Oh, the very chic of our student housing plan

February 6, 2004

Post-Hutton, the University of the M25 is running scared - right to a medal-winning Olympic ruse, writes Ted Prince

What do you mean awful news really is awful news?" said our sultan of spin, Nicholas McVelly, unable to conceal his outrage. "'Awful' isn't a word we use at the University of the M25. We usually start at 'breathtakingly innovative' and work upwards."

Something was clearly wrong. The vice-chancellor was standing at his office window, pulling at the blinds nervously as if being watched. "We're in a new era after Hutton. We have to tell it like it is. We have to be transparent and open."

"What are you talking about?" McVelly said.

"The spinning has to stop. The University of the M25 is going to be a straight-talking operation from now on." There was something suspicious happening. The vice-chancellor spoke in a strange, stilted voice, like a hostage sending a ransom message to his family.

"How straight?" McVelly growled.

"Everything."

"Does that include the news about the student accommodation being condemned by the council inspectors this week?"

"Well, let's not be too hasty," the vice-chancellor said. He made a curious gesture, pointing to the door. "I'll follow you in five minutes. I can't talk in here."

McVelly led the way outside to the forecourt. It was a cold, bright morning and you could see the planes shining in the sky over Heathrow. The only sound was the sales patter of the third-year automotive retail science students practising their skills in the staff car park.

"What's going on?" I whispered, worried that everything we believed in was under threat. We'd worked long and hard to make the University of the M25 an overtaking lane for creative thinking.

Before McVelly could answer, the vice-chancellor scuttled over, head down as though he didn't want to be seen with us.

"Keep walking and listen," muttered the vice-chancellor. "I've had the board of governors trying to push my fingers into the toaster. It's this Hutton inquiry. They're panicking about corporate governance and how we'd look if we were put under the magnifying glass."

"What's the problem?" McVelly asked.

"I sent them an email by mistake."

"You did what?"

"I meant to send it to the registrar after we put it in for all those foundation-degree places. Ended up in the wrong inbox. It had a harmless joke about 'weapons of mass participation'. And the phrase 'old rope, new money' was in there, too."

"What are they saying you have to do?" McVelly was now the patient doctor coaxing out the truth.

"I'm sure it'll blow over. You know how they fuss. They've all started to think they'll be in a television news reconstruction played by a bunch of out-of-work actors who can't stop overacting."

"What does it mean?" McVelly said.

"Cut out the spin. I've got to see them tomorrow. I spent most of this morning hitting the delete button and putting my expenses through the shredder."

"We're going to have to stop this madness before it goes any further," McVelly said when we were back in our office.

"Prepare two emails. First version. University says sorry for misleading overseas students and promises to pay back hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation. Inspectors discover unsatisfactory living conditions for students at the cash-strapped University of the M25.

"The former bail hostel, which had been converted into student flats, had been marketed to overseas students as 'industrial chic' residences. The university now accepts that this was a misleading description of crumbling buildings unfit for habitation and will re-house and compensate all those concerned. In a spirit of transparency... etc, etc, email to be copied to board of governors, local press, The THES , funding councils, British Council and the Department for Education and Skills."

"Who do I send this to?" I asked the man who had more spin than a washing machine factory.

"Version two," McVelly barked. "Britain's most innovative university backs London's bid to host the Olympic Games. The University of the M25, often known affectionately by its students and proud local residents as UM25, has a reputation for being the first across the winning line. Now this world-beating academic institution is the first to throw its weight behind the capital's plan to host the 2012 Olympic Games by offering to provide accommodation for visiting athletes.

"The gold-medal university will allow its student village to be refurbished by lottery money so that it can be used by competitors attending the games.

In the meantime, to make such improvements possible, students will be moved out of these blocks temporarily while the audacious Olympic plans are assessed."

"Let me guess," I said. "Send them both to the v-c and ask him which version he'd like to use."

"Correct," McVelly said. "Normal service will shortly be resumed."

Got a PR problem? Email ted.prince@thes.co.uk

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