On the eleventh day of Christmas

On the eleventh day of Christmas
my VC sent to me:
Eleven TEF Measures
Ten new professors
Nine Heads of Service
Eight interventions
Seven Senior Staff
Six Student Surveys
Five REF Stars
Four Closing Calls
Three French Exchanges
Two DVCs
And restructure of the university

Shannon looked up. It was completely dark around her, apart from the light from her screens, which was enough to illuminate the keyboard. There was no light coming through the office door. Behind her, the orange glow from the streetlights of Burston was weak and sickly. The council was using some kind of energy-saving system whereby they dimmed progressively until about 10pm, when they went out altogether.

It was dark, and almost completely silent. Occasionally, a bus went past outside, resulting in a slight rumble up here on the eighth floor, but within the building, there was nothing. No lifts, no photocopiers, no foot traffic in the corridor. Shannon shivered slightly. She really needed to go home.

For a minute, she contemplated packing up her laptop and finishing the job at home, with a glass of wine, but she knew she would probably just fall asleep on the sofa. And the big screen made it easier to have government documents open at the same time as her report. No. One last push here.

It was a ridiculous rush, anyway. She knew perfectly well that nobody would look at her report until just before the consultation closed in January. The VC was deluding himself if he thought he was going to use it to plan staffing for his new Teaching Hubs. Everyone knew that staffing would be organised in exactly the same way that children picked teams in playgrounds. The biggest hitters would take turns to choose the best researchers until their teams were full, and everyone left after that would be allocated to the teaching hubs according to their subject area. The miniscule number of cross-disciplinary teachers would pick their own hubs, probably according to who was the Hub Leader, and the job would be done. There was no way that the Teaching Excellence Framework would influence the process.

She was getting too cynical. She really needed to get another job.

Shannon sighed, and forced herself to look back at the screen.

Teaching Excellence Framework

Paper for Executive: Ten ways Burston Central University can prepare

She deleted the word ‘Ten’ and replaced it with ‘Eleven’. Another measure was on the list. The TimesHigher had splashed all over an ‘exclusive’ pre-report from the Higher Education Academy about the UK Engagement Survey. With the buzz phrase of learning gain liberally spattered all over it, she was pretty sure it was going to loom large in the final version of the Teaching Excellence Framework at least if the report was accurate in its prediction: ‘THE understands that ministers are interested in looking at the results for later stages of the TEF‘.

She scanned the magazine report again. It didn’t seem to say when the full report would be published. She’d have to use what she could for her own report. But it was very confusing. Was the study about engagement, or outcomes? Academic assessment of skills, or self-assessment of skills? How did it fit in with the latest CBI report saying that students weren’t ‘job-ready’?

“particularly in STEM subjects, students are not rating themselves highly in terms of developing soft skills”. Shannon pasted this quote into her document, and then typed: ‘One thing that course teams could consider is finding ways to highlight to students that they have developed particular soft skills. We could try some of the techniques used to point out to students that they are currently getting feedback.’feedback

She read on. Was this survey intended to replace the NSS?  ‘“You could be happy and not learn much,” the chair of the survey steering group had said, “You could be engaged and not learn much, but it’s less likely.”’ Shannon wondered if there was any evidence for this statement. How much less likely was it? Wasn’t ‘how much was learned’ exactly what academic staff were assessing? Wasn’t that the most important thing? She sighed again. How the hell could she produce a policy paper from this? She gritted her teeth and carried on. ‘If student engagement is going to be so critical, we need to put measures in place to….‘ she hit the backspace key, ‘to put systems in place to measure engagement. The proposed attendance monitoring system will do this from September 2016.’

Right. That was all eleven aspects with a proposal against them. Time to go home. She saved the document and shared it in an email to the VC. Over to him.


Damage Limitation

Justin Marks may have unwittingly publicised his university’s involvement with ‘The Blob’. He is waiting for the VC’s rage to descend upon him.

Justin picked up the phone and dialled his PA’s number. He heard it ringing in the next office, but she didn’t answer. His lip curled. Nobody there. Just when he needed help. He scribbled a note on a Post-it and walked to the door. He usually left it open, to encourage staff to come to him with interesting stories and so on. That had never happened, but he felt it was an important signal of his approachability.

