Reposted from earlier in the year: Speed-dating

Bill Noakes is in India. He’s been inspired, and has now started to develop his marvellous internationalisation idea.

Later that day, the tent had been reorganised into rows of tables. Each table had a little flag on it, indicating the non-Indian institution being represented. All of the Gujarati delegates were standing at the entrance to the tent, waiting for a signal. Two chairs were placed on the each side of each table. Bill and Sunny sat together. Sunny was giving Bill a last minute briefing.

“So, we’re agreed that we want to look for institutions who are interested in a mixed relationship.”

Bill looked at her helplessly. “Mixed relationship? Is that something to do with our diversity policy?”

Sunita sighed. “Vice Chancellor. You know, we discussed it on the plane. A mixed relationship is one where we have a range of joint activities. Some courses which are partly taught in India and then students come to us for the final year. Some exchanges, where our students go to India and some of their students come to us. Some shared staff development.”

Bill nodded absently. It sounded routine.

Sunny finished her list. “No simple accreditation deals, remember the University of Wales, but some courses which are franchised.”

Bill tuned back in. “Franchising?” How did she know about his ideas?

Sunny raised her eyebrows. “Yes, Vice Chancellor. When the partner institution runs our courses, exactly as we do. OK, here we go.”

Bill didn’t have time to ask her any more. A bell rang, and the Indian delegates surged forward. They spread out quickly and selected tables. Two people sat down at the Burston Central table, proffering business cards. Bill took one. It was in Hindi.  “Er, thanks, Dr, Professor, Sir….”

“Professor Mumtasa Singh, Ahmedabad All-India Institute for Legal Studies.” Professor Singh took the business card back, turned it over, and passed it back to Bill. “It’s in English on that side. This is my colleague, Dr Mehta. And you’re from Burston Central University? I know Burston well. I spent two years at the University of Burston, doing my Masters. ”

Bill had recovered. He put out his hand. “Yes, Professor Bill Noakes, Vice Chancellor. And this is Sunita Hundal, Head of International Partnerships.”

Sunita touched her hands together and murmured “Namastay, Professor Singh. Dr Mehta.”. She handed their business cards over to their guests. “We don’t have very long, do we? What kinds of international collaborations might interest you at the AII Legal Studies? We’re very keen to focus on franchising arrangements. Our Law, Business and Accountancy programmes are proving popular, and we can guarantee Professional Body accreditation with them, which is recognised by the Indian government.”

Bill stared at her. She’d got the wrong end of the stick. He didn’t want to partner with existing institutions. He wanted to set up a whole chain of mini-Burstons. Ninja Burstons, sharing the principles of lean delivery and value for money across the sub-continent. They needed to be staffed by fresh teams, tutors who weren’t obsessed with research, or jaded by institutional politics. This was going to be a brave new world. There would be no room for established hierarchies in his vision.

Professor Singh was quizzing Sunita in some detail. Dr Mehta was taking notes. The bell rang again. “Chello” said Professor Singh. They stood up. “Thank you, Ms Hundal. Professor Noakes.” He shook hands with Sunny and nodded to Bill, and they moved along to the next table.

“Is everything alright, Vice Chancellor?” Sunny asked. “Did you need me to update you on anything?”

Bill looked at her. “I was just wondering if this franchising to other institutions was the right way for us to go.”

Sunny’s jaw dropped. “It’s what the International Partnerships committee agreed at its last meeting. I think you sent your apologies. But I went over it with you on the plane.”

Before they could discuss it any further, another pair of academics sat down in front of them, holding out business cards. This time, Bill was ready. “Professor Noakes, Burston Central. We’re pretty booked up now, so we probably won’t be looking at new partnerships. But was there anything special you wanted to ask us about?”

Sunny forced a smile. “Just his little joke, gentlemen. You know, keeping the session fresh, so you remember us!”

The two men smiled weakly. “Ah, the famous British sense of humour. Ha, ha.”

Sunny continued. “We’re very interested in finding out more about your institution and the possibility of partnerships, aren’t we, Vice Chancellor?” She glared at him. She would have like to kick him discreetly, but she didn’t quite dare. Bill said nothing.

“Vice Chancellor, you look a little pale. Do you perhaps need to get some refreshment, while I talk to our esteemed colleagues for a moment? Perhaps catch up on your urgent messages?”

Bill narrowed his eyes. He knew an operator when he saw one in action. Not bad, actually, although she did need to remember that he was the VC and he could make life very uncomfortable.

