The Registrar's Diary by Adam Upwrite

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Disorientation week

The purpose of this negative brainstorming session is to come up with suggestions of really bad policies and practices that we should definitely not do as a way to stimulate out-of-the-box thinking about new initiatives.
Our first topic is on ideas for helping our Freshers settle in during induction week. So any suggestions? Don't hold back! The wackier the better. Shout them out and I'll write them up on the interactive white board.
"Disorientation week". Like it could you elaborate...how would you disorient them. "Campus maps with buildings missing" excellent! "Long pointless queues for registration that could be done on line" good one. "Completely ineffective and annoying student management software" yes very nice - I'll write that next to the queues. "Wheel clamping parents cars when they are dropping stuff off" yes that will give them an excellent start. "Giving out information about induction events only after they have missed them" yes very good. "Getting the local police to give a briefing about avoiding violent crime and robbery that scares them so much they think they have moved to a war zone" yes very graphic. "Get some student guides, but choose the most introverted, disillusioned and ill informed ones to show new students around" Like it!
Any more? Professor Tikemov you are looking very worried..
Yes. I was just thinking that this is meant to be a brain storming session to come up with bad ideas. But we already do all of these things!

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Selecting for success

The Senior management team sat glumly around the oval oak table in one of the highest towers of Funcaster's Victorian Main Building. The windows gave a panoramic view of the rain swept former industrial city.

"Mr President" was looking an gloomy as the weather.

As you know we have once again done disastrously in the newspaper league tables of universities. The ignominy of being battered in to 80th position by the University of Barnstaple. While our neighboring "Funcaster City University" rides high on some spectacular results. I want some positive ideas and I want them now or we may as well cast ourselves from the Victorian parapet and be done with it.

Professor Knowles is straight in: As I see it vice chancellor our two biggest problems are these columns: "graduate employability" and "student satisfaction"

THANK YOU PROFESSOR KNOWLES! Shouts the President in a rage. I will have to change your title to Vice President for the Bleeding Obvious!

If you will let me continue Mr President? We are looking at the problem the wrong way. For years we have been bending over backwards to give them better teaching and feedback, and our careers service has been virtually begging FTSE100 companies to take our graduates. These have plainly had no effect. What we need to do is to change the input not the output!

The Senior Management Team look first dumbfounded and then begin to warm to the idea

You see we have students with a culture of complaining, indeed we have a whole city whose most positive outlook is that things are mildly bad. The weather, the buses, they are never satisfied. So ask the questions like "Are you satisfied with..." and the answer is obviously going to stray towards "No" whatever the question.

So here is what we do, we use a screening test, like a personality profile, at the interview. Only give offers to those students who on the whole have a tendency toward being satisfied.

Prof Banks is cottoning on and gets excited. Yes yes. We could give them a decidedly mediocre lunch (we probably already do that) then we could ask them what they thought of it at the interview. Those who manage to put a positive spin on something barely edible get an offer!

And we could do the same for employability. Instead of selecting on academic ability we could select on employability from the outset. We could use the same bank of psychometric tests and interview techniques big companies use in their graduate recruitment. We will only take students who are going to look good when they apply for these jobs. That way our "employability" will shoot through the roof.

Thank you professors Banks and Knowles. Excellent suggestions I think there is hope after all. Snedders, draft a confidential policy document and make sure the departments implement it before the next round of interviews start!

Saturday, 20 December 2008

RAE of sunshine?

Just gone midnight on the day the Research Assessment Exercise results are announced. "Mr President" and I are at work huddled around a computer waiting for the press releases to roll out on the web site along with a video recording of our esteemed leader congratulating the staff for their hard work.
Triumphal music played accompanied by sweeping shots of our old buildings (carefully angled not to show the ugly 1960s buildings), jauntily lit stills of beautiful female science students looking at exciting hi-tech apparatus from strange angles, before fading in to a shot of the Vice Chancellor with a back drop of oak panels and leather bound books "Fellow academics I would like to congratulate you all on the hard work that you put in preparing the RAE submission and above above all in contributing to the innovative and World Leading research effort here at Funcaster. I can say categorically that on the weighted aggregated and normalized score over multiple units of assessment we can safely say that we have put clear water between us and our nearest rivals. Our ambitious 2020 vision of Funcaster as a World Leading research intensive university is clearly on course with over half of the outputs submitted to the exercise judged to be of at least international standing...."
Well done Vice Chancellor. How did you manage to prepare the video at such short notice, we only just got the results?
Oh I had it made ages ago...
But Vice Chancellor last week you told me you had no idea how well we had done.
I didn't Snedders. I made two videos. The other was my resignation speech!
But what about the figures you quoted?
Well it all depends on the words "weighting" and "normalized". Choose the right fudge factors and you can come up with a league table that says pretty much what you want.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Frozen pay rise