He put his head gingerly out into the corridor and looked each way. No sign of anyone. He scurried out of his own office and into Paula’s. The door was unlocked; she couldn’t be far away. Probably at the multi-function device. He stuck the Post-it onto her keyboard and returned to his office as discreetly as he could. He shut the door firmly behind him, and quietly turned the lock.

He managed to pull the offending story from the University website. Luckily, his daily email digest didn’t go out till midday – carefully timed for people to enjoy over lunch – so he was able to edit it, although it looked a bit thin today without his star story. He checked that his phone was diverted to Paula’s. There wasn’t anything else he could do. He sat chewing his nails and Googling ‘constructive dismissal’ on his phone. Not using the University wi-fi, though.

The long morning wore on. Justin jumped every time the phone rang in his PA’s office, next to him, but his own phone stayed silent. At around 11.30, the phone rang again, and he heard Paula get up and walk round to his door. He froze. She knocked twice, then tried the door handle. She went back to her office, said something, and put the phone down.  He tried to remember whether she had a key to his office. Probably not. But maybe.

The panic he’d felt when she came to the door had shaken him. It would look ridiculous if he was found skulking in a locked office. It was only a job. And he was bursting for the loo. How could he get out of there with dignity? If he could hear Paula, she could hear him. He’d have to wait till she went somewhere, and then pretend to come back in while she was out. He smiled. Problem solved. He crossed his legs and opened up an important looking document on his computer. Just in case she did have a key.

He sat listening. Surely Paula would need to go to the loo at some point? Time dragged. He wished he hadn’t thought about the loo. He tried to think about something else. Not The Blob, though. He never wanted to hear from the Department of Education again. He wondered if they all wore sandals and socks.

Eventually, he heard Paula’s chair being moved back and she walked across the room. She came out into the corridor, knocked again at his door, then continued down the corridor in the direction of the Ladies loo. He thanked God, or the architect, for having placed the Ladies and the Gents loos at opposite ends of the buildings, however inconvenient it actually was when one found oneself at the wrong end. He crept up to the door, unlocked it, and opened it very cautiously. He looked to the right. Paula was just disappearing out of sight. Phew. He hurried out of his office without looking to the left.

His way was barred.

“Justin! Found you at last!”

Justin’s heart sank.

“Thought I’d better come down here myself,” continued the Vice Chancellor, “as you seem to be rather elusive this morning.”

The jovial tone of the earlier meeting was gone, replaced by a steely threat.

Justin summoned up all of his courage. “Um. Just on my way to answer a call of nature, Vice Chancellor. Sorry, did you want to speak to me urgently?”

“I did. I think we have a very serious problem on our hands, Justin.”

“Could I just, er, pop to the loo, Vice Chancellor? So I can concentrate properly? Haha.”

Calculating that the VC couldn’t possibly deny this request, he ducked past Bill and sped off down the corridor as fast as he could manage without actually running.

“Shouldn’t leave it till the last minute, young man!” boomed the VC’s voice. “I’ll wait in your office.”

Justin waved an arm behind him without looking back.

Once inside the Gents, he leaned against the wall and tried to stop himself shaking. “Deep breaths.” he said to himself. “It’s only a job. He TOLD you to make maximum press use of any research. He TOLD you not to go checking everything with him, that you were paid enough to make decisions on your own. Nobody’s died.”

That thought sobered him up. Maybe someone had died. He hoped not. That was one of the worst parts of his job, actually, co-ordinating response when a student or a member of staff had, um, departed unexpectedly.  In fact, he reminded himself, Bill couldn’t possibly know about The Blob unless he’d read a newspaper online, the chances of which were vanishingly small, according to his reasoning of only two hours previously.

Still trembling, he unzipped and stood in front of the urinal. He couldn’t help flinching in anticipation of Bill bursting through the door to see why he was taking so long.

The door did open, but in a normal way. It was just one of the guys from the marketing office. Justin nodded at him and zipped up. Hopefully the VC wouldn’t stay long, and he’d be able to come back.

