I returned from an Engineering and Science Research Council interactive workshop on demand management at the University of Peterborough's Capri campus this morning to find the following anonymous request (written on Brideshead College Berkshire letter-headed paper) in my in-tray:
"Dear Dr Llemmer, hypothetically speaking, if you were to hear from a senior university manager in a small traditionally built institution well placed for access to the M40 who was in need of advice on a constitutional matter, how might you respond?
Assume for a moment, again purely hypothetically, that said manager has been for some time attempting to drag his university into the 21st century but has been continually frustrated by a constitution that gives the final say on all policy matters to a senate that includes every member of the university's staff (yes, cleaners and porters, too: I know, it's madness!).
And imagine, for the sake of argument, that this means that even so modest a matter as the vice-chancellor's annual salary increase can be voted down by an unholy alliance of the junior academic staff and Mrs McDuff from Catering, how might a sane man be expected to respond? (Of course, everyone knows that her attitude problem stems from that business about her parking permit in '98I).
Am I within my rights to let them all go and start again with a clean slate? We have a Royal Charter, so does that mean I can call in the army as a short-term expedient to cover the mid-semester exams? Or would the damned Equal Ops brigade make a fuss? I am at my wits' end!
Yours, anonymously, Tim."
"I feel your pain, Tim, but I would counsel against knee-jerk reactions that you might live to regret. The academic staff can no doubt be tiresome, but do you really want the army involved at this stage, especially at examination time?
Think about it. Are they the best people to deal with the Special Cases resits (the presence of cluster munitions can be very off-putting in a small room)? And could you be sure, given the parlous state of the military budget, that they will have the latest versions of the plagiarism detection software?
Then there's the added complication of the minor Royals. If there are exams to be set, you can be sure that Prince Harry will want to do his fair share, and that will bring in the SAS protection teams. Before you know it, half of England will know the questions in advance.
No, my advice would be to keep things low key at this stage. Perhaps you could buy some key votes in advance of this year's pay round. A few well-aimed compliments concerning the SCR treacle pudding might not go amiss, and perhaps the suggestion that a new university constitution could free money for extending the car-park.
You need to keep your eye on the real issues here, which are, of course, all about governance and transparency, aren't they? As a matter of interest, roughly how much can a hypothetical vice-chancellor expect to earn these days?"