Blogconfidential: Recipe for disaster

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

April 28, 2011

There is an atmosphere of recrimination in my institution. Earlier this month, a group of Eastern European academics came to the university to decide whether we represented the best option for their students. We were in with a good chance: as you know, overseas students are worth their weight in gold, so this was an important contract for us. Unfortunately, the visit was an absolute disaster. Why? Because of the catering.

The problems began six months ago when the vice-chancellor sent a high-priority email to everyone explaining that the university's catering services needed to be "kept in line with the frugal expectations we should all now accept". We've had to put up with a bargain-basement sandwich service ever since. The sandwiches are terrible: you could spend all day worrying about what is in them; whatever it is, it is unpleasant. Most of us refuse to eat them.

Ahead of the all-important visit, our administrative services made the catering order for our Eastern European visitors. After the first day, they were up all night with sickness - I'll spare you the gruesome details. Now the vice-chancellor is up in arms, blustering that "heads will roll" over (and possibly into) the food.

Although it was the vice-chancellor who issued the directive, one of our admin workers is likely to take the rap. This is unfair. I feel that I should stand up and suggest that our glorious leader is the problem here. What should I do?

At first sight this seems a relatively funny story, but it has serious implications for your university and the livelihood of its staff.

First of all, let's deal with the sandwiches. You cannot blame your guests for deciding against your academic institution after experiencing a collective bout of food poisoning. It should be drawn to the attention of the vice-chancellor that the admin staff were simply following his own email directive. He should take responsibility for his actions.

That said, you all knew about the poor quality of the spread likely to be on offer. Why didn't someone have the common sense to realise that your visitors might be less than impressed and order in something more palatable?

I would go so far as to argue that the episode is a parable for our times, indicative of a far wider problem with quality. Many academics are contacting me about cuts in staff numbers and increasing workloads - neither of which can be said to improve the student experience. You never know, perhaps the vice-chancellor will see the light and realise that the sandwich episode is a warning of deeper problems. Quality comes at a price and this tale provides a very apt example of what happens when corners are cut.

In this case, the loss of the contract is the consequence. The result may be more redundancies - and that is no laughing matter.

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