Ajay cleared his throat. “Martin.” He began, uncertainly

Martin looked up. He raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. Ajay never started conversations.

“What’s up, young’un?”

Ajay grimaced. He hated being called ‘young’un’. True, Martin had once been his lecturer, but now they were colleagues, surely a more professional nickname would be in order?

“Have you seen this email from HR?” He sat back, in anticipation of an explosion.

To his surprise, Martin looked slightly taken aback. “From HR? No.” He looked at his screen and tapped frantically at the keyboard. “When did it arrive?”

“About ten minutes ago. I was just thinking about it…”

Martin wasn’t paying attention. He was still searching his email. “So fuckin’ slow.” He muttered.

As he always did, Ajay mouthed “you should clear your inbox out a bit, then”. He smiled innocently when Martin looked up again.

“I definitely haven’t got it. What does it say? No, forward it to me instead.”

Ajay did as he was told. There was a short silence before the previously-anticipated explosion.

“For fuck’s sake! Who do they fuckin’ think they fuckin’ are? Bunch of bullying, obnoxious, bastarding…” He ran out of adjectives, or steam.

“Well, anyway,” Ajay tried again. “I was just wondering…”

“Hang on, young’un, I need to see if anyone else has got this.” Martin reached for the phone and jabbed furiously at the keys.

“Claire? Martin.”

“Have you had an email from HR about the marking boycott?”

“Me neither – looks as though they’ve not sent it to everyone.”

“Yeah, maybe. I’ll check with the other committee members after.”

“Oh, even for them, fuckin’ shockin’. I’ll read you a bit. ‘We regret to inform you that refusing to mark students’ work will be considered as complete withdrawal of your labour. You will not be paid at all if you refuse to mark students’ work. Every day that you refuse to mark work after April 28th, your pay will be docked at 100%.’ What d’ya think of that, Claire?”

Claire evidently thought quite a lot about it. Ajay sighed. He had something he wanted to suggest to Martin.

Eventually, Martin spoke again.

“Right. We need an action plan. Emergency union meeting tomorrow, 2pm. I don’t care if people still have class. Cancel it. This is a crisis. If you send out the invitation, I’ll draft a response to HR.”

“Yes, ok, I’ll contact the other elected members, too.”


Martin put the phone down and returned to his computer screen.

Ajay tried again. “Martin.”

Martin didn’t look up. “Not just now, young’un, bit of an emergency. Thanks for the heads up, though”.

“Martin. I had an idea. About the strike.”

“Really? ” Martin did make eye contact this time.

“Yes. Why do we always do things which affect students directly?”

“They’re the customers, aren’t they? Management wants to keep them happy.” Martin thought for a minute. “Not that I think of them as customers, obviously, they’re comrades in the union movement, of course, but that’s how management sees them.”

“Well, ok, but it doesn’t really hurt management if we don’t do the marking, does it?”

“Course it does. Marks will be late, exam boards will be late,  won’t be able to have graduation in July, everyone will be pissed off.”

“Exactly. Everyone. And there are lots of staff who would take action if it didn’t hurt students, but won’t, because it does.”

Martin looked confused as he tried to disentangle the negatives in that sentence.

Ajay pressed on. “I don’t want to join the marking boycott, because it will stress my students. But why don’t we take action which only hurts management?”

Martin snorted. “Like what? That lot only care about their six figure pay packets.”

“Well, we could refuse to attend any committees or working groups. The whole place would soon grind to a halt if there was no Senate meetings.”

Martin looked skeptical. “Nobody would care.”

“They would, Martin, because it would mean that there was no effective governance, and they’d be in breach of their charter. And suppose we all refused to go to any meetings about the QAA review? Or, I don’t know, health and safety working group, or disability support? The university would be breaking the law before the end of the month. And I doubt that stuff is in anyone’s contract, so they wouldn’t be able to withhold pay.”

Ajay paused.

Martin was staring at him. “Bloody hell, young’un. You might be on to something.”


