Visions and virgins, yes. Virtue, no

October 15, 2004

Our contest to write an opening chapter for a comic novel about a 21st-century vice-chancellor showed satire is alive on campus. Harriet Swain relates the deliberations of the judges, while below is winner Greg Walker's sketch of an ex-football manager taking his new team to the top of the league tables

All vice-chancellors are, of course, unique. Nevertheless, certain common themes emerged from The Times Higher competition to write the opening chapter of a satirical novel depicting a vice-chancellor of the top-up fees era. If we had somehow managed to extract from the 40-plus entries an essence of vice-chancellor, it would have looked something like this: a middle-aged man in a designer suit, who likes to be called by his first name, is concerned about his health, particularly his expanding girth, and his prospects of achieving a knighthood, who is vaguely interested in sex, whose life is run entirely by a highly organised secretary and/or wife, and who finds his mind continually wandering - from musings on the nature of difference to Chinese pronunciation and complicated schemes for tackling university finances.

All very well, but was it satire? pondered the judging panel - Deian Hopkin, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University; Times Higher columnists Laurie Taylor, Gary Day and Valerie Atkinson; and The Times Higher features and deputy features editors, Mandy Garner and myself.

Certainly, Hopkin had been hoping for something "a bit different, a bit more original". "Overpaid vice-chancellors in Armani gear, who are complete pillocks - we're tired of it, aren't we?" he said.

Also a little wearing were detailed references to quality assurance, performance-related pay and lists of emails and diary engagements - certainly true-to-life preoccupations of a 21st-century vice-chancellor but hard to make exciting in a novel. And surprisingly repetitive were mentions of The Times Higher . The newspaper popped up everywhere, with everyone from vice-chancellors to cleaners apparently poring over it - true, of course, but could it possibly have been a case of attempting to curry favour?

Most entries were well written, however, and there were some good plot ideas - as well as a few dead-body cliffhangers - fitted into the 2,000-word limit: the academics who were hidden away in the basement when their subjects came up for viability review; the photogenic student who claimed to have seen a vision of the Virgin on land earmarked for university development; Tony Blair, deposed as prime minister by Gordon Brown, arriving in his new job as a vice-chancellor to find that Brown has made Clare Short Education Secretary.

There were also some great lines - "striving to produce a blander mission statement" was a particular favourite of the panel, but there was also the description of one vice-chancellor's secretary as "dominatrix of his diary", the suggestion of starting a "war on error" and a reference to the "Beckham speech therapy centre".

A handful of the vice-chancellors depicted didn't quite fit the general mould. There were two women for a start, although one had slept her way to the top and the other dreamt of being ravished by the leader of the student union. One vice-chancellor was gay - indeed, his partner suggested attracting international interest by founding a lesbian and gay university.

Another had married an enterprising former Page 3 girl. One or two were even quite sympathetic characters, including the shortlisted, and much-praised, bumbling vice-chancellor of the University of Rural England, who bumps into an old flame on a train and finds out that she has become a management consultant.

This last was easily Hopkin's favourite entry, on the grounds, he said, self-consciously hiding his wristwatch, that it was much more true to life than all the unflattering depictions of Cartier watch-wearing vice-chancellors in the other submissions. Day, principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University, disagreed. He simply didn't think a sympathetic picture of a vice-chancellor was credible, and besides, he said, there were a number of flaws involving unfeasible timescales and inconsistencies that the rest of us hadn't noticed. Thank goodness we had a literary critic when we needed one.

One typical failing was that many of the entries seemed to fall into the category of short story, or - let's face it - rant, rather than opening chapter. This was something picked out by Atkinson, department administrator at York University, who said that she had been looking for something that would make her want to read on and that would be accessible to the general public. "There were too many in-jokes," she said.

This was why she favoured the only one involving explicit sex. It may have been a bit rude - Hopkin violently opposed it as salacious and misogynistic - but, she said, "sex would sell". She was also keen to see the reaction of readers if it were published in The Times Higher . "Some people would pass out in York if they read that," she said. And it wasn't merely gratuitous hanky-panky, either. Day pointed out that the sex scenes included hidden metaphors for what was going on in higher education.

In the end, the winner was clear; no one could help chuckling as they read out their favourite bits. "It was the only one that repeatedly made me laugh," Taylor said. "He is a comic writer with some skill." While there was some concern that the joke would be impossible to sustain for an entire novel, the more we thought about it, the more possible it seemed.

Certainly, the writer had managed to surprise us all with the unflagging quality of his gags.

The runners-up took a little longer to fall into place, which was why we ended up with three: Sally Feldman, head of the School of Media, Arts and Design at Westminster University; Chris Arthur, senior lecturer in religious studies, University of Wales, Lampeter; and John Gilbey, honorary lecturer in the department of computer science, University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Although the final decisions were unanimous, everyone liked the idea of taking the best bits of all nine shortlisted entries and making a kind of composite chapter, featuring, alongside a sabotaging secretary, a sympathetically drawn, oversexed vice-chancellor - possibly female, possibly a former prime minister. It would certainly have been original.

The runners-up will be published in the bumper Christmas edition of The Times Higher .

Chris Arthur runner-up
Sally Feldman  runner-up
John Gilbey runner-up
Greg Walker runner-up

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