Brave New World

The University College of North Burston was up and running. The space above the bus station had been completely transformed. The shabby glass-and-plasterboard partitions were gone, replaced with safety-glass dividers which could be wheeled around like hospital curtains. The stained and chipped paintwork had been replaced by smooth, shining surfaces, with broad strips of bright colour delineating different parts of the space. Furnishings were similarly colour-coded. Power and Ethernet sockets could be pulled down from moveable overhead gantries, so that tables could be used anywhere. Huge photographs of inspiring landscapes drew the eye. Over by the ‘food and beverage’ machines, a yellow beanbag ran the length of the wall. Sound-proofing protected the delicate ears of staff and students from the noise of the city centre.

Recruitment had been exactly on target. Thirty students for Marketing, thirty for Accounting and Finance.  Two nights a week for each group, 5pm-9pm, with tutorials at 8am, 12pm, 1pm and 4pm to fit in with people’s commutes to work or lunch hours. Sheila and Bob ran the admin for all of the tutorials themselves, using an advanced Customer Relations Management package which they’d tweaked slightly so that the students got input as customers and the tutors were like the sales reps. Way better than a sign-up sheet on the door. Especially when you didn’t have any doors.

Sheila sat at her desk in the blue area. It was 7am and the room was quiet. Bob had popped over to Cheeky’s to get them some coffee. She looked around the room. It was quite nice when it was empty, if a bit more like a prospectus than she would have thought possible. The noise and bustle of students brought it to life. It would make a perfect common room area. But for teaching?

She wasn’t sure how long the fixtures and fittings were going to stand up to heavy use. The overhead gantries had a slight tendency to snag – did that have the potential for a fire hazard? The wheeled dividers were pointless in all respects, since you could still see and hear, and thus be distracted by, what was happening in a neighbouring group. The noise of students dragging furniture around into different configurations  seemed to echo around the room. And the yellow beanbag had already gathered some rather disturbing stains, not to mention being slightly further from the bin than some people were willing to go with their paper cups nd chocolate wrappers.

This really wasn’t quite what she’d had in mind.  She was wondering if she’d been foolish in buying into the project. She’d been really taken with the idea of offering lower-priced flexible provision to students who would otherwise be unable to get a degree. She’d had no trouble setting up the spin-off company so that it didn’t exploit staff or students. The VC had given them a generous budget for start-up. It should have been perfect.

But. But. When the room filled with students at 4pm, she really wasn’t sure that it was what she’d hoped for. The room was too busy. The part-time staff they’d taken on didn’t really understand group work, and tended to revert to lecture style, despite the compulsory training she’d bought in from the Centre for Academic Practice. Although the sounds of the bus station were well screened, the acoustics of the room somehow magnified all of the furniture-scraping sounds of fidgeting students. She and Bob sat frozen at their desks whenever the tutors were speaking, in order not to distract students. Plus, one of them needed to stay until the last session had finished every night, to lock up.

But the main thing which was bothering her was the quality of the student experience. Surely getting a degree at evening class, on the cheap, was exactly what the last fifty years of higher education expansion had been trying to avoid? Wasn’t this more like a turn-of-the-twentieth century Workers Educational Association outpost offering University of London degrees than a modern university environment? Where was the buzz? What about the debating society? The sports clubs?  The bar? The personal development?

She felt obscurely guilty. What if this was just the thin end of the wedge for higher education?

What effect will the removal of Student Number Control have on this dismal project? To be continued…

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 Bunker

Bob looked up from his screen and stretched his arms out. It was eight o’clock in the morning, and he’d been sitting there for an hour and a half already. He smiled over at Sheila, who was sitting on the other side of the double desk. She didn’t notice. She was writing in her notebook.

They were sitting in a tiny room with no windows. There was just about space for the two desks pushed together, two filing cabinets, and a small occasional table for the kettle and two mugs. It wasn’t the most promising location for the great white hope of Burston Central University. But Bob thought it was fitting. At the moment, only he and Sheila were working on the project. They didn’t need any more space, and as an ex-forensic accountant, he approved of the parsimony being shown at this stage in the project. Later on they’d need to demonstrate their financial backing, and they had a guarantee of half a million pounds of investment from the VC’s special projects fund.

Sheila looked up. “Everything alright?”

“Yes, boss. Just thinking about resource allocation for the refurbishments.”  He tugged on an imaginary forelock. They both smiled.

