Musing and Marking

It was that time of year again. Alison had a system in place, developed and honed over the years. There was a colour-coded chart, showing when work was due in between April and June, including exams, and when it had to be marked and moderated. She cleared off the top of the low bookshelves her room, and lined them with a set of correspondingly-coloured filing trays. Work to be marked went into the appropriate tray just as it was. Marked work went into a folder at the bottom of the same tray, labelled with its future destination (moderation, or distribution).

The chart told her what she had to mark each day. No meetings were scheduled on marking days, except for moderation meetings and the inevitable impromptu tearful sessions with students who’d submitted late or failed. The phone was switched to voicemail. The Internet stayed off. The colour-coded chart told her which assignment she needed to mark each day, and how many of them.

The total number of assignments for the day was then divided into five. Once she’d marked 20% of the day’s allocation, she took a break, stretching her legs by walking to the ladies to fill the kettle, and then making a brew, which she drank while checking her email. After 20 minutes, she made a mark on the whiteboard – like a prisoner marking days on the wall of her cell – and then continued with the marking. She was really strict with herself. It was a marathon, not a sprint. It was only fair to the students to give everyone an equal share of her attention, and not to disadvantage anyone by not taking proper breaks. She ate lunch after 40% of the day’s allocation, or sometimes after 60%, if she’d got an early start. At the end of the day, she carefully copied all the marks from her spreadsheet into the student record system, and parcelled up any completed batches for giving to moderators, or for sending back to students. Then, she checked the student record system to see how far the other module leaders had got.

It was a brilliant system. Alison couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t take the same approach. Many of the other module leaders seemed much more slapdash. Some of them seemed surprised when they were notified that their marking was ready for collection, as if they hadn’t set the deadline themselves. Almost all of them left the task till the last possible moment, and then complained about having to sit up for two nights in a row to get it finished in time. Their dependence on going to the wire made things really difficult for Alison, who as programme leader had to adjudicate any disputed marks and get an overview of performance in time for the examination boards.

This year, she had tackled her marking with very mixed feelings. It was the last time she’d have to do it, and to be responsible for co-ordinating, chivvying and scolding her colleagues into finishing their part of the job. It was the last time she’d have to buy extra tissues to offer to distressed students who’d failed to manage their time well enough. It was the last time she’d be disappointed by lack of effort, poor sentence structure, unbalanced equations or graphs with no labels on the axes. It was the last time that the exam board secretary would be stand in Alison’s office, arms folded, leaning against the wall, blocking the exit until Alison finished moderating and checking the last few scripts which had come in from a recalcitrant colleague (‘sorry, Alison, managed to leave this lot on the pub and couldn’t collect them till opening time!’).

On the other hand, there were some things she would miss. Really seeing the progress students could make. The occasional evidence that a struggling student had finally ‘got it’. The satisfaction of seeing those completed rows of student records with full sets of marks.

There was also some guilt mixed into her musings. She was really starting to worry about what would happen to the course after she’d left. Granted, it wasn’t particularly outstanding in terms of the figures. Student satisfaction looked good, at 92% for overall satisfaction. She kept to herself the knowledge that this was only enough to put them in the second decile nationally. Luckily, biology tended to do well nationally, so student satisfaction scores tended to be higher than the average for all subjects.  The VC thought it was an excellent score. Applications were good at 3.8 per place – but again, that was below the national average for the subject. Retention was hovering around the benchmark at 82%. It was all pretty…average.

But she shuddered to think what it would be like if she didn’t put so much effort in. Not many people knew just how important she was to the smooth running of the course. Not many people knew how many extra hours she had to work to keep the show on the road, covering for colleagues who were late for a research deadline, or sick, or just couldn’t be bothered. Not many people knew how many students needed her personal intervention to stop them from leaving early. Not many people knew how many school concerts or parents’ evenings she’d missed, or been late for, making futile attempts to slip in unnoticed when things were already under way. As if her husband and children hadn’t been tuned in to her presence, or absence in a large crowd.

She sighed. She didn’t think her replacement would have the same commitment. If Geoff ever got round to sort out a replacement, of course. So much for succession planning. Every time she asked him about it, he just waved his hand and said he was working on it.

Anyway, she would miss the students. And Tim and Heather, and Don, and their Wednesday therapy nights. And the woman who ran the coffee bar, although Alison had no idea what her name was. And the subject librarian.