Sunny stared coolly back at him. He paid her to look after international partnerships, and that’s what she was going to do. It had taken her months to get an invitation to ICAI, and about the same time again to persuade Phyllis to get Bill to come along. Burston Central was the only post-92 in the bottom quartile of the league table to get invited, and she was going to make the most of the opportunity.

The two visitors were watching the sideshow. Bill realised that they weren’t giving the best impression of Burston Central. Ah, what did it matter about the speed-dating whatsits today? It wasn’t really competition He could veto anything he didn’t like later. He summoned up one of his fake smiles and glanced down at the business cards he was holding. “No, Sunita, I’m really keen to hear more about, er, the Gujarat Normal College and the possibilities for partnership with Burston Central.” He might as well get a bit of market research out of them while he was there. He fixed the smile into place, and took out his notepad.

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.

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Reposted from earlier in the year: The Germ of an Idea

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 seemed a bit on the small side. They 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 nagging him about losing weight for months. She said it was definitely her business; part of her PA duties included keeping him on form and fit for work. He had been ignoring her. That was one thing she couldn’t enforce. But maybe she had a point after all.

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. No suits and ties, but open-necked shirts with jumpers over the top, although these were starting to be peeled off now. He didn’t dare 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 sighed loudly 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. He sighed. Happy days, before the cares of his office had overcome him.

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 figures were looking very bad for the next couple of years. Last week’s UCAS figures 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.

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 it was probably against Burston Central’s principles, too, he thought self-righteously. 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 so 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 frilly stuff Ron Barnett had suggested 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 as soon as he got back. Even though Alan had left him in the lurch, he now had those two ex-business 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 into line.

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 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.

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With thanks to Mark Jacot.

It was freezing in the office. The heating had been off all weekend. Shannon was shivering. She pulled her pashmina more tightly round her. It was seven-thirty and she’d already been in the office for an hour.

On the left-hand screen, she had her admissions projections for the next three years. She was staring at her right-hand computer screen, which was open on the WonkHE website. She was trying to work out what the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement would mean for Burston Central.

More students, but less student support – what if they were disproportionately hit by the massive cuts to the National Scholarship Programme? About 28% of their current intake qualified for it at the moment.

Was the removal of the numbers cap going to mean more competition from the for-profit providers, which might impact on fee levels? Or maybe less competition, if students could go to more established institutions instead?

She sighed. Maybe a cup of coffee would help.

She stood up and stretched out her frozen hands awkwardly, trying to keep the shawl over her shoulders. Picking up the kettle, she went out into the dark corridor. Maybe a sprint up and down would warm her up? It must be a good fifty metres each way.

She smiled at the thought of someone running in the corridor. Unlikely. Though it might make the motion-sensitive lights work a bit better.

As she walked towards the Ladies, she noticed that the door to the International office was open. Sunita must be in early. She went in. The outer office was empty, but Sunita’s office door was open.

“Hi, Sunny,” Shannon called out as she walked across the outer office. She didn’t want to give Sunita a fright.

There was no answer. She put her head round the door. “Hi,” she repeated.

Sunita looked up at her. She was sitting at her desk with a credit card in her hand. There was tears in her eyes.

“Sunny? Are you OK?”

Sunita’s lower lip trembled. She shook her head.

“Is it the kids? Dev? Your parents?”

Sunita shook her head again. She clearly didn’t trust herself to speak. She gestured at the computer screen.

“You haven’t fallen for one of those charity guilt videos, have you? Mawkish marketing. What’s the point of making people cry with guilt?” As she said this, Shannon winced to herself. Maybe that was a bit hard-hearted of her. Maybe she should find those things upsetting, rather than irritating.

She went over to the desk and looked at the screen. It seemed to be the Amazon website. She peered at the message. ‘Your payment has not been successful. Please use another method of payment.’

Shannon frowned. “Did you put the code in wrong?”

Sunita shook her head. She sniffed. “No. It’s the card I always use. There must be no money in the account. Dev must have cleaned it out and not told me. Maybe he’s going to leave me.” This last proposition tipped the balance of her self-control, and she began to sob.

Shannon put her hand awkwardly on Sunita’s shoulder. “Um. Well. Surely not.” She had no idea whether this was a likely scenario or not. She didn’t know Sunita or Dev that well. She looked around the room in the hope of inspiration for something to say next. Nothing.