“I’m just trying to get this recruitment strategy thought through.” Sheila said. “We’re going to have to advertise vacancies fairly soon, or we won’t be able to get admissions going in time. But once we do that, the whole thing’s going to go public.”

Bob grimaced. The plan to set up the new University College of North Burston was pretty well developed, but the timings they were working to were all disrupted by the secrecy of the project.

The door handle was pressed down and there was a thud outside. They both started. It was pretty quiet in the basement and nobody but them ever usually came into the office. They held meetings off-site, or up in the Vice Chancellor’s suite. The door burst open.

“Bloody hell, what’s wrong with that door?” Bill Noakes was in the room, breathing heavily.

“It sticks, Vice Chancellor.”

“So I see. Bloody hell, you want to get that seen to.”

“We’re sort of used to it.” Sheila was usually cool around the VC. She didn’t like him much, and unlike Bob, she wasn’t intimidated by him. “What a pleasant surprise, Vice Chancellor. We don’t usually see you down here.” Actually, they’d never seen him down there. She was surprised that he knew there was a basement.

“What? Oh, yes.“ The VC looked round, as though he’d mislaid something. He turned slightly and put an arm back out into the corridor. “This is Steve.”  He pulled someone into the room.

It was now rather crowded in the tiny office. Bob and Sheila stood up automatically to greet the new arrival. Steve looked to be in his mid-thirties, neatly dressed in an inexpensive suit and a plain tie. He had a small rucksack.

Bob put out his hand. “Bob. Nice to meet you.”

Sheila did likewise. They all turned to the VC expectantly.

“Er, Steve’s going to help you out with the UCNB project. He’ll be working on an international angle.” Bill fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper torn from his notebook. “Franchising, new business model, available to new markets.” he added. He shoved the piece of paper into Bob’s hand.

“Right, better get off, interviewing for the new DVC today, mustn’t be late.” The VC squeezed past Steve and disappeared.  Bob and Sheila looked at Steve.

“I’ll go and find another chair.” Bob put the paper in his pocket and also squeezed past Steve, who hadn’t moved from the doorway, and followed the VC out into the corridor. Bill was already over at the lift, which was still at the basement floor. He gave Bob a slight wave and stepped firmly inside. Bob sighed and headed off in the opposite direction. There were a couple of chairs down by the laundry room. They’d seen better days. He leaned experimentally on the one which looked stronger. It seemed safe enough.

Back in the office, Sheila had got the kettle on and had managed to get Steve to sit down in Bob’s chair.

“Bob, this isn’t Steve. It’s Stefan.”

Bob automatically stuck his hand out again. “Hello, Stefan. Nice to meet you.”

Stefan nodded at him.

Sheila handed Stefan a cup of instant coffee. “Milk? Sugar?”

He shook his head.

Bob wondered if he could speak at all. Although Sheila must have managed to talk to him. He sat down on the new chair and waited.

“Stefan was the manager at Subway, Bob.”

He looked at her blankly.

“You know, the one down Challoner street, down from Cheeky’s. The sandwich place. You know, Subway, the sandwich chain.”

Bob finally understood what kind of subway was being discussed. “I thought it was closing down.”

“Yes, that’s why Stefan is here.”

Stefan took a sip of his coffee, and winced.

Bob felt none the wiser. What was the connection between the University College of North Burston and the manager of a failed sandwich shop? “Oh.” he offered.

Sheila smiled at him. “No, I haven’t a clue either.”

Bob felt relieved. He pulled the VC’s piece of paper out of his pocket. It was headed ‘new international strategy’, in terrible handwriting. There were two columns. One was headed Subway, and underneath, it said:  raw ingredients, recipes, Health and Safety, training manuals, marketing information.

The other column was headed Burston Central. Its column included teaching materials, regulations, and degree certification.

“Any clarification there?” Sheila put her hand out for the piece of paper.

Bob handed it over. Subway. Universities. International. “Not sure. Yes. Maybe. I wonder if the VC is thinking about franchising.”

Stefan nodded vigorously. “Franchising. Yes. Subway is franchise.”

Bob tried to place the accent. Eastern European?

Sheila shrugged. “God knows what it’s all about. But we could do with some help around here. Stefan, do you have a CV?”

“Of course.” Stefan bent over and took a neat folder out of his backpack and passed it to Sheila.

She flicked through it. “Has the Vice Chancellor seen this, Stefan?”

He shook his head. “No. He said no need. Could see my special skills.”

