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.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Lexicographic satisfaction

Look at these subject rankings from "The Good University Guide" Smethers. They are appalling! In half these subjects we are ranked worse than Funcaster City University."
The vice chancellor almost spat out the name of the former polytechnic.
"Oh I don't know Vice Chancellor, we are not doing so badly in Accounting and Finance, and look here at Biology, and Chemistry as well. "
"But look at this, Snethers, for Sociology we are right at the bottom just below the University of Barnstaple. I didn't even know they had a university in Barnstaple. How can it be? Our research rating and UCAS points are much better than these places. I need an explanation Snedders!"
"Well, Vice Chancellor, it seems to me that difference is mainly in the student satisfaction survey. It is where we loose out. I have been looking in to this and I think I have found the explanation."
"Well Smether out with it!"
I open my brief case and pull out a file of graphs printed in bold primary colours I had prepared in anticipation of this meeting.
"As you see Vice Chancellor there is a wide variation in our "student satisfaction survey" results ranging from "really quite happy" to "monumentally unhappy" and even some threatening legal action. And this varies with subject."
"Well we must analyze what the the best departments are doing and then instigate a staff development and training programme to disseminate best practice..."
"Actually Vice Chancellor", I interrupt, "I think it it much simpler than that if you will allow me to continue?"
"Go on then Smeddling.."
"Well I plotted the student satisfaction scores against various other key performance indicators, staff to student ratio, spend per student, value added, employment prospects, but I didn't find any significant correlation until I came to this one"
"That seems to be nearly a straight line, Snethers, but what is on the horizontal axis?"
"I just sorted them alphabetically Vice Chancellor"
"You mean to tell me that student satisfaction depends only on the name of the subject! Are you telling me that if we changed the subject, like 'Sociology' to 'Applied Sociology" or Psychology to 'Clinical Psychology' they would do better?"
"Well yes, they would improve relative to the others. Veterinary Science is doing especially badly. Perhaps they could specialize in Aardvark Studies?""
"Don't be facetious Snithling! What is the underlying cause?"
"Well, Vice Chancellor, it did take me a while to unearth the underlying cause of the lexicographically correlated satisfaction. It comes down to timetabling. Do you remember how we used to do the tome tabling?"
"Yes Snoddlers, there was that woman with the horn-rimmed glasses used to do it. What was her name...?"
"Her name was Mrs Tibbling, Vice Chancellor, and she used to do a remarkably good job. She really was very clever."
"So what became of her?"
"Well, Vice Chancellor, she took advantage of your very generous, Financial Inducement for Voluntary Early Retirement and Severance scheme. You approved her application yourself. She took her two-years-salary-in-advance and emigrated to Rotorua in New Zealand. She sent you a post card of the thermal springs if you remember."
So remind me. How do we do the timetabling now?
"Well our software procurement team recommended that we purchase a license for a program called "TimetableWizard". They assured us it would do the job. Mrs Tibbling had left detailed notes of all the constraints she used, you know that the film studies lectures need a big screen, the sociology students need rooms where they can break up in to small groups and discuss things, the maths lectures asked for blackboards (now superseded of course by clean modern electronic boards!). So we fed these in to the TimetableWizard and waited for him to wave his magic wand"
"So what happened?"
"Well it first said that there was no solution. So we relaxed the constraints a bit and eventually we got a timetable just in time for the new term. The problem was that the software works through each of the subjects in alphabetical order. So Accounting get all their lectures close together and clustered neatly together, by the time you get to Maths in the middle of the alphabet the students are mildly inconveniences with lectures right at the beginning and end of the day. By Sociology the students have to rollerblade around campus and have lectures at 9 and 5 four days a week, and by the time you get to Veterinary Science they were dashing from one side of campus to the other like the proverbial Calliphora vomitoria."
The Vice Chancellor looked at me quizzically. "Blue-bottomed fly, Vice Chancellor".
"Could we get Mrs Tiddling back?"
"No Vice Chancellor, don't you remember the FIVERS scheme specifically bared the former employee from working for this University for ten years?"

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Educational jargon - a bad dream