She wouldn’t miss the endless meetings about car parking, or petty wrangles about timetable allocations, or sorting out assessment cock-ups. She was really looking forward to getting back to her research, and to doing some part-time teaching with no admin responsibilities. And spending a bit more time with her family. The course would just have to sort itself out. She smiled to herself as she reached for another project report.

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:

All characters are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, unless it says otherwise. Apart from THES journalists.

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


The Blob

Justin Marks was quite excited as he put the finishing touches to his press release. He checked one last time for typos. He’d got the quotes by email and had had to correct the one from George Barraclough – fancy not being able to use “it’s” correctly. Academics!  – He didn’t usually have stories which might get picked up nationally, so he wanted to be extra-careful. He was going to send it to the local papers, as well as putting it in the staff newsletter. Maybe even to Times Higher Education? They usually liked quirky stories.

He was quite happy with it. Topical. Good sentence structure, plenty of alliteration, nice and pacy.

Burston academics tell the Minister what’s what!

Academics from Burston Central’s School of Education have sent a letter to the Secretary of State for Education addressing their anxieties about his proposed new curriculum. The letter draws on research carried out at Burston Central (ironically funded by the Department for Education!) which shows that children who learn poems by rote at the age of four are unlikely to be able to deconstruct the meaning or structure of the poems at the age of six.

The Burston Central letter follows hard on the heels of another, sent by 100 academics from other schools of education around England. George Barraclough from the School of Education said: “We could of course have contributed to the communal letter, but we thought it would have more impact if we followed up on the groundswell of opinion about the new school curriculum. Also, writing our own letter allows us to show the distinctive stance of Burston’s School of Education, which has a history of treading it’s own path through history. Workers unite!”

Mr Gove was unavailable for comment yesterday, but the letter was warmly welcomed by a Department for Education spokesperson, who said: “Consultation on the curriculum is open until 30 April and we welcome all responses from the public.”

Burston Central University is going places. For more information, contact Justin Marks, head of communications.

[Embargoed until Monday 25 March]

There was absolutely no need to embargo it, but he thought it might make it look more interesting to editors. He pressed send.

Every Monday morning, Bill Noakes held a short meeting with his Executive team. He was finding these more and more irritating. Idiots. Why couldn’t they get on with things without constantly seeking his approval, not that he ever gave it? And why that little twit Marks needed to sit in on it, God knew. “Need to keep ahead of the curve, Vice Chancellor” was all he said, when Bill asked him irascibly what he should do. What did that even mean? He couldn’t really be bothered to deal wth them, he just wanted to go back to his office and get on with planning his satellite strategy, as he was starting to think of it. His special college and his international franchising scheme.

However, this morning he was in a better mood than usual. He had been greatly entertained by an article in the Mail on Sunday. Not that he usually looked at it, of course. His wife took it.

He opened the meeting with a jovial “Good morning, team.” There was an awkward shuffling of papers and a few mutterings which sounded like ‘Morning, Vice-Chancellor’.

“Everyone have a good weekend?”

His Executive exchanged glances. This wasn’t the usual start to the meeting. What was he up to? Was it better to acknowledge having had a weekend, or to pretend you’d worked through it, or what? There were a few nods.

Bill wasn’t really waiting for an answer.

“Anyone see the Mail on Sunday yesterday?”

Heads were shaken. One or two of the more idealistic members of the team looked horrified at the very thought.

“Hilarious article by Michael Gove. Attacking all those leftie professors of education who signed that letter to the Independent last week. Calling them all ‘The Blob’. Brilliant. Got them off to a ‘T’.”

He laughed heartily. A few members of his Executive managed to raise small smirks. An air of anxious anticipation was still apparent. What was he up to?

“Thank goodness no Burston Central profs signed the letter.” Bill continued. “I’d certainly be having something to say if they had, academic freedom or no academic freedom. Well, this’ll show some of those Russell Group places that they should have more control over things. Gove’s really shown them up.”

Justin felt the blood draining away from his face. Shit. Barraclough’s letter. It wouldn’t have seen the light of day, if only he hadn’t decided to make something of it….he wondered if he could recall it. He shuffled in his seat. He really wanted to check his email, and Twitter. Maybe it wasn’t too late to cancel the release. But Bill wouldn’t let them use their phones in meetings. They had to give them to Phyllis on the way in, along with their laptops and iPads.

“What’s the matter, Justin? Ants in your pants?” Bill laughed still harder. Some of the others grinned, too. Bastards.

Justin saw a chance. “Just got a lot to get through today, Vice Chancellor.  I was wondering if I might be excused?”

