Blogconfidential: Cosmetic effect

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online. This week: Cosmetic effect

March 17, 2011

A few weeks ago, my university sent an email to all staff who attend the open days asking them to come to a briefing. I went along. The university, it emerged, is anxious that all staff who interact with prospective students and their parents present the "right image".

The university has paid for image consultants to work with us so that we can successfully "talk the talk" and impress parents who are seeking evidence of "value for money".

We were given advice on which words to use, what not to say and how to answer difficult questions. We also have to scrub up and take fashion advice so that we all look presentable.

I cannot be the only person who thinks that this is one step too far. Does image really matter? Will prospective students really like me more if I use the words "absolutely" and "whatever"?

I am not a student; I am a scientist. I wear black jeans and a black T-shirt. I am a good teacher and researcher. If I order a new set of clothing (at my own expense), this is hardly going to transform my abilities.

I can see the future clearly. Our universities are going to lock up older academics in cupboards on open days and give beautiful young colleagues with nice make-up, stiletto heels and fashionable haircuts priority.

I have 10 years to go before I retire, but this is one diktat to which I am not going to submit. I will go to the open day in my regular attire and will engage on my terms. I will be honest about employment opportunities and, if necessary, I will make suggestions about other universities and more appropriate degrees.

Am I doing the right thing?

I think you are overreacting and seem to be in need of the university's guidance, whether you like it or not. "Image consultants" may be a little over the top, but it is clear that the younger generation is very different from our generation, from those of us in our final 10 years of service. It is important that people from this younger generation feel that they could be comfortable at your institution.

I always make an effort on open days. Perhaps it is a sign that I don't really get out much these days, but I do scrub up. I accept that this is not your way, but we are in a marketplace.

It's a war out there, and we must choose our battles wisely. To put it bluntly, having bums on seats means that I get to keep my job.

When students start at my university I make every effort to help them and their parents in any way that I can. I don't want any student to decide not to enrol at my university because they were put off by an ageing academic with last night's gravy stains on a T-shirt they have not changed for three days. Is putting on a nice shirt really so difficult?

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