Gary Day

August 10, 2007

As people watched their furniture floating down the street in the heaviest July rains since records began, the Cabinet addressed itself to the housing crisis. "Where can we build cheap, affordable homes?" Thumbs were sucked and fists pressed into foreheads. Since 0.6 per cent of families own 69 per cent of the land, the answer had to be flood plains. "But what happens if there is a deluge like we have had this summer?" asked the Home Secretary. "There won't be," said the Prime Minister. "Why not?" demanded the Foreign Secretary. "Because I have a cunning plan," came the reply. "Which is...?" "To fight global warming by building more roads, expanding airports and cutting rail subsidy." It was a bold vision. The Cabinet applauded. The Prime Minister glowed with pride at leading such a team.

"We seem to have got five minutes left," he observed. "Let's see - we've sorted out the economy, health, transport and Iraq. Is there anything we have forgotten?" "Universities?" queried the Higher Education Minister. "It's been ages since we last improved them. At least two weeks." "What have you in mind?" purred the PM. The Minister furrowed his brow. "We need to make them more businesslike," he opined. "The problem is that many lecturers still haven't grasped the fact that local employers should be running their institutions. I don't know why. It's a simple enough proposition." "It just goes to show," observed the Transport Minister, "that qualifications are no proof of intelligence." There was a flutter of laughter. "Yes - some scientists even think they should be allowed to do blue-skies research, and the humanities talk about developing the whole person." The laughter had become a gale. "Stop! Stop!" screamed the Minister for Schools, wiping his eyes, "I can't breathe." Eventually the storm died down. "Honestly," said the PM. "These academics. What they need is an education. Do you get it? An education." The Cabinet laughed louder still. "See to it," he snapped.

And so, welcome to the university of the future. There are two kinds. The first, formerly a traditional university, is like the department store in the 1970s TV comedy Are You Being Served? For while truth, morality and criticism have perished, fashion lingers on. Retro is still all the rage. It maintains the appearance of tradition, rather as ancient university buildings did before they were demolished as part of the continuing campaign to abolish history. There are three floors. Ground floor: banks, credit agencies, debt counsellors. Going up! First floor: aromatherapy, bingo-calling, supermarket studies. Going up! Second floor: spotting terrorists, reporting neighbours, supporting your Government.

What distinguishes these posh shops from Poundland is the personal touch. Here, students can learn social poise from Captain Peacock, how to walk from Mr Humphries, how to dress from Mrs Slocombe and how to manage the proles from Mr Rumbold. Mr Harman has disappeared because trade unionists are not relevant to the modern economy, and Mr Humphries' catchphrase "I'm free" has been abolished since it breaches Section 44 of the 2000 Terrorism Act.

There is no location for the second kind of university, formerly a polytechnic. Like most successful British companies, it exists in an entirely virtual environment. If students wish to speak to a tutor they must ring up. They will hear a recorded voice. "Hello. And welcome to Degrees 'R' Us. So we can help you faster, please enter your telephone number. Thank you. Let's get you some help quickly. You have three choices. If you need help getting dressed, press 1. If you want to know what kind of learner you are, press 2. If you want to know what to think this week, press 3. If none of these choices apply, please hold for the next available operator."

And so the student waits. The minutes tick by. No one answers. But there is music. There are announcements. Why didn't Samuel Beckett think of that to help pass the time in Waiting for Godot? "Did you know that, for only an extra £500, you can now progress from level 2 to level 3 if you obtain 35 per cent in any two modules out of four? Why not speak to one of our operatives to find out more about this great offer?"

You think this is bleak? Not at all. The university and phone company make money from the call. The student learns to cope with the boredom that will characterise her working life. And tutors have been freed up to join the latest online workshop on achieving excellence in customer care.

It's hard to believe, watching the sewage swill round the streets, that the future's bright. Perhaps once. But it looks distinctly Brown now.

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

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