Bill looked hard at him. “Oh, we won’t be long, Justin. And I know you like to keep ahead of the curve. You won’t want to miss this.”

Justin smiled weakly. “Of course not.”

Bill forgot about the Mail on Sunday and started giving out orders for the week ahead.

By the time Justin had finally retrieved his phone from Phyllis, he was resigned to his fate. Sure enough, there were three messages from local news services, saying they’d taken up the story and asking for quotes. His Twitter timeline showed that two others had already published the story verbatim in their online editions.

He walked back to his office, thinking hard. How did the VC usually find out when Burston Central was in the news? When Justin told him, of course. He made a point of sending Phyllis links and clippings. If he didn’t send anything, the VC would be none the wiser….Just at that moment, he couldn’t think of a better strategy.

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 Facebook to 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:

All characters are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, unless it says otherwise.

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


When Ajay got back to the office, Martin was on the phone. Ajay nodded over to him. He sat down behind his desk and switched on the computer.  As usual, Martin was talking very loudly, and as was often the case, he was outraged. Ajay had no choice but to overhear.

“Fucking cheek. They can’t suddenly bring it up now. They knew all about it when they employed me. This is just because I’m the Union rep, as usual.”

“No. No idea.”

“Yes. OK. I’ll keep you posted. See you at lunchtime.”

Ajay sighed. He knew that he was about to receive a recap of whatever it was that Martin was upset about. Martin put the phone down.

“Hi, Ajay.”

“Martin. Is everything OK?”

“Not really. Got a bit of bad news.”

Ajay realised that he was expected to look concerned. He felt really awkward. It was only four years since he’d graduated himself, and Martin had been one of his lecturers. If he was honest, Martin wasn’t one of his favourite tutors. He knew his subject OK, but he’d never seemed that interested in the students. You’d never go to him with a problem. Bob Barker was much more approachable. And now Martin expected him to listen to his confidences.

“Oh, dear. Well, if you’d rather not talk about it…”

“Oh, no, that’s OK. You’ll know soon  enough anyway.”

Ajay sighed to himself. It had been worth a try.

“When you were a student, Ajay, were there any rumours about me?”

Ajay felt trapped. Martin probably wasn’t expecting him to say anything like lazy, uninterested, or out-of-date. “Er. Not really,” seemed like a safe answer.

“Well. A while ago. I got into a bit of bother. Nothing to do with work. For some reason, someone’s brought it up again. It’s because I’ve just been elected to Academic Board as employee representative, I reckon.”

Ajay wondered whether he could avoid asking what the ‘bit of bother’ was. He hoped so. He tried to be neutral. “Oh, dear. That seems unfair.”

“Unfair? You can say that again. It’s a conspiracy. The Vice Chancellor hates me.”

Ajay hadn’t been there for long enough to realise that the Vice Chancellor was unlikely to have any opinion of Martin whatsoever. “Really? That’s terrible.”

“It is. Well, he won’t get away with it. I’m going to phone the local paper myself.”

Ajay had spent the four years since graduation working for a big accountancy firm which avoided publicity like the plague. “Is that wise? Maybe it will just blow over? ”

Martin looked kindly at him, and shook his head slowly. “Nice idea, Ajay, but these guys are up to something. I don’t trust them. Actually, no, not the local paper, I’ll see if we can get something into the Times Higher.” He picked up the phone again.

“Suki? It’s Martin again. What do you think if we draft something for the Times Higher, about the attack on the democratic process? It could come from you, as branch chair.”

“OK, I’ll do it now and get something over to you.”

Without hanging up the receiver, he clicked on the recall button and redialled.

“Betty? Martin. Got a message for Gordon.”

“He’ll need to get someone to cover my classes this week. I can’t work with this threat hanging over me.”  Martin winked at Ajay. Ajay pretended not to notice.

“OK, put me through.”

“Gordon. Not as busy as Betty thought?”

“I have to tell you that I’m absolutely devastated at the insinuations which are being made about me. You know what a reliable lecturer I am, and the, er, incident which is being brought up has never affected my performance.”

“I don’t know who’s brought it up, but you can’t expect me to teach with this going on. It’s harassment and I need to spend time preparing my defence.”

“It is a defence if I feel harassed, and I do.”

“Well, maybe it is nothing to do with you, but you’re going to need to get someone to cover for me, at least this week.”

“You’re summoning me?”

“It doesn’t sound like a friendly chat to me.”

“Alright then. Not today, though. Thursday?”

