Big Don's dream of soccerdemia

October 15, 2004

Our contest to write an opening chapter for a comic novel about a 21st-century vice-chancellor showed satire is alive on campus. Harriet Swain relates the deliberations of the judges, while below is winner Greg Walker's sketch of an ex-football manager taking his new team to the top of the league tables

The old town looked the same as I stepped down from the train. But, then, I had only left it that morning. With the return ticket from London still in my hand, I walked out into the familiar veil of drizzle that seemed as characteristic a feature of the old town as the floral clock or the men in orthopaedic shoes who thronged the station concourse in search of taxis. Shielding my eyes against the rain I looked up towards the unmistakable silhouette of the Tower of Arts looming above the buildings of the town centre like an armour-plated lava lamp. It had, reputedly, won awards in the early 1970s, but, then, so had Showaddywaddy and look what happened to them.

Trudging up O'Neill Street towards the campus, I took some comfort in the fact that at least nothing obvious seemed to have been demolished, rebuilt or rebranded in the 12 hours I had been away. The last three years had seen so much reform, so many step changes, so much sheer wanton innovation, that it was always a surprise to find anything still where it used to be and functioning as it had done in the old days. Tipping a nod to the allegorical sculpture of Saint Martin slaying the Dragon of Mediocrity that bestrode the west entrance like a very expensive mistake, I made for the one building still showing a light at this time of night. Pushing through the throng of students queueing for the Chaplaincy's Tequila Slammer Promotion, I settled into my usual stool at the bar and ordered a cappuccino and the hot tapenade and pickle special cob.

Who'd have thought a change of vice-chancellor could have made such a difference? When old Sir Icarus Carew had left, it had been decided to cut all ties with tradition and launch the university into a brave new future of sexy, lucrative excellence. The grandees who ran senate had wanted someone with a proven track record of success. They had sent out their headhunters with orders to bring back a leader to take us into a new century, a visionary who would plant Kettering Metropolitan University firmly back on the academic map. The selection process had taken over a year. Names had been raised, floated, and just as promptly either sank or sailed off elsewhere. Finally, just as everyone was losing faith, the successful candidate had emerged.

In retrospect, Big Ron Bassett had been an obvious choice, although it didn't seem so at the time. A three-time FA Cup winner who had coached teams in every division of the Football League, he had so much to offer. His record of management at the highest level was impeccable, and he had led so many different teams. None of them, admittedly, had been in higher education, but that was what made the move so brilliant. The shift in paradigms was a stroke of genius. It was so radical and yet, strangely, so natural. Success, leadership, commitment - these were qualities that transcended merely sectoral concerns. Hell, he'd even had a spell in Spain: think what that would do for recruitment to the Socrates exchange programmes. No, Big Ron was clearly just the man to bring the love of the beautiful game back to Kettering's rudderless academic community.

The media, predictably, had loved it: "Call me Big Don!"; "'The Dreaming Spires Have Just Woken Up!" Ron's bon mots became the new lingua franca at the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Universities UK, the university lobbying body: "I'm taking each semester as it comes"; "Keep to the basics: work rate, pace, rigorous experimental analysis." The town was revitalised over night, and even the demoralised Kettering academics had accepted the appointment with surprising enthusiasm. "All we are saying," senate had told the incoming vice-chancellor on his first day, "'is give us a goal." The grandees sat back and basked in the reflected glory. KMU became the university of choice for the Hello! crowd. Pictures of a new breed of celebrity undergraduates at pre-lecture kickabouts filled the Sunday supplements. A TV crew followed Big Ron around for a whole year for a real-time docu-soap on E4. He stood on the lawns, his arms stretched wide like a Rolexed messiah, and the world flocked to our door. Minor royals enrolled on summer schools in Continuing Education. Jordan walked out of rehearsals for Shaw's Saint Joan in the West End to start an MA in Museum Studies, and, on Des Lynam's advice, Posh and Becks put Brooklyn's name down for a part-time BSc in genetics to start in 2015.

But then, as The Times Higher had put it, things started to go pear-shaped. Big Ron began to bring in his own people. Old lags were quietly moved sideways to make way for dieticians, physios and sports scientists. Compulsory circuit-training was introduced for the senior administrative officers, and anyone who couldn't tackle the assault course during the pre-season training camp in Malaga was retired on grounds of ill-health. By the time Big Ron told the local press that he had full confidence in the bursar, the grandees were running scared. Within a month, the deans of chemistry, maths and environmental science had been replaced by track-suited "motivational officers" hired from Serie A. The old guard were removed one by one and in came a new breed of soccerdemics, lithe, tanned and able to think inside and outside the box.

The university never looked back. And why should it? That way lay provincial obscurity, falling student numbers and projected meltdown in the research assessment exercise. Now it was rarely out of the news. Other institutions were rumoured to be following our lead. Kevin Keegan was reputedly sounded out for the mastership of a Cambridge college, while the London School of Economics was hoping to pick up a new registrar from Juventus. Big Ron was blazing a trail and KMU was reaping the very obvious financial rewards. Replica academic gowns were selling like hot cakes and the decision to change the university crest every two years revolutionised business in the souvenir shop. Degrees now came with an optional lifetime "Five-star Commitment to Quality" package, which guaranteed the graduand (in return for a very reasonable four-figure sum) not only a DVD of the award ceremony, a university scarf and a faculty photograph signed by all of his or her favourite tutors, but also an ongoing contract to update the certificate with the current colours and logo each time the university changed its sponsor.

Some, of course, had tried to resist. Two senior lecturers in the School of Adult Education had failed to report for pre-sessional training, others had joined in the daily motivational five-a-side tournaments and golf matches only half-heartedly, citing back-pain, cruciate ligament trouble or, in the case of one reader in international relations, "cultural antipathy to organised sport". All had been summarily dismissed. Faculties thought to be filled with potential troublemakers found themselves running "youth squads" - cadres of young lecturers, some on work-experience schemes or day release from technical colleges, who shadowed the tenured academics and could be "brought off the bench" to replace them at the first sign of poor performance or going off-message. Staff morale plummeted, but official indicators of motivation went through the roof. Never had the old institution seen so much excellence, so much sheer quality, in every position on the campus. The dons were playing their socks off for Big Ron and, as he said when he picked up the end-of-year award for best new vice-chancellor outside the Russell Group, he was proud to bits of all his lads.

Greg Walker is professor of early modern literature and culture at Leicester University.

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