He hurried back down the corridor, still desperate to pee, and now worried about what documents the VC might find on his logged-in computer. By the time he got back to the office, he was trembling again. He stopped outside the door and took a deep breath, then forced a big smile. “Vice Chancellor. Sorry about that, got waylaid.”

Bill was not sitting, as Justin had feared, behind the desk, but in one of the visitor’s chairs. To Justin’s surprise, he didn’t look angry. In fact, he looked almost worried.

“Right, Justin, I’ll get straight to the point. We’ve got a big problem.”

“If it’s about the Blob, Vice Chancellor…”

Bill looked at him as though he was mad. “The Blob? What the hell are you on about?” Justin felt his shoulders slump in relief. Clearly the VC had forgotten his earlier amusement about other universities having Marxist educators.

“I’ve had an email from the Times Higher. It’s their annual VC salary humiliation this week, and they want to know why my salary is one of the five highest. I need a good answer.”

Justin wasn’t sure what to say. He plumped for the obsequious. “I’m sure you’re worth every penny, Vice Chancellor.”

Bill looked at him scathingly. “I’m sure that’s not in dispute within the university, young man. But I need a well crafted response.  Here’s what they sent me.” He passed over the printout of an email from Jack Grove. Justin skimmed over it, wincing slightly. ‘…Burston Central in the bottom five of the THES ratings… doesn’t your performance actually merit being the bottom five for pay…why did you get a bonus last year…how could your 20% increase in pension contributions be explained…twice the pay of the Prime Minister…’

Justin gave a big sigh, partly of relief. Barraclough was never going to see the light of day. His brain switched to information management mode. He looked up. “OK, Vice Chancellor. Now, obviously I’m not party to the Governors’ decision-making on pay, but we could do with one or two quotes from their committee minutes to explain their thinking on your value. Also, the whole Prime Minister comparison is spurious  – for one you aren’t a politician responsible to voters, haha, and for another, this isn’t technically a public body. So we can dismiss that. Do I have your permission to see the relevant minutes of the Remuneration Committee?”

Bill nodded. He actually looked quite worried. Justin tried to stop himself grinning. That wasn’t appropriate.

“OK, leave it with me.” He leaned forward over his desk, trying to look reassuring. Should he pat the VC on the arm? Maybe not.

Bill still sat there.

Justin stood up. “I’ll get on to it right away, Vice Chancellor.” He went and opened the door.

Bill took the hint.

As soon as he had gone, Justin sprinted back to the loos. Now that the imminent danger posed by his apparent support of The Blob has passed, he felt a lot better. In fact, he could see some definite possibilities in this situation.

On his way back, he put his head round Paula’s door. “There you are, Justin, where…”

He interrupted her before she could lecture him on the morning’s apparent absence. “Urgent job, Paula. Phone the clerk to the governors and ask her for the minutes of the remuneration committee for the last, er, four years. Tell her Bill said it was ok.”

Paula stared at him. They never had urgent jobs in Campus Communications.

“Is that a problem, Paula?”

“Oh, no. Of course not. I was just…” she tailed off. “I’ll get right on to it.”

Justin went back to his office. What a difference a couple of hours could make. He was sure ‘Campus Communications’ needed a Director, rather than a mere Head, and this was going to prove 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 Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email, too: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.

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

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

The Union Meeting, part 1

Martin stood on the platform, hunched into his scarf, hat pulled down over his ears and hands stuffed hard into his pockets, His vintage leather jacket wasn’t enough to keep the freezing wind out and he’d forgotten his gloves.

The train was late. As it finally arrived into the station, there was a surge forward. Martin hadn’t been standing in quite the right place on the platform. He found himself at the back of the group trying to board the middle carriage.

There were never any seats at this station anyway. He consoled himself slightly with the thought that being last on meant that he would have the doors to lean on, rather than having to try to stay upright in the crush of people in between the doors, out of reach of anything to hang on to. God, he hated the train.

Trouble was, he lived too close to work. If he was further away, he’d get a seat. He’d seriously considered getting a train in the opposite direction, then boarding his train into the city from a station where seats were still available. But it would have tripled the cost and doubled the time.

So twenty-five minutes like a sardine it was, not counting the time on the freezing platform, and five minutes walk from station to office.