The White Heat of Technology

This joke just isn’t funny any more….Wading Through Treacle has been suffering a severe sense of humour failure lately, but can always be cheered up by news from elsewhere, whence the inspiration for this episode came. Remember, sending me stories of absurdities keeps me sane. It’s your public service.

Martin stood up. This was a fairly uncommon occurrence during the working day, and Ajay raised his head from his screen. “Come on, young’un. Time to go.”

“Go where?”

“You know, the meeting about how to use the new holiday booking system. Lecture theatre J.”

“Oh, that. I wasn’t going to go. It should be easy enough to work out.”

Martin shook his head. “That’s not why I’m going. I want to find out what’s they’re up to. I don’t like the sound of it. Come on, we’ll be late.”

Ajay was desperately trying to finish off planning a lecture, but he couldn’t think of any feasible excuse.  It seemed to take him so long to prepare teaching. He knew Martin wouldn’t think that was much of an excuse. With a sigh, he picked up his iPad. Maybe he could look up a few references or something.

Lecture Theatre J was pretty full. Martin led Ajay to a seat right in the middle, near to the front. Lots of people nodded at them as they made their way through; a few shook hands with Martin. Ajay smiled vaguely at the unfamiliar faces.

Ajay and Martin settled into their seats. Martin immediately turned to talk to the person sitting behind. Ajay didn’t know anyone except Martin. He looked forward, as though the front of the lecture theatre was fascinating.

Standing at the lectern was a man about the same age as Ajay, maybe a little younger. He was wearing a dark grey suit, a white shirt which looked brand new (the packing folds were still evident), and a brightly patterned tie. There was a slight sheen of sweat on his face.

The young man cleared his throat. There was no appreciable effect on the noise level. He coughed, then blushed deeply. Slowly, a silence rippled from the front rows to the back. The young man smiled, cleared his throat again, and then began.

“Hello, everyone, and thank you for coming. My name is Luke Price, and I’m from the employee coordination division. Today, I’m going to demonstrate the new system for booking holidays. It’s called,” he paused, and pressed a button on the keyboard. The slide behind him changed to a photograph of a cottage garden raised bed, filled with green plants, and a fanfare played over the speakers. When the music had ended, Luke spoke again. “It’s called HURB. Human Resources at Burston!” He gave the audience a happy grin.

Low-volume groans could be heard.

Luke didn’t seem to hear them. He continued. “Right! Let me take you through the main features.”

Ajay tapped surreptitiously. The iPad wasn’t the best tool for accessing tax law databases, but it would have to do for now. He was a bit bothered about being so close to the front, but he hoped that Luke would think he was taking notes. He looked up every now and then and nodded, to give the impression of concentrating.

After a while, he was aware of a certain restlessness around him. He tuned back in. Luke seemed to have finished explaining the virtues of the system and how long it had taken to develop, and was on to a demonstration.

“I’ll just take you through the process.”

He moved and clicked with great dexterity, swapping from keyboard to mouse seamlessly. Like crowds watching a tennis match, the assembled staff moved their eyes in unison as they tracked the cursor around the screen. “So, first of all, we log in to the system, using your usual BurstU username and password. Next, click on the ‘manage leave requests’ icon.”

He worked through a series of screens until they could see a short form.

“Pick the start date for the leave. Then, in the next box,  choose the total time you want to take off, in hours. Everyone has a working day of seven and a half hours, so if you are taking half a day’s leave, you put three point seven five in the box. Then, click on ‘request’, and it will be sent directly to your line manager.”

“What if you want to take a week off?”, somebody called out.

“Well, it’s the number of days multiplied by the number of hours in a day, so you put in, er, seven point five, times five, er, thirty-seven point five hours.”

Luke smiled vaguely and looked around the room. He’d been trained to look at people directly when he was presenting, but he wasn’t sure where the questioner was sitting.

From somewhere right at the back of the room, another question: “What about 13 days?”

