My career lifts off on the banks of mighty 'Orbital'

October 24, 2003

The University of the M25 is an oasis of good news in a sector full of doom and gloom. Ted Prince, its new spin doctor, starts a monthly column on the sunny side of life in higher education by recounting his lucky break.

Does the rise of university marketing departments mean 'education, education, education' is out and 'presentation, presentation, presentation' is in?

It's strange what you can find when you move house. With the new job starting this term, I've had to pack up my belongings and stuff a lifetime's possessions into a rental van.

And among the boxes of paperbacks was a well-thumbed stack of university prospectuses, from the long-gone days when I was a sixth-former choosing courses and filling in application forms. Why I kept them the last time I moved, I don't know. But, considering my new job, it couldn't have been more appropriate.

I've just started as the new assistant manager in the customer relations and marketing department, which in old money would have been called a press and publicity office. It's at the University of the M25, one of those ambitious, thrusting, image-conscious young universities.

You might have seen the advert on cable TV: "University of the M25 - We're on the road to success." It was fronted by that other man from Top Gear , because Jeremy Clarkson said that his haircut probably cost more than the car he'd have to drive in the commercial.

But back to those old prospectuses. They were from the very beginning of the 1980s - way back in the past century. And flicking through the pages, it seemed like an age of lost innocence. Where were the glossy pictures of fashionable youngsters walking across well-tended lawns? Where were the computer-enhanced pictures of how the new accommodation block might look? Where was the celebrity sportsman endorsing the gym equipment?

These prospectuses looked as if they were out of the 1950s rather than the 1980s. When the gloomy looking booklets were opened, the first thing on show was a grainy black-and-white picture of the vice-chancellor, grinning as if he'd been spending too long alone with the port bottle.

Underneath was an incomprehensible message about the importance of rigorous academic endeavour, the institution's long tradition of scholarly excellence and the challenges of a fast-changing world. You can imagine the rest: yards of flannel about ethics and the prowess of the mixed badminton team and, just to show he had a common touch, a reference to something Joan Bakewell had said on Radio 4.

But where were the sponsorship deals? And the showcasing for the new Shine and Go Hair Science Centre? What about the Ken Ho Working Wok Day to appeal to the overseas students? And the honorary degree for the likes of Damon Hill to show serious commitment to drive-in learning?

I've done my research on how the University of the M25 is keeping ahead - and none of these innovations would have occurred to those ancient prospectus writers.

But I felt a lump in my throat when I looked at the pages showing details of my old course. I did English literature, a long march from Beowulf to Samuel Beckett, and the prospectuses mapped out the authors and eras that we'd pass on the way. There was no selling message, no spin, not even that picture of James Joyce playing the banjo that lecturers used to think was amusing.

The only illustration was an already severely dated picture of people with giant sideburns, some of them men, hunched over books in a library. I mean, really. You're trying to get customers to part with serious money for a three-year course and all you can show them is a couple of hippies snoozing in the reference section? In our more enlightened times, any reference to English literature without a picture of J. K. Rowling collecting a royalty cheque would be considered an absolute disgrace.

But times have clearly changed for the better. At my interview, the head of department, Nicholas McVelly, said that he didn't see his role as a publicist, rather he saw himself as an "image empowerer", and if I joined the team, I'd be sharing that vision, too. I don't mind telling you, it was quite an inspiring moment.

"We might not be on the banks of the Isis, the Cam or the Dur, but we're on the banks of an even mightier river, it's the great roaring current of the M25, like a thundering girdle that stretches from South Mimms to Clackett Lane," he declared, looking out the window as though he'd seen the future driving past with its lights on full beam.

I was sold. This was a chance to make a difference. When the new Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen wing opens next year, I would be part of the dream. I knew there were rumours of a takeover by the University of London Gateway (incorporating the former Tilbury College of Container Science). But sometimes you have to take chances. And I was in one of those make-it-happen moods when anything seemed possible.

And it wasn't as though I was giving up much. I'd had one of those not-quite-started-yet careers that can afflict arts graduates in their 30s.

I left university with the aim of becoming a radical playwright, but within a year I was competing for the employee of the month award at a telesales centre for life insurance.

I had a few clerical jobs in local government, learnt to use a computer when I was working for a greetings-card company, and then applied for a job with a publisher of cookery books. This was the late 1980s and a time of great expansion, with Delia and all the rest of them - and I started to help with the publicity for a new range called "Cooking: The Books". It caught the spirit of the times.

I'd caught the publicity bug, too. And gradually, I worked my way into writing press releases, arranging celebrity signings, helping to rebrand the imprint and acquiring all the dark arts of PR. Here I learnt that "All News is Good News". If there are staff cuts, we're improving efficiency. If we're closing something that no one wants, we're refocusing our energies to deliver a better service elsewhere. You show me a swing, and I'll show you a roundabout.

And, as if those dowdy prospectuses were sending me a secret message, I was drawn back to education. By the late 1990s, private companies, frisky as summer-school "divorcees", were desperate to get into bed with public services. They smelt money, even if the universities and colleges couldn't find any themselves.

My publishing house set up an educational management division. After a brief spell writing press releases about Managing Change in Change Management, I was headhunted by an arms manufacturer that wanted to set up contracted services for further education colleges.

Education was crying out for my presentational skills. It was the sleeping giant that had missed all the changes that had swept through the rest of society. It was like finding a Japanese soldier hiding in the jungle who still had not heard that that the war was over.

And then, on a fateful Monday, flicking through Media Guardian , I saw the job that brought me back into higher education. "Do you want to accelerate your career? We need someone with driving ambition. We want to put the University of the M25 into the fast lane for success."

With 15 different sites, dotted around London's orbital motorway, it's an unusual university, and something of a scattered flock. But that's where McVelly's skills come into play. Because he says it's not so much a bunch of old colleges with nothing in common with each other, it's more an extended family.

"In the 21st century, the only distance that counts is that between the ear and the phone, or the finger and the keyboard," McVelly says. "The communications revolution means a new way of looking at the world. Like Florence to the Renaissance, the University of the M25 is at the heart of a whole new way of seeing. And I'll tell you something - these days you can't see Florence from space, but you can see the M25."

I think it's going to be a privilege working for him. And in the months ahead, I'll be writing up my experiences. I look forward to sharing some good news with you.

Give Ted Prince a PR challenge
Contact him at ted.prince@thes.co.uk

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