“Too early.”

“That’s lunchtime. I’ve got a union meeting.”

“OK. Friday. 11.30.”

He put down the receiver. “Good.” He smirked. “They won’t have it all their own way.”

Ajay was completely flummoxed. What on earth could be going on? How come Martin was allowed to dictate so much to the head of department? That wouldn’t have happened at the accountancy firm. He was torn. He really wanted to find out what Martin was accused of now, but he didn’t want to appear too nosy. Also, maybe it was really personal, in which case it would be better for him not to know. Maybe he’d just finish off his teaching portfolio entry instead. He’d probably soon find out what it was all about. He started typing.

Down in the basement, Bob picked up the phone.

“Bob Barker.”

“Really? Petition? Well, I don’t know. Can you tell me a bit more about it?”

“Mmm. Well, send it over. See you.”

Bob put down the receiver. Sheila looked quizzically at him.

“Have you ever met Martin, my old office-mate?”

Sheila shook her head. “Don’t think so.”

“Well, he’s quite active in the union. And he’s just been elected staff rep on Academic Board.”

“That doesn’t explain a petition.”

“No. Quite. Let me go back a bit. About six years ago, actually, not long after I got here, Martin got into a bit of trouble.”

“With the management?”

“No. The police.”

Sheila raised her eyebrows.

“It wasn’t anything really bad. It was basically a domestic incident. Not that I think there’s anything trivial about those, of course,” he added, hastily, seeing Sheila’s eyebrows rising further. “His girlfriend dumped him. Martin found out she’d got another bloke, and he went over to her flat when she wasn’t in, and cut up all her clothes.”

Sheila looked as though she couldn’t decide whether to smirk or look disapproving.

“She realised it was him, called the police in, he got done for criminal damage. Community service sentence. The University tried to discipline him, but he managed to argue it was nothing to do with his work, so nothing came of it.”

“I suppose… not very good for the University’s reputation, though.”

“Well, no, but it soon blew over. The World Cup was on at the time, it was the summer, no students complained about him. Well, not about that, anyway. His modules don’t get very good ratings, but they don’t seem to be able to do anything about that, either.” Bob realised that he might sound a bit catty. “He’s a nice bloke, really.”

“Hmm. We can’t run an organisation based on people being nice.”

“Maybe not. But it doesn’t hurt if they are. Anyhow. Somehow, it’s all being dragged up again. ‘Violent lecturer elected to key decision-making body in University.’ It doesn’t sound good, does it?”

“Hmm. You weren’t thinking of involving him in the University College of North Burston?”

Bob flinched. “Certainly not. He’s nice, but he’s not the kind of teacher I had in mind.”

“We should be OK, then. At least we aren’t using the Burston Central name. I might just check with Bill what his damage limitation strategy is.” Sheila jotted something in her notebook. “Oh, and, Bob. Unless you really feel strongly about it, I think it would be best to keep out of it.” She looked at him.

Bob looked quizzically at her. “ Are you ordering me not to exercise my democratic rights, boss? I can just see the Union press release now ‘UCNB CEO rides roughshod over academic freedoms.”

Sheila laughed. “No, just giving you some advice. As I said, if you feel strongly…”

“Good advice. I think it will probably blow over again. It’s hardly edifying for anyone. It’s got to be a spent conviction by now, surely?”

“That’s five years, so it should be fine. But if he’s carried on working for the University all that time, then they can’t really bring it up again now anyway. They can’t do anything about the election, either, unless he misrepresented himself in some way. You’re right, it should blow over.”

They both went back to work.

Upstairs, Martin seemed to be doing his best to make sure that it didn’t all blow over.

All characters appearing in these works are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, unless it says otherwise.

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 new episodes by email.

Training for Research Excellence

The Centre for Academic Practice has been tasked with making sure that all academic staff are qualified teachers. They’re making plans.

Off they went, thinking about how to ensure that all teaching staff at the University were in possession of some kind of accreditation of their teaching skills.  Clearly, Hazel intended this discussion to be productive brain-storming. Chris wondered if it would be more accurate to describe it as defeatist whinging.

“We could try workshops, but nobody will come.”

“Can we get HoDs to make it compulsory?”

“We could do all of the support online.” Chris snorted involuntarily and tried to disguise it into a coughing fit. He turned to the wall slightly and rolled his eyes in a direction nobody could see. Hell was likely to freeze over before anybody at Burston Central completed an online course.

The brainstorming session was well into its third cycle of repetition before Hazel decided to call a halt.