Sniggers broke out around the lecture theatre.

Luke went pink. “Ha, ha. You’re all clever folks, I’m sure you can work it out!”

A bearded man sitting in the next row slowly raised his hand.

Luke smiled encouragingly. “Yes! Go ahead!”

“Could you just explain to us the semiotics of the imagery?”

Luke’s smile froze. He looked over at his line manager, sitting in the front row.  Finding no comfort, he looked back at the questioner. “Um. You’ll have to excuse me. I’m a business studies graduate. Could you just explain those technical terms?”

The questioner tried again, speaking very slowly, as though it was the speed of delivery which had confused the young presenter.

“Could. You. Ex. Plain. The. Semiotics. Of. The. Imagery?” There was a bit of shuffling in the auditorium. Ajay looked at Martin. “What does it mean?” He whispered.

Martin shrugged. “Dunno. Some poncey media studies jargon, I suppose.”

“Media studies?”

“Shhh. I’ll tell you later”

At the very back of the room, someone called out: “He means, what do the herbs mean?”

Luke looked relieved. They just hadn’t understood the key. “Well, parsley is for when you’re sick, chives are for annual leave, basil for…”

The man in the next row interrupted him. “No, we get that they stand for things. We want to know why you picked these particular plants.” He had continued to speak slowly. It sounded sarcastic.

Luke was also speaking very slowly, but more as though he were speaking gently to a small child who was slow on the uptake. “Well, no reason, I expect it was just to do with herbs, you know. HUman Resources at Burston. HURB.”

The bearded man subsided back into his seat with a huge sigh. Luke gave him a sympathetic look.

Martin leaned over to Ajay. “Tarquin. Media studies lecturer. Good bloke, but a bit up himself. Thinks they’re the only intellectuals in the place. Check the footwear.”

Ajay looked down. Tarquin was wearing sandals. And socks. And corduroy trousers. He raised his eyebrows. He looked like the bloke in that old film they’d been recommended to watch, on his PGCHE. What was it called? With the hairdresser…

Meanwhile, Luke had moved on with relief to another questioner. “When you were doing the demonstration, I noticed that there were some other functions. Can we use this to note down when people come in late?”

Luke smiled at her. “Well, we’re only implementing the holiday-booking part at the moment, but well-spotted, there are some other things you can do with the records. I don’t think that, er, late arrivals are quite what it was intended for, but, yes, I’d say you can. I’ll just show you. You could go to, er, belladonna, isn’t it, yes, that’s unauthorised absences,  and then just fill it in for the number of hours that they’re late. Obviously you can use fractions there, like, 0.25 hours for fifteen minutes, and so on.”

There was a rustling of movement around the room. Suddenly, Luke had everyone’s attention.

Martin raised his hand.


Martin stood up. “Martin Shepherd, UCU branch chair. You do realise that half of the staff at the university don’t have set working hours, don’t you? So how could they have unauthorised absences?”

“Well, er, I think we were just talking about unauthorised absences in general. Like I said, we aren’t implementing those functions yet, though. I was just, er, showing the,er, proof of concept.” Luke clearly couldn’t see what was coming. In the front row, his line manager slunk down in her seat.

Martin ignored what Luke had said. “And the other half are constantly asked to trade on their considerable good will to keep this institution going. And these relationships are built on trust.” Martin had switched to a declamatory style. He was no longer looking at Luke, but was addressing the whole room.

“Built on trust,” he repeated, “Not on petty-fogging obsessions with clock-punching and rule-keeping. Not on wasting millions of pounds on a system to replace a very effective existing one. Keeping a paper record of people’s holiday requests works perfectly well.” He paused.

“And that’s the only part of the academic contract you can feasibly track.” Martin stopped again, and tilted his head, quizzically. Luke seemed transfixed.  Not receiving any response, Martin continued.  “Unless there is some hidden agenda here, you can’t use the other parts of this system with our existing contracts, and surely you know it?”

