TV reviews: Dispatches & Campus

Gary Day finds absurdity in two programmes on universities - and only one is on a fictional campus

April 14, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

There were two programmes on universities this week. The first, Dispatches (Channel 4, Monday 4 April, 8pm), looked at the commercialisation of higher education; the second, Campus, portrayed scholars as loonies. Is there a connection? Perhaps, but then again, academics have always been slightly mad. And they may be even madder after having viewed journalist Laurie Penny's revelations about the pay and perks of vice-chancellors. On top of an average salary of £254,000, many v-cs enjoy generous expense accounts, chauffeur-driven cars and rent-free homes. Even so, a number have been forced to take second jobs to make ends meet.

How can all this be justified, thundered Ms Penny, at a time of massive cutbacks and a huge rise in student fees? She confronted Professor Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter. I may have a nice house, he said, but I have to use it for business. And by the way, he added, half of v-cs took no pay rise last year. He must have been talking about those in post-92 institutions, for 80 per cent of those in the Russell Group did indeed award themselves a little extra. David Willetts defended v-cs having second jobs on the grounds that it gave them greater commercial experience, which would be useful in the running of their universities. He also reassured Ms Penny that what he tries to "focus on, remorselessly, is what is in the best interests of students". If I had two brains like he does, I could probably understand how slashing funding and tripling fees is in the "best interests of students", but I can't.

Anyone working in the sector, especially at York, where Brian Cantor can spend £70 on a two-mile journey and allegedly uses his secretary to help administer his property portfolio, can understand Ms Penny's ire. But v-cs alone are not responsible for the desecration of higher education. Why, there are even some who defend it. Mrs Thatcher began the process in the early 1980s. It was part of the transformation of British society into UK plc. When she said there was no such thing as society, she should have added that there is only the market. That's where we are now; that's what v-cs have to respond to, and that's why the humanities have to be axed. They do not contribute to inequality, privatisation, deregulation, exploitation, short-termism, tax exemption and all the other features of what ministers blandly term "the economy".

Ms Penny was more on the money with another part of her investigation, how universities are increasingly having to rely on foreign students for part of their income, particularly those from outside the European Union. The crucial thing is not whether they can do the course, but whether they can pay. This has renewed the argument about dumbing down. The case of Professor Paul Buckland, which can be viewed in Times Higher Education's archives, suggests it may have some substance. It was back to Mr Willetts. What did he have to say about the issue? Only that he believed in "high standards". Yes, but in what? Clearly not in education or he wouldn't be doing what he's doing. If only he had one brain like the rest of us.

Kirke University is the setting for Campus (Channel 4, Tuesdays 5 and 12 April, 10pm), the latest creation of Victoria Pile whose previous credits include Smack the Pony and Green Wing. The university is named after Howard Kirk, the anti-hero of Malcolm Bradbury's novel The History Man. Matt Beer, professor of English literature, played by Joseph Millson, is the reincarnation of Kirk, a bully who beds all his female students. Not a good example of the civilising influence of the humanities.

But Beer's antics are mild compared with those of his vice-chancellor, Jonty de Wolfe, who locks his bank manager in a cupboard and sacks staff if he doesn't like what they are wearing. He probably studied economics. Andy Nyman plays the demonic v-c who threatens to shrink the university accountant after he has paid everyone twice. The only person to escape his grinning malice is maths lecturer Imogen Moffat who has written a best-selling book The Joy of Zero. Lisa Jackson is perfect as the dithering don anxious that she is just a one-hit wonder.

Part of the comedy derives from its remoteness from real life. Professors don't have time for sex, they're too busy filling in grant applications, and v-cs wouldn't fawn over an academic who wrote a best-seller because it would count for nothing in the research excellence framework. The fewer people who read your work, the more valuable it is. This aspect of academic life is captured in the wonderfully absurd humour of Campus, which also illustrates the old saying: you don't have to be mad to work in universities but it helps.

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