In agony? Don't fret: Uncle Felipe offers a shoulder to cry on

Felipe Fernández-Armesto's words of advice to unpopular or indecisive presidents and ministers who doubt their own policies

December 23, 2010



Credit: Andy Bunday


Universities UK

From the President

Dear Uncle Felipe,

Please help me! I have no one to turn to, except Lord Browne, and he is even more unpopular than I am. I do everything right. I use all the right jargon: "competitiveness"; "national economic performance"; "comparative productivity"; "knowledge economy". I point out that British universities are better for the economy than Redhotgirlz.com, Wikisnacks and Baltiburgers combined, but nobody loves me. What should I do?

Yours in loneliness,

Sad of Bloomsbury and Exeter

Don't worry, dear Sad, you're not suffering from paranoia. Everybody really does hate you. So I hope you find that reassuring. You should stop wasting time on administrative and academic work and turn to an activity for which you show a real vocation: propagating an icon of yourself. Change your image. Instead of representing yourself as a pragmatist beset by intransigence, which is unromantic and unengaging, be a lone figure struggling against adversity.

Your organisation needs a makeover, too. Everyone now says "Yuk!" when they utter its acronym. Change it to "Uke" by founding the Universities UK Ukulele ensemble. With some voice coaching, you could easily resemble George Formby, who had a genius for making sad, lonely self-marginalisation sympathetic.

"Whenever I play, the world goes gay," he sang. "The ukulele man is here!"

This is just the effect you should be able to contrive.

From: president@nus.edu

Dear Prof,

Sorry to bother you. I mean, I was going to write to you. Then I wasn't. Then I thought I'd get Vince Cable to do it for me, only he was busy. Then I thought I would, or maybe not. Then I promised myself I wouldn't. So now I have. I don't really have a problem. It's just that people say I'm kind of like, well, spineless and indecisive. And I agree with them. Or maybe not.

I just try to make everyone happy by making promises and then changing my mind, like a real, grown-up politician. But now I'm afraid no one will vote for me again. Or then again, I'm not really sure. Please tell me what to do.

Yours with a smiley face,

Beleaguered comrade

Dear Beleaguered,

Don't worry! Focus on what you do best: masterly inactivity. Announce your motto - "Only closed minds never change" - and stick to it unwaveringly. Don't worry about losing the support of radical students. They'll all turn Tory in a few years anyway when they start agitating against their loan repayments on the grounds that concealed taxation should be cut to get us out of recession. Meanwhile, concentrate on the real work of a National Union of Students president: doing deals with politicians behind members' backs. This will increase your power and assure you of what Harold Macmillan said was the goal of education: a position of considerable emolument.

Department for Education

TOP SECRET

Dear Felipe - if I may be so bold!

I hope you remember me - schoolboy good looks, slightly receding hairline. We met at the races. I admired the way you picked the winners but were too cautious to risk a bet. You'd be great in politics. Anyway, what I need help with is this impact business. I realise the policy is rubbish and will hobble research and degrade universities. I know that everyone who actually does research hates and loathes it. But what can I do? I have to do what Ammon Salter says: it's the law. I have to obey the bureaucrats and quangocrats who have staked their careers on the policy, because I'm only the minister. Please find a way out for me - and keep this letter secret! If it gets WikiLeaked, Sir Humphrey will nag me. Even worse, Ed Smith at the Higher Education Funding Council for England won't like me any more. The way things are going, I may have to go back to uni and ask him for a student loan.

Yours past the winning post,

Troubled of Whitehall

Dear Troubled,

Easy! Get the quangocrats to commission research into their proposals. This will hoist them with their own petard, as independent peer review will show that the impact of their own scheme will be to gut creativity, subvert researchers' freedom, clobber pure science, wreck the humanities, suspend problem-centred research, and turn academics towards meretricious showmanship. My scheme would cause delay - which, as all bureaucrats know, is the deadliest form of denial. Best of all, it would divert some of the research councils' cash into researchers' hands - which, if not revolutionary, would at least be refreshing.

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