Martin paused. He turned in his place to scan the audience, before delivering his punchline: “It seems as though you’re missing some ingredients for this recipe to work!”

Laughter swept round the lecture theatre. Martin grinned, and then sat down.

Luke hadn’t moved. Once again, he looked at his line manager.

She mouthed an instruction at him. “Carry. On.”

There was an increasing volume of noise in the lecture theatre. Luke looked down at his notes. Where had they got up to? He had absolutely no idea. Surely it must be the end? Yes, he’d finish the session off. He looked up. A forest of hands had gone up. He decided that he’d better take some more questions. He pointed to a kindly-looking woman on the opposite side of the room from Martin, and tried to look encouraging.

She stood up. “Mr Price. Are you sure that this system is intended to be used with academic staff contracts?”

Luke looked relieved. He knew the answer to this one.

“HURB is an inclusive service for all Burston Central staff, madam. Nobody is left out.”

He smiled broadly at her.

“Are academic staff getting new contracts, then? Ones which say that they may stop work after 7.5 hours, whatever their timetable says, or whoever is knocking at the door? And by the way, if you wish to use a title to address me, it’s more appropriate to use ‘Professor’.”

There was a murmur of approval around the room.

Luke’s smile froze. He looked wildly around the room, having given up on the hope of any support from his line manager. Finding no inspiration, he eventually picked up his pen and said “I’m afraid I’m not in a position to answer that one at the moment, mad, er, professor, but I’ll make a note and get back to you, if that’s ok.”

He scribbled on his pad. “Any more questions?”

The professor stood up again. “Don’t you need to know my name, if you’re going to,” she held a hand either side of her ears and waggled the first two fingers of each as she emphasised each the next words, “get back to me?” This time, there was open laughter.

Luke was bright red, but he managed to make his voice carry across the lecture theatre. “Of course, professor.” He stood with poised pen.

The woman spoke slowly, emphaisising individual syllables. “Pro-fes-sor Mel-issa Burton-Smith.” She sat down.

Luke wrote  on his pad, for much longer than seemed necessary to note down the name.

Finally, his line manager stood up and joined him at the lectern. “Well, everyone, thanks for coming, I think that’s all we’ve got time for.” She pressed a button on the keyboard, and the herb garden photo came back up, together with some vaguely Elizabethan keyboard music recorded on a synthesiser and played tinnily through  the lecture theatre’s inferior speakers. There was a mass exodus.

Wading Through Treacle is entirely fictional. You can follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebook to be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for updates from Wading Through Treacle. For last year’s advent calendar, see The Unknown Tutor.

Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.

Moral Panic

Spring was definitely in the air at Burston Central.

Ajay walked across the park. He felt that he was starting to get the hang of things a bit. That lecture had started and finished on time.  Everyone seemed to have taken part in the activity he’d included to break up the rhythm a bit, and four different students had answered questions. He’d had time to include reference to the exam and how what they’d covered that session might be related to it. He’d made an appointment to sit down with the lecturer he was replacing, Bob, to discuss the exam and the marking schemes. He smiled to himself.

“Mr Metha! Mr Mehta!”

Ajay took a moment to realise that someone must be calling him. Nobody ever called him that. He turned round.

A young woman was trotting towards him. She caught up with him and took a deep breath. “Mr Mehta. Have you got a minute?”

Ajay didn’t recognise her, but he presumed she was from the Corporate Accounting lecture which had just finished. There were three hundred students in the group. He hadn’t made any attempt to remember faces, let alone names. “Sure.”

He waited.

“Could we go and get a coffee?”

Ajay thought for a second. He’d finished teaching for the day, but he had some preparation to do for his PGC session that evening. It shouldn’t take too long. He was good at speed-reading, and nobody really checked up whether they’d done it or not.

“Well. OK.” As he said it, he wondered if he was actually allowed to go for coffee with a student. Nobody had said anything about it, but he couldn’t remember anything like that ever happening when he’d been an undergraduate. “I haven’t got too long. What’s it about?”