Sneddling! Do we have the funds to pay the 5% cost of living salary increase we already agreed to? Actually I am not sure we do Vice Chancellor. When we agreed to it we had no idea the cost of living would go up so much. Otherwise we would not have linked it to the retail prices index. But you are the Registrar! If you don't know how much cash we have who does? Well you see, vice chancellor, we had set the cash aside for this year's pay rise. And as a bit of a hedge against inflation put it in a high interest bank account. You don't mean...? Yes Vice Chancellor. We deposited it in the now defunct Gríslingur Banki in Iceland and the money is frozen. But what are we going to do Sneddling! Well Vice Chancellor I have been talking to both the Icelandic Embassy and the Treasury and they have have come up with some fairly creative options. Go on... Well at first they offered us a part share in Magnus Magnuson's book royalties. His last book before he died Fakers, Forgers and Phoneys: Famous Scams and Scamps has been doing quite well recently. But I don't suppose that will pay our bills? Well they also suggested that we pay our our salary increase in frozen cod ....and vouchers valid at their geothermal spar resorts should any of our staff want to visit Iceland.

Monday, 22 September 2008

HeadCamp: managment training for academic leaders

Snedders! What is going on with that new initiative I started to train our future heads of department in effective modern management practices?
Ah yes vice chancellor, HeadCamp, we have been doing that in conjunction with the Higher Education Leadership Foundation. It is very popular.
It may be popular Sneddling but it sounds to me like it has turned in to a popular rebellion. I had Albert Ross, the Head of Financial Strategy and Strategic Procurement, in here yesterday. He went to give a talk to the HeadCamp course on the importance of strict financial procedures and they savaged him. He has had to go on sick leave with stress related illness!
Well Vice Chancellor, as you remember he did preside over some IT procurement disasters that would put the National Health Service to shame. You do remember the on line calendar software fiasco? That cost us so much we could have paid for a secretary to follow all our senior staff around with a filofax and a mobile phone to make their appointments for the next three years. And there was the timetabling software?
Never mind that Smedling, what about this list of project titles I have been given from HeadCamp students? I am meant to go and listen to their presentations and shake their hands politely, but looks at them: "How to performance manage your vice chancellor and deans", "Circumventing university bureaucracy to get the job done", "Ten secrets of the master cat herders: a study of succesful academic department heads", "Great to Good: the failure of leadership at Funcaster", "The autonomy of the professoriat as a key performance indicator, a study of globally successful universities", "Sun Tzo's 'The Art of War' and choosing your battles with your dean". It sounds to me more like "Head Case" than "Head Camp". I conceived this course as a kind of mini-MBA to instil management values in to our senior academics. Instead it has turned in to a kind of terrorist training camp for rebellious academics fermenting revolution!
That is putting it a bit strongly Sir, after all modern leadership and management training is meant to encourage "thinking outside the box".
OUTSIDE THE BOX SNODDLING! These people are so far our of the box they are way beyond the ball park in the meadow painting daisies on their faces and sitting in circles singing and playing guitars.
You seem to be mixing your metaphors Vice Chancellor. Are you saying they are more like Al-Quaida or Greenaham Women?
Both Snodders! Like a dangerous insidious mixture of guardian-reading gun-totting bomb-throwing bearded hippy revolutionaries. Why can't they just get themselves some sharp suits and a blackberry and fall in to line?
But they are academics vice chancellor. We pay them to think.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Nano no-nos

