Nightmare scenarios

November 3, 2011

Using fiction to satirise perceptions of the current state of the academy seems to be gaining in popularity ("This REF is a deadly serious undertaking", 20 October). A couple of years ago we had the anonymously penned A Campus Conspiracy, and last year Crump by P.J. Vanston: both are based on recognisable reality.

Indeed, the eponymous hero of Crump occupies an office very similar to the one in which I sit at the former Royal Naval College and has the same view. The University of Greenwich is renamed "Thames Metropolitan University" and its vice-chancellor is "Baroness Bloodstone", but that hardly conceals the referents and raises some scepticism about the book's disclaimer that any resemblance to real people or places is coincidental. We can only hope that there is more force in its disclaimer over events...

In both books, management incompetence is a key narrative feature: in Crump's case, it is political correctness (the use of "niggardly" is banned because it might be misheard or misunderstood); in A Campus Conspiracy, an ageing academic is "encouraged" to take early retirement (tempting, if only to escape the lack of support from service professionals) thanks to false accusations of sexual harassment made by an obnoxious benefactor's student daughter.

Both scenarios are subjected to a reductio ad absurdum treatment similar to that seen in Tom Sharpe's Wilt. The dystopian possibilities will not be alien to current staff: we must hope they remain the stuff of nightmares.

Ian McNay, Professor emeritus, higher education and management, University of Greenwich

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