“Well, thanks, everyone! Some great ideas there.”

Chris closed his eyes, the better to roll them in peace. He really didn’t think the cheery tone was warranted.

Hazel continued. “Ruth, I saw you taking lots of notes. Could you write us a little summary before our next meeting, please?”

Ruth looked pleased. “Sure. Although I may have written down what I wanted to hear more than what was said, haha. I was just taking notes for myself, really.”

“I’m sure they’ll be terrific.” Hazel looked down at her iPad again. “Now, we really must move on.  What’s next? Oh, yes, research.”

There was a collective groan, followed by the Pavlovian response triggered whenever the team heard the word ‘research’.

“It would be fine if we had time.”

“I’d love to do more, but we haven’t got the right journals.”

“Well if the conference budget would only stretch…”

“What would you like us to stop doing instead?”

“With the quality of most research in Academic Practice, I’m not sure it’s worth bothering.”

Hazel sighed and waited for the familiar responses to be fully rehearsed. She cleared her throat. “Well, I’ve had a meeting with the Research Director, and he agrees with me that we don’t really have anything to contribute to any of the obvious units of study for the REF. Or any units of study, in fact. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.”

She looked round the room. This was a new topic. She wondered if there would be any novel responses. “The Research Director has suggested that we work with, er, with HR…”

She was rudely interrupted.

“Work with HR? Ha bloody ha.” Rich had, after all, found a familiar refrain. “That’ll be the day. They have glacial timescales for getting anything done.” There were murmurs of agreement.

Hazel ignored him. “Work with HR,” she continued more strongly, “to improve the package of support for research staff. The Research Centre wants to aim for the, the,” she looked at her iPad again, “the HR Excellence in Research Award from the European Commission. To get that, we need to, er, have robust implementation plans to show how we attract, manage and develop research staff.”

She looked up. “So, our part of that would be the ‘developing’. We need to put together a special academic practice programme for research staff. HR will probably carry on with all the usual stuff about induction to the university, plus some generic career development material, but we need to think about things like, er, ‘what it means to be a researcher in 21st century Burston Central’, or maybe ‘standing in for your supervisor when je can’t make a lecture’ and that kind of thing. Any other ideas?”

Nobody commented. Chris closed his eyes again. Christ on a crutch. It was hard enough being a PhD student or a post-doc without having pointless staff development inflicted on you. He suspected that wasn’t the kind of comment Hazel was looking for.

“Well, great. Rich, you’ve got research experience. I’d like you to take the lead on this one, please. Can you canvass some views, set up a meeting with the head of Training in HR, and the Research managers for the Schools, and get some ideas together by, say, the last staff meeting of this month?”

Rich preened slightly. “Well, it’s nice to see my previous work being recognised. I’ll do my best to squeeze this in. Does anyone else want to contribute?”

Nobody commented. Chris, the only person in the room with a PhD, sat silently. No chance. Whoever took this on would be lucky to get away with mild abuse of the ‘Those who can, do research. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, become Academic Practice tutors’ variety. Rarely would so little be inflicted on so many. He was pretty confident nobody would remember his research credentials.

Rich smirked. “Oh, OK then. Well, I’ll see if I can get some active researchers to give us some ideas.”

Hazel winced. She wondered if Rich was the most tactful choice. But in all honesty, it wasn’t top of her list of priorities, and he was probably safer on this than on the HEA accreditation. She’d had complaints about his teaching observations before.

Rich read her mind. “Not sure how much time I’ll have for the HEA stuff, though. Sorry, chaps.”

Hazel nodded. “Well, you can’t do everything, can you?” She smiled weakly, and checked her iPad again. She brightened. “Right, everyone, I think that’s all I wanted to tell you about. Anything else anybody wants to chip in?”

It was nearly lunchtime. Nobody said anything. People started to close their notebooks and pick up phones and keys. Chris caught Carol’s eye. She looked as though she did have something to say, but had lost the will to bother. They grinned sheepishly at each other. Rumbled.

“OK, well, thanks, everyone. Same time next week.” Hazel was already almost out of the door.

Chris waited for Carol at the door. “What were you going to say?”

“Oh, nothing really. Just that I got a paper accepted for the HEA conference in July.”

“That’s great, Carol. What’s it on?”

“You know that student partnership thing I was working on? I did some evaluation and wrote it up. Thought it might be worth a try.”

“Brilliant. You should have announced it. I bet nobody else is doing any proper research.”

