Think UM25, think sexy research, think tarmac

March 12, 2004

The annual gathering of the Travellers' Rest Group of emerging universities is coming round and Ted Prince must help his v-c win some headline glory.

"I want the University of the M25 to be known as a top-flight research institution. And I don't want any more of thisI" The vice-chancellor was in a panic. The annual gathering of the Travellers'

Rest Group of emerging universities was fast approaching. The meeting was a piranha pool, and the v-c didn't want to be the one getting the Simon Cowell treatment.

"It makes us look so down-market." He was holding a leaflet that Nick McVelly and I had distributed at service stations. It seemed informative enough to me. "Quit stalling," it said. "If you want a degree in automotive studies, the UM25 has places on the starting grid."

"You won't like the new bumper sticker campaign either," McVelly added.

"UM25 students do it in the fast lane."

"Listen. Just for the next few days, can we try something more traditional.

Like getting a story in the papers about research. I want the words University of the M25 and research in the same sentence."

McVelly and I liked a challenge, but this wasn't going to be easy. We weren't that kind of place. When someone mentioned the RAE to the retail science department, they thought it was a new breakdown service.

But McVelly found us our man. Stephen Dedalus, a once-successful English literature academic who had fallen on lean times, was about to be discovered. McVelly already knew of Dedalus' success with adaptation studies. His lectures on "Ripping the covers off Jane Austen" and "Charles Dickens: Movie mogul" had appealed to the "too-busy-to-read-but-I-still-want-my-degree" brigade.

But McVelly knew about Dedalus' dark secret. For five years, he had been writing a book about road movies, how their narrative themes link to the literary tradition. "You know," he said. "Homer to Kerouac. I'm calling it The Hard Shoulder ."

The next morning, McVelly dragged me into the v-c's office. "Here's the press release that's going to put us on the research map. The hacks will be all over us: University of the M25, the fast lane to research innovation, has an academic who has spent five years writing a book about hard shoulders. From the emergency telephones to the different coloured tarmac, he's studied every detail of the motorway's 'mystery lane'."

"Has he really?" the v-c asked. "What a colossal waste of time."

"Of course he hasn't. But trust me, no newspaper is remotely interested in real research. But they'll always find space for some prat who's working on a PhD about a bicycle pump. Or in this case, hard shoulders. They may laugh and whine about Mickey Mouse degrees, but the university gets its name across. Works every time."

It was sheer genius: it had research, motorways and our corporate identity all wrapped up in the same neat parcel.

The next morning, at 6.07am, Dedalus was pulled out of his bed to appear on the Today programme. And the presenter was in attack mode.

"If you saw The Telegraph this morning, you'll have read about a new meaning to driving obsession. An academic at the University of the M25 has spent the past five years studying nothing except the hard shoulder of motorways. On the line we have the man who thinks it's worth devoting a lifetime to tarmac."

"Well it's not quite like thatI" Dedalus began.

"What's it like being Britain's most boring man? And why are you wasting so much of your time and our money?"

Where did it all go wrong? Dedalus wondered.

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