"Fellow members of the University I hope you will all join me in welcoming Professor Will Knowless our new Vice President of Teaching and Learning who will address us on the topic of the new teaching reform agenda as an implementation of Funcaster's 2020 vision."
"Thank you Vice Chancellor. Iconic institutions such as Funcaster are strategic agents not only in the advancement of knowledge, discovery and innovation, but also more broadly in envisioning the cultural enhancement and facilitating a step change in the quality of public life in the real-world communities they serve.
Our purpose in this reform agenda is that by utilizing global learning styles we will be enabled to embrace student-centered competencies and by disaggregation of bottom-up learning technology strategies to innovate proactive learning styles. Only then will we be able to disseminate best practice in the deployment of over-arching curriculum reform and competency-based scaffolding.
The implementation of this paradigm shift in creative learning environments involves the provision of inter-locking processes of strategic and operational planning, budgeting, implementation, performance review and accountability to stakeholders...."
My perception of the speech drifts into hypnogogic confusion then I wake with a start, but I am not in the Victorian mock classical assembly chamber of the University of Funcaster, but in a vast underground chamber strangely furnished with elegant antique furniture. One wall seems to be made of glass and I can see shadowy shapes of menacing sea creatures illuminated by a dull green light. Across a dinner table set with a silver tableware sits the Vice president for Teaching and Learning. But not quite as I remember him. His eyes seem like dead black hollows, and in place of hands he has mechanical crab-like claws of stainless steel.
"So you see Mister Bond, I am accustomed to getting whatever I want and my ultimate goal is the acquisition of power. power over my destiny and those of others, my teaching reform agenda, disguised in its educational jargon, is simply a rouse to disguise my true ambitions from my feeble minded minions at Funcaster."
"This is madness, Know, you are just a maniac..." I retort angrily
"You are right, Mister Bond. That is just what I am, a maniac. All the greatest men are maniacs. They are possessed by a mania which drives them forwards towards their goal. The great scientists, the philosophers, the religious leaders - all maniacs. But very soon all the academic staff at Funcaster will be under my control. I have mesmerized them with meaningless jargon and bound them with pointless 'learning objectives' and 'performance metrics' and they will bend to my will! Any resistance will be futile as my elaborate bureaucratic procedures will crush any dissent.."

"Never" I shout grabbing a silver candle stick and striking towards Know's head. His claw reaches up swiftly and grabs the candle stick in its deathly grip as the other claw reaches for my throat. A guard in black appears and a shot rings out but it misses and smashes in to the glass wall. Water gushes through the cracks and I struggle with Know as we are engulfed by cold green water."
The rushing sound of water changes around me to applause and I wake up to find my self back in the assembly chamber. Neo-classical statues look down from alcoves in the walls. Truth and Prudence are embodied as rather stern but scantily dressed women, and they seem to be looking dissaprovingly in the direction of Professor Knowless.
(with apologies to Ian Flemming, near the centenary of his birth)

Thursday, 13 March 2008


"I learning, Snedders!"
"You are learning what, Vice Chancellor?"
"No no no Smedlers, i-learning, like i-pod and i-tunes. Electronic learning using computers."
"What does that entail, Vice Chancellor?"
"Well we have invested in the latest i-learning package "ChalkboardView" which will be rolled out across all faculties. Within a year all modules will have mandatory i-learning content of 20 percent"
"Oh yes vice chancellor I heard about that in the common room from Professor Tikemov from Mathematics. He said that ChalkboardView was useless to them because it could not handle equations as answers to on-line tests. Apparently there is a free open source package that many of the other universities are using that is much better".
"But, Smedling, the people from ChalkBoardView made the most competitive bid for the contract!"
"Perhaps the free software didn't need to make a bid as it is, well FREE".
"I can't help that Snodders, we have financial procedures for tendering as you well know."
"Yes Vice Chancellor, we also have procedures for registering interests. The i-learning company did pay for a very nice trip to the US."
"That was a valuable fact-finding trip! In any case this i-learning initiative will transform content delivery at Funcaster."
"How is that Vice Chancellor?"
"Well the content will be delivered to their computer desktop, instead of the traditional lecture theatre"
"So, Vice Chancellor, can I just clarify, is it the computers that are doing the learning or the students?"
"Oh don't be such a Luddite, Smeddler. Can't you see the advantages? With module content on the computer we can roll out franchised distance learning materials to the lucrative eastern market!"
"You mean we will be teaching students as far as Margate?"
"There's no need to be facetious Sniddling, I mean the Far East, Hong Kong, Taiwan. But more importantly it will save staff time. And that means they can spend more time writing grant applications. Now I had our media people make a press release. Let see now I have an email this morning that highlights our press coverage this week. Lets see what impact we have had..."
"Look at this Vice Chancellor, Prof Tikemov seems to have made a big splash.."
Financial Times... Sergei Tikemov, from Funcaster University, addressed an invited audience of 200 from the International Society of Electronic Commerce and Banking at Hong Kong University yesterday. He held them with rapt attention as he explained how his work on "Elliptic Curves over Finite Fields in Cryptography" is set to revolutionise secure transactions in e-commerce....
"Look, Vice Chancellor, the University of Hong Kong have uploaded a video of the lecture on You-Tube!"
"What's he doing Sneddton?"
"He is explaining his equations on a blackboard, Vice Chancellor. A real one".

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

2020 Vision

"Smeders I want you to look at this!"

" 'Funcaster: 2020 vision' are we opening and optometery department
Vice Chancellor?"

"No no no Smedly this is the VISION for the future of The University
of Funcaster! I plan to usher in a Golden Age in which Funcaster is
ranked among the best Universities in the country, in the World"

I mentally switched to a scene from a Bond film in which a megalomaniac
villain plots world domination while stroking a Persian cat. I was just
getting to the bit where he says "this organization does not tolerate failure"
and I disappear down a trap door in to a tank of hungry sharks when I found
my self back in the room with No 1 still explaining his fiendish plan.