“Oh, proper research. I don’t know about that. It was just a bit of evaluation.”

Chris smiled at her. “Don’t be so modest. It’s more than most people can manage. Shouldn’t you be contributing  to Rich’s project? It would give a bit of credibility, recent research experience and everything.”

Carol winced. “I seem to be a bit too busy…”

They both giggled. “Fancy a coffee?” said Chris. “We can have a therapy session. No, I mean we can talk about professionalising the academic workforce. Make plans.”

“Good idea. I’ll just get my coat.”

They headed off to the campus coffee shop.

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 me accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email, too:

If you want to read the Advent Calendar 2012, which has a bit more of a narrative, see the‘About’ page.

From Subprime to Subway

Conference Special: Inspired by @phil_baty live-tweeting from ICAI 2013.

Bill Noakes shifted restlessly in his seat. It was only 9.30 am in Gandhinagar, but he was still uncomfortable in the huge marquee. The chairs were packed tightly together, and he wasn’t too sure how strong they were. He felt as though he were slightly overflowing the seat; the edges were digging into his thighs. Phyllis had been telling him he needed to lose some weight. She said it was part of her duties as a PA to keep him in shape.

The temperature was forecast to rise to 32C, and maybe higher for the following day.  He ran his finger round the inside of his shirt collar. The Indian delegates were much less formally dressed than the UK representatives. No suits and ties, but open-necked shirts with jumpers over the top, although these were starting to be peeled off now that the temperature was rising. He daren’t take off his jacket. He could feel the sweat forming dark circles under his arms.

On the stage, flowers were being presented to a succession of local and international dignitaries, each bouquet accompanied by a speech about how the International Conference for Academic Institutions 2013 would foster special collaborations between Gujarati and non-Indian institutions. Why couldn’t they just get on with things? He was here to make contacts and promote the University of Central Burston, not just to listen to people slapping themselves on the back. Bill leaned over and whispered loudly to his Head of International Partnerships, Sunita Hundal.

“How long is this bit going to go on?”

Sunita looked embarrassed. She replied in a whisper several notches lower than Bill’s. “Not too long, Vice Chancellor. It’s just a traditional way of thanking people for their sponsorship and support, and recognising their importance in forming productive economic relationships.” She emphasised the last part of the sentence.

Bill harrumphed and straightened up. The dignitaries were now all seated on the stage. Someone seemed to be giving them all a vote of thanks. He glanced down at the programme. Oh well, at least people were only making short speeches. Seven minutes each? Practically elevator pitches.  It reminded him of his MBA.  Those were the days, when it was all before him. Always the group inspiration, always the thrusting ambitious young leader. He sighed.

Craig Mahoney, the Chief Executive of the UK Higher Education Academy, was speaking now. He was citing some figures about HE in India. Bill took a few notes:

Need to build a new college every day to cope with population increases

Indira Gandhi National Open University has 2.6 million students

Next, up, the Chief Minister of Gujarat.

Indian Government investing in HE to drive economy

Need international partnerships to create knowledge from information.

Never been a for-profit uni that has been a major knowledge producing centre for the past 2,600 years

Phil Baty was talking about world rankings now. That wasn’t something that Burston Central could get very excited about. Bill’s attention drifted and he started thinking about what he’d already heard. The UK market was pretty dead, if they would only be honest about it. Mahoney had just said that the UK had slipped massively in terms of the percentage of GDP spent on HE. And the Burston Central figures were looking very bad for the next couple of years. Last week’s UCAS application statistics were probably the beginning of a trend, and institutions like Burston Central were likely to be squeezed badly, maybe catastrophically. He didn’t want to be the VC who presided over the demise of the University, but he couldn’t see any clear way out. Alan’s idea for the University College was interesting, but far too small to make any real impact. But India was definitely expanding. That’s why Sunita had been able to persuade him to come along.

There was no way he was going to be able to find the capital to do what Nottingham had done, and build a replica campus in Ningbo, or a customised one in Malaysia. Even if by some miracle he could find the money, employing UK staff in those countries was really expensive. And probably against Burston Central’s principles, too – it was practically neo-colonialism, as he remembered one of the UCU committee saying when he’d mooted some kind of similar idea in 2007, when the possibility of finding funding hadn’t seemed to remote, and the UK market had seemed to be expanding. Not that he cared about being neo-colonialist, but as he couldn’t afford to set up branch campuses, he might as well take a principled stance.