The woman smiled. “I’ll tell you in a minute.”

They fell into step. At the exit to the park, Ajay turned slightly to the left, towards the main building. There was a coffee shop on the ground floor.

“Oh, let’s go somewhere else,” said the woman. “I know a nice little place just down here.” She touched Ajay lightly on the arm and set off down Challoner Street.

Ajay followed her. He was about half a pace behind. His cheerful mood had dissipated and he felt very anxious. He looked round to see if he could see anyone he knew. He wasn’t sure if that would be a good thing, or a bad thing.

He was just trying to think of an excuse for leaving when the woman turned into a run-down looking café.

“Coffee’s not great, but it’s quiet,” she offered.

Ajay inhaled deeply. He was probably jumping to all of the wrong conclusions.

They stood at the counter. There was a laminated price list printed in tiny font, propped up against some sauce bottles.

Tea £1

Coffee £1.20

Hot choc €1.50

‘Euros?’ thought Ajay. ‘Euros?’

The woman behind the counter cleared her throat.

“Um. Do you have any herbal tea?” As soon as he’d said it, he knew what the answer would be.

“From the university, are you?”

He nodded.

“Never mind, ducks. PG all right?”

“Of course, of course. And, er, er, what are you having?” He turned to the student.

“Coffee. Black, no sugar.”

“Cups or mugs?”

Ajay stared at the waitress. “Er. I don’t know. Mugs?”

“Two-twenty, duck.”

He paid for the drinks. He was still wondering what the difference between cups and mugs was was when they sat down at a sticky table in the corner.

“Cups are paper.” said the woman.


“You asked what the difference was. Cups are paper, mugs are, whatever these are.”

“China.” Ajay completed the sentence automatically. “Did I?

“Did you what?”

“Did I say that out loud?”

“Say what?”

“Never mind. Anyway, er, er, what was it you said I could help you with?”

“I didn’t say you could help me, did I? I just asked you if you had a minute.” She winked at him.

Ajay felt a deep blush forming. He picked up his mug and held it in front of his face. The student leaned over the table towards him.

Ajay was as far back towards the wall as he could manage. He sat rigidly, holding the mug up and slightly away from him. His mind was completely blank. What was he doing there?

The student smiled. She leaned back in her seat. “Don’t worry, Prof, I don’t have any evil intentions.” She paused.  “Although….”

She burst out laughing. “You should see your face, Prof.”

Ajay tried to look as though he didn’t know what she was talking about. “I’m sorry. Have I missed something?” He wished he knew her name. He felt at a complete disadvantage.

“Well. I’m the course rep for Accountancy. A few of us, we’ve got something we want to bring up, but it’s, er, a bit delicate. So we thought we’d try to get some advice.”

Ajay must have continued to look as though he hadn’t a clue what was going on. Which was now true. “Advice,” she went on. “From you.”

“From me? Advice?”

Ajay couldn’t imagine why anyone in the university would ask him for advice.

“It’s about Martin.”

Ajay felt really lost. “Martin?”

“Yeah. You know, Martin, another lecturer in Accountancy?”

Dimly, Ajay made the connection with his office-mate.

“Martin. What about him?”

“We want to make a complaint.”

“Complaint. Complaint. Complaint?” Ajay had never heard of students making a complaint. Large-scale grumbling, yes. He’d done plenty of it himself when he was a student. Shafting the department  anonymously in the National Student Survey, yes. You only had to look at the figures. But a complaint sounded much more serious.

“Yes, Prof. A complaint. Inappropriate behaviour.”

Once again, Ajay was assailed by pure panic. It had been bad enough ten minutes ago, when he’d thought the student was trying to get him to engage in some inappropriate behaviour. Now he was about to be presented with someone else’s? He tried to think of a suitable response.

