Shiny happy periodicals

Read all about it: Fred Inglis on the horn-blowing and the hoopla, the cant and the can-do spirit of the glossy world of official university magazines

November 15, 2012

What are they for? Does anybody read them? They are left out conspicuously on low tables in assorted waiting rooms in university entrance halls, and you may see people pick them up idly, much as in Philip Larkin’s hospital they “tamely sit…turning the ripped mags”. But reading them, all the way through? Surely not.

Yet every academic institution publishes one, A4-sized mostly, a big shiny photograph on the cover, a happily smiling Jessica Ennis sporting the Union Jack (Sheffield), a medical research student intent upon his prosthetics (Bournemouth), deep sea crystals in deep sea blue (there’s gold down there) (Southampton), seven sprinters bursting from their blocks (Essex)… They are all harmlessly trite, catch the eye for a second, hold your casual attention in the waiting room chair, leaning back, legs crossed - for a minute.

On the first page, you will invariably find the vice-chancellor or a deputy, smiling in (mostly) his portly way out at you, assuring you in the unchanging, deathly phrases of his office, that “2012 has been a remarkable year for the University of Sheffield. Despite one of the most challenging contexts for higher education in over a generation, I have again been inspired by the energy and innovation of our students”…blah, drone, as the cartoonist Steve Bell would put it.

Or this, from the University of Bristol’s vice-chancellor: “We are expanding teaching capacity…and investing in learning and living spaces. This is because of our commitment to retaining the quality of the student experience, and our belief that groundbreaking research must underpin our teaching. Growth is, in fact, ‘business as usual’ for Bristol University.”

(Worth noting, as one passes by, the striking fact that learning and living spaces at Bristol, doubtless because of its advanced e-facilities, no longer include a permanent bookshop.)

At Nottingham, the vice-chancellor essays a more personal note in the university’s Alumni Exchange. Introducing the new fundraising campaign, called, inevitably, “Impact: The Nottingham Campaign”, he writes, “Not only have I devoted most of my working life to the University, but I also want to be in the forefront of this campaign. Myself and my wife, Susan, have given a financial gift…but I also wanted to demonstrate my personal and genuine commitment to this campaign through a more challenging activity. In the summer I led a team of colleagues on a cycle ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End, raising £221,000 so far.”

You have to feel for the poor chap, especially as he has gone quite a bit further than the walk from official residence to official limousine. What is more general, however, in all these diffidently self-preening paragraphs is the assumption, which is later widely promulgated by their stooges in subsequent pages, that “innovative groundbreaking research is a fundamental feature” of their institution (this latter phrase, all too characteristically, Warwick’s), and that - how can they use this language as though it meant anything? - the university (Bristol, again) will stick to its “core values” and “will continue to thrive and develop and we will do so by remaining true to our vision”.

“Vision”, of course, is, as they say, a must-have, along with “mission”, “aspiration”, “inspirational” (only recently transformed into an adjective), the frequent use of “challenging” (meaning damned difficult), “robust”, research as invariably “cutting edge” or “groundbreaking”, and, bless us all, “passionate” (a favourite of the Prime Minister’s). There are no prizes but that they are “prestigious”, no collective spirit but that it is “enterprising”, no meeting other people but that they “interact”, no study but that it is “exciting”, “fantastics” left around like litter.

Is my easy malediction any more than part of what Martin Amis called “the war against cliche”, which it is always necessary to fight but which can surely find more significant targets than this pile of glossies extolling their universities to God knows what readership?

It is, it is. For these magazines betoken another advance by the corrupt and plague-poisoned armies of the professional advertisers, the public relations officers, the Mad Men, for whom propaganda tout court is the weapon of the fortune-hunter and whose deadly, unacknowledged business is to eliminate truthfulness as a measure of worth, and to give the image absolute precedence over the real. Even the amiable, slightly goofy officers in human resources are necessarily contaminated by these effluent tides, press-ganged as they are to describe the sack as reallocation of resources, and to present wage reductions as rationalisation of responsibilities.

The awful magazines make it all the harder for universities to fulfil their purposes, which are to find the truth and to imagine the common good. These exalted activities are still clearly to be discerned in such everyday stories of university folk as the training of infant teachers, of nurses, of solid-state physicists, of historians of medieval art, of social policy technicians. But it is the forward march of the managerial scientists that is routing the old, good vocabulary in the satanic names of enterprise, efficiency and profit. Nobody, nobody, would be so stupid as to pretend that universities should have no truck with counting the cash; what the dismal fact emerging from these journals, however, is that the dominant speech, the right way to talk if you want to be one of the grownups, is now that of business. (Remember the angry reverence with which, in The Godfather, Hyman Roth insists that business must not be polluted by mere human passion?)