What if the University College of North Burston idea could provide a model, a template, for emerging markets? What about having a real franchise system, a sort of HE Subway chain? Subway provided the raw ingredients, the recipes, the Health and Safety advice, the training manuals and the marketing information. The franchise holder provided the premises and the staff.  In a similar way, Burston Central could provide all of the teaching materials, the regulations, and the degree certification. It was a genius idea.

It would be pioneering, taking the idea of the university to the masses in an affordable way. And why shouldn’t a for-profit system produce knowledge?  Obviously, all institutions needed to be solvent before they could invest in all the stuff Ron Barnett had put in last week’s Times Higher about higher purpose, which had made him spit his coffee out on the plane to Ahmedabad.  But they could always aspire to that later. 

He’d get the details sorted out later. Even though Alan had left him in the lurch, he now had those two academics seconded to the project, and they seemed to have some notion of what was needed. In any case they were relatively junior; he could soon get them sorted out.

He scribbled frantically on his notepad, shielding the text from Sunita. He wasn’t going to trust anyone else with this idea until he’d got a concrete plan in place. It was fucking brilliant. This was going to be his legacy.  He looked up and gazed at the garlanded dignitaries. Next year, he’d be one of people getting a bouquet on the main platform, and a Queen’s award for export to go with it…

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 Facebook to 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 me accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email, too:

If you want to read the Advent Calendar 2012, which has a bit more of a narrative, see the ‘About’ page.

Applications crisis

Inspired by

Alan sat despondently in his office. The latest UCAS figures were in, and they were awful. A 12% drop in applications. Worse than Wales, as the VC had snarled derisively at him. He didn’t really see why it was all his fault. The Marketing department reported directly to the VC, not to him, and that campaign about feeling the love had been bloody awful. However, the Head of Marketing could do no wrong. Maybe if he wore such short skirts he’d get on better with the VC?

He reproached himself for that unworthy thought, and wondered if he should have been spending so much time on the University College of North Burston project, but on the other hand, that was a chance to get students from an entirely different market. It could save the whole university.

He looked at the document open on the screen in front of him. It was headed ‘Emergency UCAS strategy’. The rest of the document was blank. He sighed heavily. 4 January. UCAS deadline 15 January. Most schools’ internal deadline for student drafts: 14 December. There was no way of retrieving the situation now, but the stress ball which had hit the door as he left the VC’s office had left him in no doubt that he was expected to do something.

He got up and made a cup of coffee. Maybe he no longer had a PA, but at least he had a proper coffee machine in his office, courtesy of the previous VC. And his office was big enough for pacing. He paced.

Alan was a mild-mannered sort of person. He’d worked his way slowly up the academic ladder, or steadily, as he preferred to think of it. His wife had been happy to be a homemaker, so he’d been able to move institutions regularly in search of promotion, and to be truthful he much preferred administration to his original research on late 19th century British industrial history (beginning of the end, as he liked to think of it) or to teaching (just the end). Deputy head of department, head of department, pro vice chancellor, deputy vice chancellor. He’d almost got to the top job, but now he was at the end of the line. Bill Noakes had made it clear that they needed to mutually agree his departure. It wasn’t too bad: he had plenty of years of service, and he was going out on a six-figure salary. All the paperwork had been signed and he’d be off in a couple of months. As he paced he tried to analyse why he was feeling so despondent.

His critical thinking skills were a bit rusty – too much public relations and bonhomie at official gatherings, perhaps. But as he thought about the injustice of his situation, he started to get more and more fed up. There was an issue of professional pride at stake here. Why was he taking the blame for everything that went wrong at Burston Central? He’d always been loyal. He liked to think that he’d tempered the VC’s ideas into workable compromises. He was the creative person, the visionary, the one who’d come up with the idea of the University College of North Burston which would save the whole institution.

He straightened his back and strode over to the computer, recklessly ignoring the splashes sent over the side of his cup by the increased pace.  It wouldn’t be his office for much longer, let the next person deal with the stained carpet!

He got out the UCAS figures again. Fuck ‘em. He was going to be logical about this.

A little later, Alan got up from his computer. He carefully locked the workstation screen,  put on his coat and went over to the Sainsbury’s Local which was opposite the main campus. He came out carrying six empty wine boxes and went back up to the sixth floor. He emptied the contents of his desk into the boxes and tucked them carefully behind the door. Then he carried on with his normal duties for the day.

At around 5pm, he returned to his office. The corridor was dark.  He started ferrying the boxes down to his car. Once the last one was safely stowed, he went back up and sat at his desk. He read through the email on this screen one last time.