“Oh dear.” That probably wasn’t strong enough. “That sounds very serious.” That was better. “What exactly is it that Martin is supposed to have done?”

He wondered if he should be asking for any details at all. Maybe that wasn’t the procedure. What was the procedure?

The student blurted out a list of complaints. “He’s just generally unprofessional. Turns up late. Cancels sessions without notice. His teaching notes look ancient. He never uses recent cases. He doesn’t seem to be up to date with the legislation.”

She stopped, and took refuge in her mug. She seemed deflated now that she’d told him.

Ajay felt relieved. It could have been worse. That sounded fairly normal, if his own experience as a student had been anything to go by. Not that it was professional behaviour, but he didn’t think it was anything that would be taken seriously in the department.

“Well, er, er,” dammit, it was such a handicap not knowing people’s names. “ Thank you for mentioning your concerns. I’m not sure what the official procedures are. I haven’t’ been here very long. Leave it with me. If you just write down your email address here, then I’ll let you know when I find out.”

He pulled an undistributed handout from his bag, and felt around for a pen. “Here we are.”

He wrote ‘complaints’ on the back of the handout and then passed the paper and pen across the table.

“Right, well, as I say, thanks for letting me know. I’ll be in touch soon.” Ajay took the paper back and stood up.

“I won’t get into trouble, will I?” The student had lost all of her previous bounciness. “It won’t affect my marks? You won’t tell Martin it was me who complained?”

“No, no, of course not. We’re a professional organisation. We always treat concerns in confidence and we value your feedback.” He had absolutely no idea, but that’s what they always said in the accountancy firm when customers complained.

“Right, I must be off. I’ll be in touch soon.” He waved the paper at her.

As he opened the door, he was sure that he heard the waitress whispering something about herbal tea to her colleague. They giggled.

Wading Through Treacle is entirely fictional. You can follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebook to be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for updates from Wading Through Treacle. For last year’s advent calendar, see The Unknown Tutor.

Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.

The Union Meeting, Part 2

In the previous post, Carol and Chris from the Centre for Academic Practice were attending their first Union meeting. There was too much business to cover in one post…

Holly looked fixedly down at her notes and read in a monotone. “the meeting is asked to condemn the attitude of the Vice Chancellor in criticising our Vice Chair in a public forum.”

“Hear, hear.”


“Bloody typical.”

Chris cleared his throat again.

“Um. Could you just update us on this one?”

Martin looked hard at him. “You may know that I was recently elected by other academic staff to represent them on Academic Board. Shortly afterwards, the Vice Chancellor got an article in the local rag bringing up a, er, an incident from the dim and distant past, then put a motion to Academic Board saying it was bad publicity and I should consider stepping down.”

“The VC told the local paper?” Chris sounded sceptical.

“Well, someone did, and he hates me, so I think we know where to point the finger.”

“He hates you?”

Carol elbowed Chris again.

“That’s terrible.” Chris offered. “If true.” he added in an undertone. He continued at normal volume. “Sounds like victimisation. Are you going to step down from Academic Board?”

Martin glared. “No. I was democratically elected. We can’t let them intimidate us like that.”

Chris nodded convincingly. “Fair enough. I’m sure the incident was a one off.”

Martin narrowed his eyes. “Let’s go to a vote, then, Holly, if anyone’s not sure.”

Holly looked up from her notes. “All those in favour?”

Everyone sitting round the table raised their hands. Martin looked meaningfully at Chris and Carol. Carol lifted her hand slightly. Chris nodded.

“That looks unanimous.” Martin said.

Holly made a note.

“Right, I’ll take the chair back now. Thanks, Holly. OK. Item 3. Attack on our professionalism. The Centre for Academic Practice is insisting that we all have a teaching qualification.”

Chris opened his mouth, but closed it again when Carol kicked him hard on the shins.

Martin continued. “They’ve got no right. Nobody’s discussed it with us, and we’re the recognised Trades Union for academic staff. And we don’t need it anyway. Teaching qualifications. In HE. Do they think we’re school teachers? Do I have your approval to open a grievance with HR?”