"We will recruit five Nobel Prize winners, dozens of Highly Cited authors,
our scientists' papers will be so prolific that Nature will practically be their blog.
We will shoot up the Shanghai Mah Jong League Table of World Universities
like a rocket! "

"But Vice Chancellor, how are we going to pay for it?"

"I knew you would ask that Smudley, always watching the bottom line!
Of course in RAE terms in the long run it will pay for itself, but in the short term
I have prepared a fully costed plan in which we dispose of some of the University's
surplus real estate to be developed as trendy urban flats, we milk the oil industry
of their surplus profits in exchange for promising to solve all their difficult oil
extraction problems and hire a fund raiser to charm our alumni out of some of that
money they have been making as chanting accountants and merchant bankers."

"I see Vice Chancellor. And you are going to do all that by twenty past eight
this evening?"

Posher Participation

The Vice Chancellor called me in to his office

"Smeders I want a word with you about your 'widening participation' scheme.."
He had clearly had one of his 'ideas' again. I cringed. I had put a lot of effort in to my "WP"
scheme. Especially that publicity stunt centred on a lad from a run down estate had found a
prospectus in the skip an applied on the off chance to our urban planning degree.

"You see the problem Smedders is that we have been putting all our effort in the wrong direction!"

"Really Vice Chancellor?"

"Yes you've been working hard to recruit students from lowly backgrounds an elevate their expectations..."

"And now you want us to lower them, Vice Chancellor?" I hazard.

"No no no Smethers. We need to get more posh students Smethers. Toffs! Public School kids! Landed aristocracy.."

That's it  he has finally gone barking mad. What had happened to him over the Christmas break?

"I was talking to my friend Sir Henry Funkington", he stiffend and almost stood to attention

"Master of Saint Swithens College Oxford"

Oh dear....

"and he was saying that they still have far too many posh students. Try as they might the upper
class blighters just keep getting the grades and he can't help but let them in. So I thought..."
Ah his epiphany....

"..that the only solution is for us to recruit more from the Public School sector to allow them to
take more from bogstandard comprehensives..."

"And how do you suggest we do that Vice Chancellor?" (humour him)

"I don't know Smithers, you are the Registrar. Get some of your Senior Management Team together
and do some storm braining. Come up with some new initiatives. Once we get some posh kids with
high aspirations in it will elevate the whole tone, our students will aspire to higher aims. Don't
you see, it will be a virtuous circle... a positive feed back system"

Oh no he must have been drinking with the mathematicians again 'positive feedback system' my foot.
Last time they got him drunk they plied him with their chaotic dynamical systems, they had
virtually convinced him to fund an expedition to the Amazon to capture some dangerous butterfly
that was going to flap its wing and cause a hurricane in Japan before they told him they were
pulling his leg.  I can't imagine how they still managed to get him to agree to that splendid new
maths building. I expect they have some very damning evidence of misbehaviour. After all they do
say he put the Vice back in Chancellor.  Anyway at least I managed to stop them moving their
disgusting dusty old blackboards in to our shinny new building. You should have seen their faces
when they ended up in the skip. "Sir Horace Ram enumerated his modulii space of Ram-Shep extension
on that very board...." or some such nonsense. Not only did I have them replaced by the very
latest multimedia audiovisual display boards but I had them paid for out of the maths budget.
One to me. "Nil point" to the Mathemafia! Oh dear I seem to have drifted off, what was the VC

"So Smitters give me some concrete proposals.."

"Well Sir maybe we could encourage the students to form a Grouse Shooting Society..."

"Excellent, better find a way to close down that Kinder Scout Tresspass re-enactment society
quietly though.."

"And we could lease some land on campus to the Range Rover franchise..."

I can't believe he is going for this..

"And the campus shops Vice Chancellor, less Nike and more Burburry. The coats obviously Sir, like
the Queen's. Not the hats"

"Quite right Snedders. More Haves and less Chavs"

("fewer" Chavs surely vice chancellor)

"Ears" I say in my best Duke of Edinburgh voice, but the irony is lost." One could adopt RP as
the University's official dialect"

"And then when we have more rich and influential students, who will meet other rich and
influential students and become better connected, leading to more wealth creation and  prosperous

I think I can see where this is going....

"who will support their alma mater with generous endowments and donations, and move in the
corridors of power supporting our cause and the University of Funcaster will prosper"

The VC seemed to be staring in to middle distance as if admiring Funcaster's concrete towers
transformed in to a city of gleaming spires and golden domes.

"And then Snodders we will really be in a position to give a leg up to the underclasses".

I wish my name was 'Darling' then he wouldn't try to call me by my surname. Anyway time now to
steer him gently away from this dangerous plan

"But Vice Chancellor what about our commitment to Equal Opportunities?"

"It is Equal Opportunities Snethers. Don't you see. The Upper Classes are under represented at
Funcaster. Dash it we are discriminating against them"..

I hear a grinding noise and imagine it to be our egalitarian founding fathers turning in their
graves, but it is the door knob turning and in comes the VC's secretary with a tea tray.

"Tea and Biscuits Vice Chancellor?"

"No." says the VC "let us eat cake". 

About Me

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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.