Buy a vanload of beer on autoroute to learning

April 30, 2004

The head of the University of the M25 wants a foothold on the Continent. Ted Prince attended the meeting that launched the Calais campus

Our bid for global domination was announced when the vice-chancellor was attending one of his motivational "thank you" lunches for a few of the heads of department.

This high-powered gathering was held at a drive-in Chinese restaurant outside Bedford. The vice-chancellor, believing that the exercise of power required an element of mystery, didn't like to spend much time near his staff. So when it came to dining out, he always opted for speed over splendour.

Hunched in the back of the bursar's Renault Espace, with their spring rolls on their knees, the departmental heads acknowledged the vice-chancellor's praise with modesty and restraint.

"But we mustn't rest on our laurels," said the vice-chancellor, brushing away a few grains of egg fried rice from his lips. "The University of the M25 is about permanent revolution, shining our dipped headlights into the gloom of ignorance. Bring me your poor, your huddled, unqualified masses."

"More cuts then?" said the head of retail sciences.

"Quite the opposite," growled the vice-chancellor. "We're moving into the export market. We have to stop thinking about universities being a single institution, and we have to start thinking about them as being a brand.

Forget Brideshead and start thinking Disneyland.

"Nottingham University is going to have a campus in China this year. Kent is setting up something with French universities. How long is it going to be before there are fully fledged Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard colleges on every continent?"

"You mean like chain stores?"

"I think we have to be careful with our use of language," said king of spin Nick McVelly, wedged in the back next to the head of divorce studies.

"We're planning to establish a bridgehead on the coast, a first foothold on the continent of Europe. In a ground-breaking arrangement with a select Calais hypermarché , we're going to be able to offer accredited language courses for an international audience. We're opening an autoroute to learning."

"Where exactly will it be based?" asked a department head, face smeared with sweet-and-sour sauce.

"It's a beverage retailer at the French end of the Channel Tunnel. It's called the Red, White and Brew. We're going to occupy a learning zone just inside the entrance," said McVelly. "It will maximise the French, British and international potential."

"Booze cruisers?"

"There could be an element of retail-based travel. But that's a huge audience right in our own backyard. They drive out of the tunnel expecting to fill a transit van with cheap beer - and they leave having signed up to a course in learning French."

"Just think of it, University of the M25, France," the vice-chancellor said wistfully.

"And even if they're French and can't speak any English, they can always sign up for a business degree," McVelly said.

"And if they can't speak anything at all, we can offer them a course in management. E-learning means that boundaries no longer exist."

"It's a terrible idea," said the stuck-in-the-last-century head of English.

"Of course, heads of department would have to take regular trips to Calais to monitor the development of our academic offspring. Once a term, expenses receipts to the bursar."

"Mind you, I can see the advantages of that kind of diversification," said the head of divorce studies.

"Every term?" said the head of English. "I suppose it has its cultural merits."

"Quite right," the vice-chancellor said. "Let's order another bottle of entente cordiale and then back to headquarters."

Once again, I had felt the hand of history on my shoulder.

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