Sunita was still holding the credit card in her hand. Shannon looked at it. “Hang on a minute, Sunny. Is that a NatWest account?”

Sunny nodded.

“They’ve got problems with their systems. I heard it on the Today programme when I was driving in.” She tried to remember what had been said. She didn’t bank with RBS or NatWest. “I don’t think the cards are working.”

She leaned over Sunita and opened another tab on the browser. “Look. BBC News. ‘More RBS glitches’. That’ll be the problem. Phew.”

Sunita blew her nose. “Shit. Are you sure?”

Shannon nodded. “Well. It looks like it. At least, that seems like the most likely thing. Doesn’t it?”

“Probably. God, I feel so stupid. Why didn’t I think of that? It’s not the first time.” She sniffed loudly again. “I’m just so stressed at the moment. It was the last straw. I’ve got to go to India with the VC this week, and I was trying to finish the Christmas shopping. I have to do it online. I never have time for the shops.”

“Well, I guess you can try again later.” Shannon tried to sound brisk. This was all a bit embarrassing. “Now, would you like a coffee?”

Sunita pulled herself together. “Oh. No. No, thanks. I’d better get on. Lots to do.”

Shannon nodded.

“Sorry about that, Shannon. Um. Bit embarrassing. Just a bit tired.” Sunita looked up at Shannon.

Shannon took the hint. “Not to worry. All very busy at the moment. Right, I’d better get some water for this kettle, then get back to figuring out the Autumn Statement implications. Might need to come and talk to you about it at some point – if the domestic number cap’s being lifted, we might be less dependent on international, you never know.”

Sunita looked panicked. “I hadn’t thought of that. My God. I hope that doesn’t mean job cuts in my office.”

Shannon winced. “No, no, sorry, I didn’t mean anything like that. I was just thinking aloud. Just worrying about your workload, really. ” She sighed and started to sidle towards the door. Sunita didn’t move.

“See you later, Sunny.” Shannon made a mental note to pop in later on and check on her.

Sunita looked vaguely across at her. She was still nodding her head when Shannon left the room.

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.

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Popularity contest

Hot on the heels of the latest mid-cycle UCAS application figures, which had been disastrous for Burston Central, HEFCE had published detailed analysis of applications and acceptances for the last two full academic years. Burston Central’s head of Strategic Planning, Shannon O’Reilly, was poring over the figures, and she was scratching her head. Obviously, she’d known their own figures for some time, give or take a bit of fluctuation in the first term. Despite the brutal imposition of full-cost tuition fees, applications and enrolments had held up fairly well for 2012. But she’d been very worried about their position in the top 20 for applications.  How were their benchmark institutions doing?

For many years, Burston Central had been really popular. The VC put it down to a combination of location, location and location. Burston had a reputation as a party town. God knows why, looking at the town centre, but the students seemed to like it. The university performed indifferently in the National Student Survey. Class sizes, staff- student ratios, accommodation costs were all firmly average.

There were no real research stars, unless you counted that guy from Sociology who was on telly every time urban youth got restless, and the woman from Chemistry who had something to do with debunking the claims of cosmetics companies. All the numbers were resolutely average. The Council got very agitated about the situation, and it made the VC cross.

But despite all of this averageness, students still liked to come. Shannon didn’t think it was that strange. The staff were mostly pleasant and welcoming, and interested in their disciplines. They knew enough, even if they weren’t leading lights. Plus, they were very accommodating to students with disabilities, students with caring responsibilities and students who’d been looked after, and had good links with agencies and colleges who might encourage potential undergraduates. 74% of their students came from within a 50 mile radius. For those students, it was either Burston Central, or University of Burston, which had a different kind of reputation, or no HE at all. Really, it wasn’t that surprising that applications were usually high. It was difficult to provide evidence for that perspective, though. I wasn’t something that numbers could capture. So she was worried that this year could be different.

No. Almost no change in the top and bottom 20 in terms of the numbers of applications. Leaving out London Met’s figures, the rankings for this year looked remarkably like last year. It was a relief, but what did it mean for strategic planning? Were numbers the same because this year’s intake were already on their trajectory before the increase in fees? Was this coming year going to be the big drop? And was it going to be the same for all institutions? It didn’t look good for actual numbers of applications this year, she had to admit.