Sheila rolled her eyes. “OK. Did he give you a contract or anything?”

“No, not yet. He said you would sort out.”

“OK. How about a job title? And when did he say you could start?”

“Special Project Assistant. Grade 6. Now.”

Sheila wasn’t sure whether Stefan was a man of few words, or whether his English was limited, or whether he was just feeling out of his depth. Or all three. His CV was actually pretty impressive, if the translation was accurate. First degree in economics from the University of Warsaw, classification A1* – she presumed that was good. Masters in enterprise development, worked as a management consultant to small companies for ten years after graduation. Then it looked as though he’d come to the UK in 2009, and then things got a bit less graduate-like. Waiter, Assistant manager at a series of fast food places, followed by nine months at the local Subway. Not very relevant to a university.

She sighed. What was Bill playing at? She wouldn’t be able to talk to him today, if they were interviewing for Alan’s replacement.

Stefan was looking at her expectantly. She passed the CV over to Bob.

“Stefan. We’ll need to sort out a proper contract for you. And take up some references. There will be a probationary period of, er, three months. During that time, you’ll be working for Bob and me helping us out with our big project, and then we’ll see about this special, er, franchising project. How does that sound?”

Stefan shrugged his shoulders. “Sounds fine. I can start now.”

Sheila looked round the office. “Well, as you can see, we don’t have very much space at the moment. And you’ll need a contract, or you won’t be covered by our insurance. And I’ll need you to sign a confidentiality agreement. So it does need a bit of organisation. Is this contact information current?”

Stefan nodded.

“OK, I’ll get in touch with you tomorrow, with a view to you starting next week. How’s that?”

Stefan shrugged again. “OK.”

“I’ll need to see all of your qualification certificates, and your passport,” she continued.

Stefan took another folder from his rucksack. “All here.”

“Great,” said Sheila. “I’ll just go and copy these, that’ll be one less thing to sort out.”

She took the folder and stood up. “I’ll be about ten minutes. The copier’s on the first floor. Perhaps Bob will make you another coffee while you’re waiting.”

Stefan shook his head. “No thanks.”

Sheila left the office. There was a silence. Bob thought he’d better say something. “So, Stefan. How did you meet the Vice Chancellor?”

“Vice Chancellor?”

“Professor Noakes. The man who brought you down here.”

“Oh, Mester Noakes. He come in for Subs often. We chat sometimes. The other week, I tell him we are closing, and he says he has job for me. So I am here. ”

Bob wasn’t sure what to say. “What do you know about Burston Central University?”

Stefan shrugged. “Not so much. Big university. Many students. Not so good as other one maybe? Less money?”

Bob smiled. “Something like that. Here’s a prospectus.” He passed one over.

“Did you have a specialism when you were a management consultant?” Bob asked.

“Lot of general help for small businesses. Lot of small manufacturers supplying multinationals. Cultural context, western-style costing, accounting. And all that health and safety, ethical business, human resources. You know.”

Bob nodded at him. “Sounds interesting. Do you miss it?”

Stefan shrugged yet again. “Yes, a little. But it’s OK here. Different. “

Bob gave up. “I’m sure you’ll find this project very interesting, given your background. Sure you don’t want another coffee?”

Stefan shook his head. “Is there anything I can do before next week? I like to be busy.”

“I don’t think so. It’s a rather confidential project. I know it doesn’t look like much at the moment.” They both looked rather gloomily round the office.

Sheila came back in. she handed Stefan back his folder of qualifications. “That’s great, Stefan. Impressive qualifications. I’m sure we’re going to enjoy working with you.”

She looked meaningfully at Bob. He stood up. “Yes, just leave us to sort out the paperwork, Stefan, and we’ll look forward to seeing you next week.”

Stefan took the hint. He shook their hands and squeezed past them into the corridor. “I’ll see you to the main entrance.” Bob said. “It’s a bit of a rabbit warren down here.”

Sheila shut the door behind them and sat back down at her desk. There were times when she wondered if the Vice Chancellor was just having a huge joke at their expense. Or someone else’s expense.  She sighed and added Stefan to her ‘to-do’ list. Bill hadn’t told anyone in HR about their project yet, so she couldn’t sort it out with them. She’d have to put Stefan on a consultancy contract to start with. Well, that would cover the probationary period. By then, the company would be incorporated and they’d be able to issue their own contracts. She wondered if Bill had the slightest idea about the nuts and bolts of running a business.

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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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.

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