What’s Klingon for ‘impact’?

I’ve had it with university enterprise: beam me up, Scotty, says Christopher Bigsby

April 24, 2014

With the cap on student numbers shortly to be lifted, we wait and watch to see whether universities will mutate into Russian factory ships, trawling the deeps for anything with a pulse.

As autonomous institutions, universities are free to admit any vaguely sentient life form, and one or two already do.

Meanwhile, the advent of massive open online courses has meant that half a million students around the world can now enrol on a course, their work marked by computers unmoved by references to missed buses, deceased grandmothers or printer failures.

And it won’t necessarily end there: electronic messages unconstrained by terrestrial boundaries will leak into space, to be received a billion years hence by the equivalent of the Klingons.

Perhaps their answers will be sent back to an Earth on which Scientology is the only religion and the last surviving Conservative spends his days attempting to privatise his own digestive system.

Like atoms, ‘impact’ consists mostly of empty space. Its existence can only be inferred from its effect on those trying to discover it - mostly depression

(Incidentally, Lawrence M. Schoen, the founder of the Klingon Language Institute, has translated Hamlet into Klingon – should you give a damn, “To be or not to be” is rendered as: “TaH pagh TaHbe”).

Oxbridge, of course, will find it difficult to accommodate any additional students in the post-cap era, unless they get developer Taylor Wimpey to rush up some new neo-classical buildings to accommodate those from minor public schools and such faith-based or economically and ideologically challenged free schools that have not been closed.

Instead, private universities are being sanctioned to absorb many of these new students, simultaneously supplying the competition this government so desires (130‑odd universities being not quite sufficient).

Ministers’ faith in the private sector is understandable, it having made such a good job of providing Olympics security, NHS computer systems and assessing disability benefits.

What is missing in our university sector is plainly the multimillion-pound salaries, bonuses and shareholder dividends without which any chief executive worth his salt would not get out of bed, his own or someone else’s.

Ministers evidently feel that more is better, whether it is more students or more contact hours.

Admittedly Stephen Hawking averaged only an hour’s work a day during his three-year degree at Oxford, but does it really matter if we reconcile quantum theory with relativity? After all, where’s the profit in that?

Margaret Thatcher studied chemistry, but at least she used her degree to develop soft ice-cream (the last thing she was soft on).

That’s the kind of scientist you can respect. What are these other slackers doing? Mostly, I suspect, studying snails or wondering how many alternative universes there might be. What preparation is that for a decent job selling over-priced houses to Russian oligarchs?

OK, some are curing cancer, and that’s probably worth doing. They treat that in private hospitals, after all. But as for academics in the arts, what does Shakespeare add to the gross domestic product? These actor chappies may lure the odd American over here, snoozing in the expensive seats, but is that what UK plc should be about?

What are we really good at in this country? The arms trade (by which, of course, I mean defence and security). You don’t see many courses on that in universities. They even have peace studies. Peace studies? I ask you.

Most others seem to be majoring in media studies with a minor in radical Islam, though I don’t mind the separation of men from women – it’s what my school did, after all, and look where it got me, that and my family’s fortune made in the slave trade.

Academics need to shape up, snap into line, get on side, which is why they are required to fill in an online form accounting for their time spent teaching, researching, administering, outreaching, impacting, emailing, blogging, tweeting, self-pleasuring (essentially the same thing) – and filling in online forms.

At least now that the research excellence framework is laid to rest (for the time being at least) it is possible to close down the Bletchley Park-like teams of chess players, crossword solvers and mathematicians who have been working to crack the code being used by those at REF Central.

Peter Higgs, Nobel prizewinner, believes that in today’s world he would have been fired from his university before completing the work that led to the discovery of his eponymous boson.

Another Nobel laureate has admitted writing hundreds of impact statements in search of funding, confessing that they were pure nonsense. “I know that,” he said, “because I am good at them.”

The fact is that like atoms, “impact” consists mostly of empty space. Its existence can only be inferred from its effect on those trying to discover it – mostly depression.

Meanwhile, students insist that they are satisfied with their education. But what do they know? Plainly, from the government’s point of view, something must be wrong.

Conservatives, of course, are not too keen on students. Thatcher declared herself against “mollycoddling” them while cutting their money. Today, the Conservative Party is so unpopular, having cut students’ money again, that young Tories studying at Oxford are claiming persecution and campaigning to be given the same rights as gays (although presumably not civil partnerships).

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrats proudly insist that they are just as unpopular as their coalition partners.

So to whom can universities turn? Labour introduced tuition fees in the first place, while the unicycling UK Independence Party has nothing to offer but motley.

I presume academics will do what they always have: keep their heads down and carry on taking the required online courses to keep abreast of the many ways in which they can be sued.

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