Warwick bares all on air

January 3, 1997

Warwick University has agreed to subject itself to the intrusions of a fly-on-the-wall radio series. But Simon Midgley finds the natives sanguine about such exposure

In a rare warts-and-all examination of life on a British campus, Warwick University is to star as the subject of a seven-part fly-on-the-wall radio series starting next week. Undeterred by the obloquy heaped on the Royal Opera House after it exposed itself to the forensic scrutiny of a BBC TV crew in The House series, the university authorities agreed to allow Radio 4 producer Brian King virtually unlimited access to record on the campus for much of last year.

The result is an intriguing impressionistic portrait of university life at Warwick in particular and of the dilemmas and pressures affecting administrators, lecturers and students in general in British universities.

While in one sense plus ca change - here are the familiar stories of student drunkenness, fights, vandalism, drugs and rock and roll - the programme-maker has also managed to capture a sense of the intense pressures contemporary universities are under to recruit the best students and slash costs in the face of government spending cuts.

There are also intriguing glimpses of the closed areas of academic life - interviewing prospective students, the machinations of senior academics in senate, meetings with external examiners to decide student grades and the process of student admissions.

Mr King, whose previous fly on the wall series include The Teachers, The Hospital and The Airport, recorded on campus over an eight-month period and also gave students, academics and even Sir Brian Follett, the vice chancellor, tape recorders to record aspects of university life themselves. From hundreds of hours of recorded material the producer then selected a tiny fraction of the material to be broadcast.

King says: "What you are trying to get are programmes which are as little influenced by the production process as possible and one way to achieve that is to remove yourself so you find people who are prepared to do a bit of recording on their own. And then you see what happens - sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. Sometimes it starts to sound more artificial than if you were there yourself. I hope that in among all the nervousness and reticence and embarrassment I will find moments of clarity where the truth of the situation emerges.

"What I have to do is wade through an awful lot of rubbish looking for those moments - those things that seem to me to say something about this thing called the university. It is a very impressionistic thing. It's not a documentary. It works on a subliminal level. It does not tell you lots of facts. Nobody would pass an examination on what is Warwick University like at the end of the series, but they would have a much stronger sense and understanding of the themes that preoccupy those who teach, work and study in a university."

Especially illuminating sequences include the deliciously rancorous senate meeting when senior academics wrangle over proposals to impose fees on departments that fail to get their postgraduate students to write up their research in four years. "Obviously what we have,'' says one senate member, "is a faculty that cannot get its students to write up but somehow other mechanisms have to be found to get them to do so inside a respectable time''. As the meeting moves on, the wrangling rumbles on. "You have misjudged it Hugh, you really have,'' says another academic peevishly.

A later gem exposes the problems caused by the university's very successful mathematics department which has - rather arrogantly and notwithstanding the advice of admissions staff - made too many offers to prospective students. It finds that it has massively overshot its student recruitment target and has to tell some parents of children with good results that they have failed to get places. What is especially irritating to colleagues in other academic disciplines, however, is that their departments are also asked to reduce their student intakes as a result of the mistakes made by the maths faculty.

Elsewhere in the series is a rare glimpse of academics deliberating on examination results. Tutors in the physics department debate which class of degree their students should receive, who is in danger of failing completely and which students should be seen by external examiners with a view to promoting them up a class.

Outwardly the university appears to be confident that exposing itself to such prolonged scrutiny will not have any adverse effects on its public image. John Read, Warwick's director of public affairs, says: "I suppose there is an element of risk in exposing oneself to the outside scrutiny of broadcasters, but we think the picture that emerges is a positive picture of a dynamic, interesting and well-managed organisation.

"We are not saying that there are no problems to be dealt with here. There certainly are and the programme does concentrate on some of them but what is important to say is that when difficult situations arise they are dealt with swiftly, effectively and fairly."

Obviously, he adds, whether to allow the microphones in at all was debated at the highest level in the university. Ultimately, however, the university decided that it was a well-managed and academically successful institution which could withstand such microscopic examination.

Sir Brian said that Warwick was not by nature a risk-averse institution and it had a fair amount of faith in itself. "I believe I am running a good university - teaching and research. The university knows it is imperfect. It knows it has problems galore. We thought that if a university were to be portrayed on Radio 4 then Warwick should come out of it pretty well. It will come out with warts, but it will come out pretty well - we hope." Whether Warwick still holds this view after the series has been broadcast remains to be seen.

The University starts on Radio 4, Thursday January 9 at 9.30 am

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