Bcc: News Desk, Burston Gazette

From: Alan Chilcott, Deputy Vice Chancellor

Subject: Fall in Applications

All staff will be aware of the fall in applications to Burston Central for the next academic year. Despite the best efforts of the Marketing department, our applications are down 12% on this year, worse than the sector average. With our rivals in a similar position, there is no chance of increasing applications for this year without a severe compromise to our entry standards, which is clearly unacceptable to all of you.

This reduction in student numbers will probably translate to a reduction in budget of around 10%. At the Vice Chancellor’s request, I am therefore taking immediate action to mitigate the effects of this. The following courses will now suspend recruitment because their applications are too low for a viable entry:

Media Studies


All modern foreign languages

International Management studies

All other weird-sounding ‘management’ courses

We will be consulting with the relevant unions over a concomitant redundancy programme over the next 90 days. I’ve enjoyed working with you all, but unfortunately, the institution hasn’t shaped up. We tried, but we’ve failed.

He pressed send. Then he shut down the computer, put his Blackberry on the desk, turned out the lights, and left the office. As he walked in the dark towards the lifts, he smiled to himself.  Sod them. And sod their succession planning. They weren’t going to want him back after this.

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 Facebook to 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 me accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email, too:

If you want to read the Advent Calendar 2012, which has a bit more of a narrative, see the ‘About’ page.

The T*tler Guide to Burston Central University


BEDDING DOWN  Surprisingly, there isn’t much cheap accommodation available in Central Burston, so you’re in luck – you won’t have to bump into too many of the plebs if you pick up one of the expensive converted warehouse apartments available very close to the University.  If you want to mix it up a bit with other students and locals, then you could try Flyblown Hall, which is in an authentic area of town with lots of curry restaurants. Invest in an account with the local taxi firm so that you don’t get caught out walking back there, though –gun crime is quite high in the neighbouring areas.

THE BIG NIGHTS OUT The Students’ Union is a total dump – don’t even think of going there. Even the Rugby Club doesn’t bother. Instead, try Roxy’s disco in the city centre (no, the name isn’t ironic –it’s still the seventies experience it always has been). Otherwise, there is a KFC near the bus station and several branches of McDonalds. You’ll be getting a real cultural experience – ideal for those sociology students among you! If you want to link up with other like-minded people, hop on the train to London.

THE PUB Next to the University is the Salvation Arms. It sounds like a spit-and-sawdust place, but it actually has a patterned carpet, so it’s more of a spilled-pint-and-sticky-floor place. Serves gassy lager and occasionally has a vile-tasting real ale.

LATE-NIGHT MUNCHIES Cheeky’s café opens late on big nights, not closing till 9pm or so. Ideal for a snack on the way home! But it’s even better on the morning after, with a real builder’s breakfast on offer at bargain prices. With real builders available to ogle. Must visit. In the day, try the University coffee shop. It’s not cheap, but you can mingle with academic staff, who don’t have their own facilities – good for catching your tutor to ask for an extension!

WHAT TO WEAR Girls – Ugg boots, Juicy Couture track suits, big hair, lots of foundation.  Boys – jeans, hoodies, T-shirts with slogans.

WHAT NOT TO WEAR  Anything by Wills or Abercrombie and Fitch, unless you like spending the weekend in A & E.

WORK Attendance is only monitored if you are a foreigner, so nobody will notice if you don’t turn up. Don’t stress over preparing for tutorials – there will be 20 people in each group and you won’t get singled out. Nobody else will prepare either, you’ll get a mini-lecture instead. Generous consideration given to Mitigating Factors, but keep track of the number of grandmothers you’ve disposed of.

WEEKENDS Most Burston Students live at home anyway, but those who don’t will usually head off as the city basically closes down at the weekend. Although Primark opens late on Fridays.

WHAT TO SAY TO THE RELLIES Just say you’re studying in Burston – they will assume it’s ‘the other place’.  Remember, Mummy and Daddy spent a lot of money on your school years and this wasn’t what they expected. Don’t embarrass them any more. If they catch on. emphasise the ethnographic value of being in a different milieu for three years, especially if you’re ‘reading’ sociology.  Or the importance to society of vocational education (this won’t work if you’re studying cultural studies).

ALUMNI thousands every year can’t be wrong.

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 Facebook to 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 me accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email, too:

If you want to read the Advent Calendar 2012, which has a bit more of a narrative, see the ‘About’ page.