There were nods and mutters of approval around the table.

Someone said “Centre for Academic Practice. What do they know about teaching?”

“Just management stooges.”

Chris cleared his throat again. Carol kicked him even harder. She raised her hand. “Could you tell us any more about what’s being proposed before we vote?”

Martin sighed. “I think it’s obvious. It’s just another form of management control. Student feedback isn’t too good, so they think a bit of paper will sort it out. They need to sort themselves out first.”

Carol persisted. “Yes, but I don’t think anyone’s told us what the management proposal is.”

“They want all academic staff to have a teaching qualification.” repeated Martin.

“Really?” said Carol. “Has there been an announcement?”

Martin looked very hard at her. “Not officially. Someone in the Centre for Academic Practice has told us about it. Early warning.”

“Oh well, glad to hear we aren’t all management stooges, then.” said Carol, icily. “Chris and I also work in the Centre for Academic Practice, and as we’re also Union members, we thought we’d come along to see how colleagues would like the Centre to develop the proposal. But I see you’ve all made up your minds already.”

Martin didn’t even blink. “I’m sorry that you think that. But this really is an attack on our professionalism. We don’t need teaching qualifications” – he almost spat out those two words – “to teach well.”

“I’m sure that’s true.” Carol’s tone was calm, and even. “I think the purpose of the qualification is to acknowledge the professional achievements of most of our colleagues, and to enable us to provide support for those few who may, for whatever reason, find some aspects of teaching difficult.”

Chris had more difficulty staying calm. “You know, like those lecturers whose students write ‘always reads off the lecture slides’, or ‘my feedback was illegible’, or ‘I didn’t get my feedback from the second year until Christmas in the third year.’”

Everyone sitting in the magic circle had turned to look at them. “Oh well, if we’re going to be in thrall to student feedback…” said one of them,  a large, red-faced man wearing a checked shirt. The woman next to him sniggered.

Martin obviously felt the need to pull the meeting back to order. “Well, exactly, Jim. This is a knee-jerk reaction to some off-the-cuff comments from students which are better addressed at module level. Sledgehammers and nuts. Let’s go to a vote. All in favour of a grievance against this. When it’s formally announced.” he added, looking meaningfully at Carol.

Everyone in the inner circle raised their hands. Martin looked at Carol and Chris. Neither moved.

“All those against?”

Carol and Chris raised their hands.

“Two against, Holly.” said Martin. There was some whispering around the inner circle.

Martin raised his voice. “Right, item 4. Solidarity with the Halesowen branch.”

Chris nudged Carol and they both stood up. “Excuse us.” said Carol. “We’ve got classes starting in ten minutes.” They tiptoed to the door.

Wading Through Treacle fictionalises the stuff in HE which you couldn’t make up. You can follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebookto be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for updates from Wading Through Treacle. Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email, too: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.

All characters are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, unless it says otherwise (Times Higher journalists or government ministers, for instance).

If you want to read the Advent Calendar 2012, see the‘About’ page.


A large university is holding an amnesty on electrical devices. Kettles are already banned at Burston Central, but those subversive academics have ways of managing the system. The only way for these kinds of rulings to be enforced is to move everyone out of their offices and into open-plan ‘facilities’….Martin is still outraged about last week’s re-leak of his embarrassing little problem. Wait till he hears about this.

To: allstaff@burstu.ac.uk

From: Justin Marks, head of campus communications

Subject: Office streamlining

As you are all aware, extensive building work will be taking place over the summer to provide modern working spaces in the main buildings. To prepare for the moves out of your offices, we recommend that you begin clearing the space now. Confidential waste such as uncollected student work, notes from meetings and student records should be collected into appropriate bags for secure destruction. Paper and card must be recycled: the facilities staff will be making regular checks of general refuse bins to ensure that only non-recyclables are present. Departments which consistently mix their waste will be fined!