And yet. And yet. There must be some way of capitalising on their attractiveness to the local region, even if that popularity wasn’t really based on any objective measures.  Could they focus on those students for recruitment, rather than constantly chasing the diminishing pool of 18 year olds? Probably not worth suggesting it. The VC was very keen on the Head of Marketing, and she tended to think the Widening Participation applicants were more trouble to chase than they were worth.

Was there any way of offering something new at lower cost, and advertising it as ‘better value’? She couldn’t see how they could cut expenses any further. The Chief Financial Officer controlled costs with an iron rule. And he didn’t appreciate suggestions from other departments, either. Plus it might make existing courses look like poor value by comparison.

And just to ice the cake, the PVC for students had suddenly got a bee in his bonnet about white, working class males and how they needed extra input. She had no data to support that view. In fact, her data showed that Asian males were more likely to perform badly compared to their A level results and to drop out. And what was that ‘extra input’ supposed to look like? And cost?

How was she supposed to come up with an objective strategic plan when there were certain areas she couldn’t mention, or when the data she’d analysed was trumped by another Vice Chancellor’s newspaper article, or when she had no access to cost data? Shannon put her head in her hands. Everyone else was long gone. She was feeling so sleepy, and she still had to finish this analysis before she went home. Maybe she’d just rest her head on the desk for a minute. She pushed the papers aside and leaned forward onto her arms.

She woke some time later. For a moment, she felt panicked. Where was she? Why did her arms hurt?

She raised her head from the desk and realised what had happened. Falling asleep at her desk. Great. She looked at her watch. Quarter-past nine. Shit. She still had to finish the report.

Shannon stood up. She’d take it home with her. She packed her briefcase and crossed the room to get her coat from the hooks by the door.

Just then, there was a sound. It sounded like a door being closed somewhere else on the corridor. She stiffened. Surely there was nobody else around at this time of night. She tiptoed back over to her desk and took a small torch from the top drawer. The pointless motion-sensitive lights in the corridor never came on before she got to the lift.

She opened the door cautiously. The corridor was completely dark, but there was someone coming towards her. She aimed the torch towards them.

“Cheers, Shannon. Can’t stand those stupid lights.”

Just then, the motion-sensitive lights came on. It was Sunita from the International Office.

“Sunny!” Shannon gave a sigh of relief. She switched off the torch. “You gave me a fright.I wondered who the hell could still be here at this time of night.”

“Very brave of you to come out and challenge me, then. And anyway, what are you doing, still here at this time of night?” Sunita seemed quite cheerful, despite the time.

“I could ask you the same question. I was just on my way out, though. Give me a sec to get my bag?”

“Sure. I’ll stand here and jump up and down a bit to keep the lights on.”

They both smiled. Shannon went back into the office to put the torch away and get her coat.

“This is getting ridiculous, isn’t it?” said Sunita. Her mood seemed to have changed.

“The working hours?”

“Yes. I don’t mind if it’s occasional, but this is beyond a joke. By the time I get home, I’ll just collapse into bed and then it’ll all start again in the morning. And I’m going to India next week with the VC, so that’s another four days away from home.”

“Anything in particular that’s taking up more time?”

Sunita sighed. “It’s the VC.”

Shannon nodded in sympathy. Wasn’t it always the VC?

“He’s got some idea about developing international….I don’t know what exactly….just international projects in general. He’s asked me to write a scoping report. But I don’t know what to scope.”

“Tell me about it. I’m supposed to be writing a paper for Council on how to move up the league tables. I just don’t know where to start. We need to focus on something, and invest in it, but he hasn’t said which areas he’ll support.” They both sighed deeply.

Shannon made a huge effort to change the subject. “How are the kids, Sunny?”

“Very well, as far as I know,” Sunita sounded bitter. “I hardly ever seem to see them.”

Shannon thought she must have made a huge faux-pas. “Oh dear, Sunita. I didn’t know. Have you and Dev, er, …?”

“We might as well have done, for all I see of them all at the moment. This job is killing me.”

They fell silent as they crossed the atrium from the lifts and buzzed to open the main doors. Outside, Shannon turned left towards the main car parking area. “Are you parked over here, Sunny?”

“I couldn’t get a parking space this morning. I’m over in the Council car park. Not too pleasant at this time of night, as you can probably imagine.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Why had she said that? Car parking policy wasn’t her fault. “Well, see you tomorrow.”

“Yes. See you soon.” Sunita gave a little wave and started walking briskly towards the centre of town.

Shannon sighed again. There must be more to life than this.