Vice Chancellor: As you know gentlemen the government has launched a new initiative in nano-technology, which one of my fellow vice chancellors has dubbed "mega-bucks for nano-metres". So, I asked our Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Business Development, Professor Robin Banks, to develop a strategic plan to exploit this opportunity. Professor Banks has conducted a skills audit throughout the university and canvased the opinions of some of our leading academics. Professor Banks...
Pro-Vice Chancellor: Thankyou Vice-Chancellor. As you indicated I have made fact-finding visits to a number of research groups and my first visit was to the world-leading "non-linear optics" group of Professor Len Scleaner. My initial impression that they were enthusiastic and told me about some of the innovative wave shaping techniques they are using to develop wave guides for optronic devices. They are making materials with negative refractive indicies apparently.
At this point a distant memory of "O"-level physics kicks in as I struggle to remember the definition of refractive index. I wonder if I should make a fool of myself by asking the obvious question? Nothing to lose I suppose the academics generally treat me like a fool anyway.
Registrar:Professor Banks I was just wondering if negative refractive index means that light somehow goes backwards out of the medium?
PVC:Well actually that is a good question! I am sure they did explain it, and suffice it to say that it was all very complicated and technical, as your would expect from advanced research. They have proposed a project which they dubbed Funcaster University Centre for Kinetic Krypton Nano Optical Wave Shaping. Sounds like just the thing!
VC:Very good, what did the other departments offer?
PVC:Well Vice Chancellor, the Mathematics Department were less cooperative.
As he spoke I saw him dust some chalk off his sleeve disdainfully. I make a mental note to check with the audio-visual unit to see if the Mathemafia have smuggled blackboards and chalk back in to their building.
PVC:I noticed that they specialized in something called Micro-local analysis.
VC:And what does that involve?
PVC:Well Professor Tikemov explained to me that it involved something called "cymbal calculus on the cotangled byundle" but to be honest I am none the wiser. When I asked if he could explain it simply he started explaining something called "vile quantisation" but I'm not sure what he had against "quantisation". Anyway I wondered if micro-local analysis might conceivably be re-branded as nano-local analysis.
VC:And what did they think?
PVC:They called me a "nano-brained nit-wit" Vice Chancellor.
(Sounds to me like they just about got the measure of him. Oops I hope I didn't say that out loud)
VC:Well at least we can count on the Physicists to be helpful. Typical of those mathematicians. Who else did you talk to?
PVC:Well the x-ray physicists have a kind of x-ray scanner that can go down to a tenth of a micrometre. They wondered if they could get away with calling it "nano-tomography" even though it can only resolve a hundred nanometres.
VC:Well the more nanometers the better, I say! That sounds very positive. Anything else?
PVC:Well an unusual one Vice Chancellor. The Fine Art Department wanted to make the world smallest sculpture using the latest nano-fabrication techniques. They said something about "Angels dancing on the end of a carbon nano-tube"
VC:Sounds very innovative. Have to make sure they talk up the technological aspect. Can't have it look like they are doing art for art's sake! Right. Sounds to me like we have a front runner with those optics boys. Now what we need is a really snappy acronym.

Monday, 9 June 2008

No Associate Professors please, we're British.

From now on, Smethers, we will use American names!
Like "Chuck" and "Dwain" Vice Chancellor?
No, no Smeders, like "Assistant Professor" and "Associate Professor" for a start instead of Lecturer and Reader. Using the US nomenclature will give us an edge in the global educational marketplace.
But Vice Chancellor, every tenured academic from our senor lecturer upwards would actually called a full professor in the US. It would be a demotion for our Readers.
Well there have to be some sacrifices in the name of progress! And the Departments, we will call them Schools. The Business Studies Department has always fancied itself as "Funcaster Business School", like at Harvard. Terms will be termed "quarters" and the academic staff will be referred to as "the Faculty".
And you Vice Chancellor, will you change your title?
The VC puffed out his chest and rose to his full height.
I shall be addressed as "Mister President"!
I make a mental note to check discretely with his secretary, to see if he has taken his medication today.

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Adam Upwrite is Professor of Creative Accounting at the University of Middle England. His Registrar's Diary is about a fictional registrar and an equally fictional English university.