Gary Day

February 11, 2005

A brainstorming session on how to recruit the next intake of undergraduates results in innovations and some scorched thighs

We all need undergraduates. How would universities survive without them? More to the point, how would we? I've got used to the boat, the Bentley and the second home.

And the problem is made worse by our having to compete for students. But what do we do when we get them? Complain about how useless they are. Yet the following year here we are, dreaming up more schemes to outwit the competition. "How about buy one degree, get one free?"

"No," said someone. "That's been done."

"Who by?"

"Don't you mean 'by whom'?" interposed a professor, proving that new universities do care about standards.

"Can we please keep to the point," said the chair. "You were saying?"

"I was saying," resumed the speaker, "that Oxford have been doing that for years."

"Now, that's what I call vision," declared the chair, thumping the table.

There was a sharp intake of breath as we tried not to react to the hot coffee that had just splashed into our laps. Another example of academic stoicism.

"I hear that Oxford are going to reduce the number of home students so they can take more from overseas," someone squeaked.

"We don't have to ask our students to leave," gasped the head of first year. "They do that of their own accord."

"That shows they use their initiative," said the marketing representative, hoarsely. "We can put that in the publicity." This was the kind of thinking that got you promotion, but it was beyond most of us.

"I don't know why everyone makes such a fuss about Oxford," hissed the professor. "Take Magdalen College. Why is it pronounced "maudlin"? I've never understood that ."

The new member of the department looked as if she was going to say something but then changed her mind. These people seemed rational, but she couldn't be sure. For days they'd been coming to her office in groups of three or four, just to stare at her. How was she to know that they'd never seen a new appointment before?

"Why don't we invite students to interview?" suggested the person in charge of recruitment.

"What, you mean actually let them see the place?" We would have laughed, only our thighs were still smoking.

"With all this upheaval, they'll think they're in the middle of an episode of House Doctor ," groaned the medievalist.

"Quite," said the Miltonist. "What sort of impression do you think they'll get of university life if they find us all discussing decor instead of Descartes?"

"An all too accurate one," sighed the Modernist, patting the 68-page consultation document on the colour scheme of the car park barriers. At least the meeting lasted long enough for our clothes to dry, otherwise we might have attracted comment along the corridors.

It was agreed that we would have to be trained to interview students. Being English, we hardly knew how to talk to one another, let alone young people, as many of our students would no doubt testify.

First the preparation. The interviews must not be interrupted, so phones should be put on divert. Many colleagues had wanted to know how to do this for a long time and it is now pointless trying to telephone them.

Applicants, we were told, must be put at their ease. Ask them a few questions as a warm-up: "How has your day been so far?"

Warm-up? That innocent inquiry to my first interviewee was more like a starting pistol. It triggered a monologue worthy of Vicky Pollard in Little Britain. Among the torrent of words, I picked out "bees", "alarm clock" "grouting" and "Polo mint". When she finally came to a stop and stared at me demanding a response, I gambled on sympathetic and said "that's terrible", at which point she let out a great wail and rushed out of the room.

The next candidate had more metal than flesh on his face, which affected all mobile phones in his vicinity.

He also picked up police radio. I don't know if you've ever tried to talk to someone about Emma when all you can hear is "the suspect has just turned down Oxford Street, please send back-up" but it's actually more thrilling than Jane Austen. In the short term, anyway.

Yes, give us "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses". If the dreaming spires won't have them, we will. Provided they can pay, of course.

And then let's see how many overseas students Oxford gets now that Charles Clarke plans to detain anyone who looks "foreign".

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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