He wished he could still drive in. Twenty minutes door to door. It wasn’t really the time it took. It was the discomfort. The drive had been his thinking time. But he was going to stick to the boycott.

He tried to ignore the noise and jostling around him. He needed to prepare himself for the meeting later that day. Get his main points in order. He only had one chance to win people over.

Chris knocked on Carol’s door.


Carol didn’t look up. “I’ll just press send.” She pressed a couple of buttons and switched the computer to screensaver mode. “OK. Let’s go.”

She took her coat from the hook behind the door.

“Aren’t you going to shut the computer down? Green Impact and all that?”

Carol looked hard at him. “You know how long these old ones take to boot up again. I’ll take the stairs instead of the lift, will that do?”

Chris smirked. “Just pointing it out.”

They both laughed.

Carol looked guilty. “We shouldn’t make fun. It is important.”

“I know, but Hazel takes it so seriously. I can’t help myself.”

They left the building and crossed the park to the Art building.

“OK. We’re just going to listen. See what they have to say.” Chris sounded as though he was trying to convince himself.

“I feel really nervous. Why is that? We’re members. We can go to any meeting we like.”

They found the right room and went in. A few people were already sitting around a table in the centre of the room. Chris and Carol nodded at them and chose seats in a second row which was arranged around the main table. The people who were already in the inner circle glanced at each other, but didn’t say anything.

Chris looked at Carol and raised an eyebrow. “Very welcoming” he mouthed at her.

A couple more people came in and sat at the main table. Nobody said anything. Chris leaned over to Carol. “The suspense is killing me.” he whispered.

A couple of people in front of them turned their heads at the sound. Chris looked back at them and smiled broadly. They turned back.

Finally, one of the people at the table looked ostentatiously at his watch and cleared his throat. “Brothers and sisters, let’s make a start. Suki can’t be here today, so I’m taking the chair.”

There was a shuffling of papers.

He looked at Carol and Chris. “Welcome to our new,er, members.” Everyone turned to stare. They waved gently.

“Not so new, actually” said Chris. “I’ve been a member for twenty years.”

“Well, welcome to the meeting. I don’t think we’ve seen you before. I’m Martin Shepherd, Branch Deputy Chair.”

“Hello.” Chris waved gently again.

Martin continued. “We’ve got a lot to get through. Any apologies?”

A small woman next to him was taking notes. “No.”

“OK, thanks, Holly. Right, minutes of last meeting. How’s the boycott going?”

Holly picked a sheet from the file in front of her. “We’ve been monitoring the car park a couple of times a week. At 10am Tuesday, there were no empty places. 10am Friday, 3 places. 10 am the following Monday, 5 places.”

A man to her left spoke up. “Doesn’t sound as though we’re doing too well. Is anyone…”

Martin interrupted him. “Remember, with the new car park policy there shouldn’t be ANY spare places. I think we’re getting through to people.”

Chris cleared his throat. “Sorry, I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

Martin stared incredulously at him. “I thought you said you were a union member?”

“Well, yes, but….” Chris tailed off. He almost never read the numerous hectoring emails the branch sent round. But it seemed rude to admit it.

Martin spoke very slowly. “Union members should be boycotting the university car park since charges were implemented.”

“Oh, I always get the bus anyway,” Chris said “That’s probably why I didn’t make the connection. Sorry. Do carry on.”

“Most kind of you.”

Chris beamed in response to Martin’s sarcastic tone. Carol elbowed him.

“Right, brothers. And sisters. We need to get the information about the boycott out a bit further.”

“I guess it’s not always that easy for people. Some people have to drop their kids off on the way to work, or whatever.” Holly offered this, and then looked back down at her notes.

Martin shook his head. “We need to have solidarity, brothers and sisters. We have to be prepared for a bit of inconvenience. Think about the bus boycott in Alabama after Rosa Parks took her stand.”

There were murmurs of assent. Chris seemed to be having a coughing fit. Carol elbowed him again.

Martin looked hard at them, then continued. “OK, so we’ll have another push on the boycott. Right, item 2. I’m going to hand over to Holly for this one, as it concerns me.”

Continued here…

What are your union meetings like? Do leave a comment…

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

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

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