breath, then started again. “I just wanted to ask you if it was true that you have been handing work back to students on module POL3923 already? Sally says you have but you mustn’t do that because not everyone has finished marking for their modules yet and it’s not fair on the rest of us if you are giving things back to your students and the others are expecting the same thing and we just don’t have time to get things back to them and it’s really unfair. I had three students in this morning and I did tell them that if they keep coming and asking me for the marks I’m never going to get time to finish the marking but they all said their friends had had their work back and it’s just not fair on the rest of us.”

With her grin slightly rictus again, Sheila chose her most assertive tone – something she had also practised with her counsellor .

“Lilian, it sounds as though you are very angry with me. Just let me check that I’ve got this straight. Are you suggesting that I shouldn’t be returning marked work to students when it’s finished, moderated and checked by the administrators? Is there a new policy that I don’t know about which says we shouldn’t return work until everyone has finished their marking? I thought we just had to get work back before a certain date. I didn’t know we had to wait for that date. Did I miss that meeting?”

She smirked again.  Actually, she’d missed quite a few meetings while she’d been off sick, so it was a perfect excuse if needed, but she was pretty sure she was on safe ground with this one. Plus, she hadn’t apologised yet – the counsellor would be proud of her.

The slightly incoherent sounds coming from the other end of the phone suggested that Lilian wasn’t too happy about this approach. “It’s not fair, Sheila,” she atttempted, “we all need to work in the same way.”

Sheila interrupted her. “Oh dear,” she purred, “it sounds as though we need to think about a departmental policy of some kind. Shall I ask Bill to put it on the agenda for the next departmental meeting? Oh dear, we’ve got one tomorrow. It will be too late to get it on the agenda for that one, won’t it?” she sounded devastated at this missed opportunity “Let’s see…. we’ve got another one due at the beginning of next term, haven’t we? That’s only two months away; I expect we can muddle through until then. What do you think?” she finished, trying hard to sound brave in the face of extreme disappointment.

Lilian was making incoherent noises again. “Are you going to stop giving students their marks back?”

“Stop giving students their marks back? Ha! Ha! Lilian, what an interesting idea.  I wonder what the ‘quality police’ would think of that idea! I think I’d better wait to see what the policy is before I take such a drastic step.”

Despite her apparent confidence, Sheila felt herself starting to waver…any minute now she was going to apologise, admit defeat, agree, slink away…

She leaned over and pressed a second red button. A mobile phone started to ring shrilly. She said “Oh sorry Lilian, that’s my mobile. Oh, it’s Bill, I’d better take it. Thanks for ringing, I’ll sort out that agenda item for next term’s meeting. See you later!” She replaced the receiver and took a series of deep breaths, then punched the air. Weakly, but it was still a punch. Bloody bully.

She smirked about the ‘that’s Bill’ touch. Now Lilian would be wondering why the Head of Department was phoning her, and on her mobile, too. With any luck, she’d forget about the marking issue for a while. Which would give Sheila time to make a plan.

She would need to prepare a killer agenda item which would make it clear that being consistent with giving marks back didn’t mean that everyone had to be as slow as the slowest marker in the department. Lilian would probably have a lot of support with her ‘not fair’ approach, which would no doubt be translated to ‘we mustn’t raise expectations too much, because then students will give us low scores on surveys if we don’t deliver’.

Sheila would have to be craftier – she would have to phrase it so that it seemed very strange not to give students their work back when it was ready. She opened her notebook and wrote ‘Feedback agenda item. Student-centred. Effectiveness of prompt feedback. Research evidence?’.

She stood up. She needed some fresh air. She’d go for a short walk across the park, to clear her mind of residual anger and stress from the phone call. She hid the box with the red buttons carefully in her desk drawer before leaving the office. It was best to keep some tricks to yourself.

This is an HE advent calendar for 2012. If you would like to find out what happens next at Burston Central, why not sign up for email updates when a new post is published, or follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter? Tomorrow’s episode: Not as anonymous as he thought

Advent Episode 1: Is Nowhere Safe?

Bob had come into work even earlier than usual, 7.30. He needed to have a bit of peace and quiet before Martin got in. He liked Martin, but Martin was the kind of person who made his presence felt, and it was hard to get on with anything serious while he was there.

The office was still chilly. The heating didn’t come on till eight. Bob got the kettle out of the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet. They put it there each night before going home. Personal kettles were no longer allowed in offices. Martin said it was just another erosion of their employment rights, plus it was a way of forcing them to go and buy over-priced drinks from the coffee shop, where there was no privacy from students. The justifications about electrical safety and hygiene were completely spurious.

Bob rehearsed this argument to himself every morning as he made vile instant coffee.  He quite liked the coffee from the coffee shop, but it was a bit of a trek, and he had come to agree with Martin that it was important to keep some independence from the system. But he still didn’t like the idea that he was breaking the rules.

He took the kettle and peered out into the corridor – they’d agreed to be careful about letting other people know. The coast was clear, unsurprisingly at this time in the morning. He headed down the corridor towards the gents toilets.

He went in and started filling the kettle from the cold tap. The door opened. Figuring that normal etiquette applied, Bob didn’t turn round. He was also hoping that his body would mask the kettle. “Hur hur! I thought I saw you sneaking in here!”

“Sneaking?” thought Bob, “I wasn’t sneaking. I was walking completely normally”. He balanced  the kettle precariously on the basin and turned round.

It was the Deputy Vice Chancellor. Shit. “Er. Deputy Vice Chancellor, Alan!” he started “About the kettle…”

Alan ignored him. He was nonchalantly checking the empty cubicles. “Good” he said, turning back towards Bob. “Had a feeling you came in early, just thought I’d catch you.”

Bob was taken aback. He’d never actually met the Deputy Vice-Chancellor before. They certainly hadn’t been introduced. Obviously, he knew who Alan was, but he wouldn’t have expected the reverse to be true. Also, Alan didn’t have a reputation for this kind of chumminess. He felt very uneasy.

Bob waited. He wondered why the DVC wanted to see him. He tried to suppress thoughts about the kettle. This clearly wasn’t anything to do with the kettle. That was his own anxiety about petty rule-breaking.

“Great,” he said, hoping to encourage Alan to continue. “Um. What can I do for you?”

Alan looked around again conspiratorially, although there was absolutely nobody else in the toilet; there probably wasn’t anyone else in the building. He lowered his voice. “Can you come and see me later on? After two o’clock?”

“Um. I’ve got a lecture at two. I could come up after that?”

“OK, I’ll juggle a few things. And, Bob, this is highly confidential. Mum’s the word. Right, better get going. Remember, not a word to anyone” he briefly lifted his finger to his nose, then turned and opened the door cautiously. He peered out into the corridor, then turned and waved to Bob before striding off towards the lifts.

Bob turned back towards the basin, catching the kettle with his sleeve as he did so. It crashed to the floor, splitting into two cheap plastic pieces. He looked at it blankly, still trying to work out what was going on. What was he missing? There must be something he hadn’t understood. What was confidential? Some initiative which needed his special expertise in forensic accountancy? Cosying up to a new external partner the DVC had met at a function somewhere? Redundancies? It was probably safe to assume that there was no sexual element to the bizarre encounter. Although it was unusual for anybody to acknowledge anybody else in the Gents. He sighed heavily. He had enough to do today without worrying about the DVC.

He bent to pick up the pieces of the kettle. Well, at least they weren’t going to get into trouble now for having an illicit water-heating device in the office. One less thing to worry about. He smiled wryly. What was Martin going to say?

Follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter to be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of the screen to get new episodes by email. Tomorrow’s episode: The Last Straw