Although these have been banned for some time, so should not be present on university premises, we have decided to hold an amnesty on small electrical items, which are no longer permitted as they may not be compliant with current safety standards. These may be placed in the collection boxes at reception desks. This includes calculators, non-standard computers, toasters, foot spas and hair straighteners. You know who you are! (and so does the Vice Chancellor!) !!!

Reminder: the plans for the building refit can be seen at this link. All office space will be closed from 1 May – 15 September inclusive, except for the Clearing Centre, which will be open as usual from 16 August – 30 September. Staff will need to find alternative working spaces (we recommend your home office!!) and check in every day with their line managers.

Martin couldn’t contain himself. “Do you know what this means?”

Ajay tried to look neutral. “Er…”

Martin wasn’t really expecting an answer. “This is the thick end of the wedge, this is. First they came for the smokers, and I wasn’t bothered because I don’t smoke. Then they came for the kettles, and I hid mine, at least I did until Bob dropped it in the bloody bogs and broke it. Now they’re after my hair dryer, and I’ve had enough.”

“Hair dryer?” Ajay knew he shouldn’t say anything, but he couldn’t help himself.

Martin gave him a withering look. “I was speaking figuratively, Ajay. Obviously I don’t need a hair dryer. It’s the principle of the thing.”

“Oh, yes. Principle.”

“This move to open plan offices, it’s all about control. They don’t want us to shut the door on anything, or anyone. Or heat up water clandestinely.”

Ajay felt lost. In the accountancy firm he’d worked in until a few weeks ago, all of the offices were open plan. Even the principals were in there, only with slightly bigger cubicles. There were no individual kettles. Or hair dryers, for that matter. Hair dryers? Martin was almost entirely bald.

Martin carried on. “How much is all this costing, that’s what I’d like to know? Plus, what am I going to do with all of this?” He waved his arm over geological layers of handouts, uncollected assignments, industry factsheets, annual reports, Christmas cards and (probably, if Ajay’s observations over the last couple of weeks could be extrapolated) rejected pizza crusts.

“How much of it do you think you’ll need to keep?”

Martin gave Ajay a hard stare. “It’s all essential, or I’d have got rid of it long ago, wouldn’t I?”

“Oh. Glad I’ve not got much to pack up yet.”

“Lucky you. Still, you can give me a hand.”

Ajay cursed to himself. Should have seen that coming. “Oh yes. Of course. Just let me know.”

“God, I haven’t got time to deal with this now. I’ve still got to sort out this business with Academic Board. Got a phone interview with someone from the Higher tomorrow.” Martin cheered up at the thought of airing his grievance more widely. “I’ll tell them all about this erosion of personal rights, as well.”

Ajay knew he’d never work out what Martin was going on about. “Sounds like it’ll make a good story.”

“Too right. They think they can impose a Fordist approach to education, but they’re wrong. We aren’t widgets.”

Ajay just nodded. It seemed safest. He wondered why Martin never mentioned students… maybe they were the widgets. Maybe the academics were the factory machinery, churning out widgets? In which case, open plan might make sense…easier to slot in replacement parts when necessary. He smiled to himself, pleased with his recall of first year economics.

Upstairs, in the Vice Chancellor’s suite, Phyllis was remonstrating with the Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor.

“He can’t see anyone. You’ll have to leave a message.”

“This IS urgent, Phyllis. It’s about the office reorganisations. The Union…”

Phyllis didn’t let Sam finish. “Well, you’ll have to sort it out, Sam. I can’t disturb him.”

Sam cast the office door one last, lingering, look, and left the room.

Behind the door, Bill Noakes was poring over the Times Higher Education World Rankings, which had been released the previous evening. University of Burston had dropped fifteen places. Excellent news. He made a note to send a commiserating note to his opposite number there.  He hadn’t expected that Burston Central would appear this time, but he wanted to make sure he was on top of the trends. Next year, with his franchising plans, things would be different….