One of the most crippling consequences of this hellish transformation is the severance of institutional memory. Short-term contracts, endless reorganisation, the stammering invention of new courses adjusted to possible constituencies in China and Brazil, have broken off continuity and shattered the traditions which ensure that a university maintains an identity and conserves its sense of itself, never more needed than in times of crisis. “All that is solid melts into air” the old man said. Even the little magazines could help with some minor repairs to this damage.

These truths being self-evident, it is still utterly lowering to hear one pro vice-chancellor (in a brochure called, dismally, Making A Difference with Plymouth University) fail to bring us out of our seats by writing “the word enterprise means many different things to many different people. To me it is mostly about being creative and innovative [what else?]. As a business school we seek to equip students with skills to enable them to adapt, think creatively and succeed despite risks and challenges.”

He is followed by half a dozen students saying the same sort of thing - “never say that something can’t be done” - much embellished by the catch-all adjectives “fantastic”, “challenging”, “passionate”, all beneath friendly, embarrassed photographs of themselves.

After a while, it just seems brutal to kick such inanition to death. Yet there are glimmers of what such publications might do on the side of good old life and liveliness in the contemporary university. I have beside me a copy of that admirable freebie, the Chew Valley Gazette, which, in perfectly decent and plain prose, commends to us the recent performance by local thespians in Wells, attends a beer festival in Ubley, reports the happy rejection of a planning application of a toxic waste dump in Stowey, and photographs schoolchildren in Chew Stoke bowling hoops, I’m pleased to say, down the (temporarily closed) high street.

This paper, and thousands like it, keep the record of their locality, mark the seasons and respectfully commemorate the distinguished and the dead. There are glimpses of such excellent pieties in the mostly grim reading of the university comics. There is a decent teacherly, if matey, effort from Southampton (“David” and “Anna” are the authors naturally, referred to by their first names only) about fibre optics; Bournemouth is enlightening on ecosystems 65 million years ago as guides to climate change; a delightful young woman at Sheffield has turned her degree in molecular biology to the noble service of brewing real ale; but even these fragments are rarely better than a 2:2.

Just one or two whole issues, as you’d expect, are much better than others. CAM, Cambridge’s offer, includes serious articles, very well written, one by the impeccable Robert Macfarlane on his mighty topic of the old pathways of England, another by Daniel Wolpert on brain research into physical movement, half a dozen serious letters and local news about new appointments: all this, stylishly, perhaps expensively, produced. I fear that our other elite institution does just as well with Oxford Today, with a gritty article on US politics and another on all that has been done for Cowley, an industrial area once the shameful secret of Oxford, by BMW’s investment.

That’s the sort of thing these publications should do. Without cant or swank, they should picture the best of their own little society to themselves and give a glimpse of it to passers-by. And just before someone says, “Oh yes, he would pick out Cambridge’s, wouldn’t he? They’ve got the money to outbid all of us”, let me commend Sunderland’s deliberately modest, pint-sized, untitled contribution, with a sensible, unpretentious introduction by the boss emphasising not just local roots but the importance of the university to the very strained economy of Wearside. He’s followed by a forgivable parade of star supporters - the Lords Puttnam, Coe and Winston and Baroness Morris - commending the place to the reader; and that’s it.

It’s not much to ask, that a little termly publication putting on a bit of an air for the university in question should write respectable prose, should not borrow the puffed-up mendacities intrinsic to the language of public relations, and should, when it is needed, tell the truth to its institution about what is happening to it and its fellows.

Let us take the biggest topic of all, top of everybody’s mind just now. By and large, nobody knows the facts about their universities’ finances. The senior managers, mostly quite inadequate to the job, prevaricate, postpone and tell downright lies; the staff live off rumours until suddenly some have to apply for their own jobs and fail to get them.

Without muckraking, the university journals could explain, clearly and honestly, how matters stand. They could discharge this painful, necessary duty alongside little reports of successes in the neighbourhood and put up milestones of more national achievement. Naturally, they would retain cheerful photographs of hopeful students and accomplished alumni. I am not at all calling for their authors to become investigative journalists. But it is not only reasonable; rather, in a timely way, it is morally necessary to expect that the voice of a university talking to itself should speak faithfully, truthfully, plainly, and of subjects that come close to its heart.

When I told a senior administrator that I was writing this article, she said, “I do hope you won’t be cruel to the people who produce these things. I know them quite well and they’re very nice.” In Iris Murdoch’s admirable novel, The Nice and the Good, her sharp point is that niceness too often turns out to mean complying with bullies, quiet-voiced obedience, suffering the insufferable. Goodness is steelier, harsher; goodness, as she says, is sovereign.

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