It might be something to do with the lateness of spring, but morale in academia feels pretty low right now. Times Higher Education is full of sinister tales of cuts and closures, there is talk of a tougher university inspectorate system being planned to ensure quality and standards are upheld, and I never seem to read anything about us in newspapers that isn’t full of negatives.
But in some respects, universities are their own worst enemies, all hype and puff without much substance. Since nobody can afford a Max Clifford-type publicist, some of the attempts to grab headlines fall woefully short. Take our vice-chancellor’s latest scheme, for example. Overnight the other week, our place was suddenly plastered with banners and posters saying Y O U. When you read the smaller letters that YOU preceded, the phrase Your Own University emerged, a mind-boggling truism if ever I saw one. There were YOU signs everywhere: in the lobby of our building (which is now referred to as the Atrium, since it got a new coat of paint and TV monitor, all part of our Faculty Enhancement Programme) and along the corridors.
There was a glossy invitation in my mail to the YOU launch from Big D, the vice-chancellor with a Belfast accent so broad you need an interpreter to make out most of what he says. Since I am never a woman to turn down a free drink, I went along. The launch was taking place in yet another atrium, only this time a much bigger and better variety, since it belongs to the biologists who have much bigger grants than the rest of us and so can afford a higher quality of life. YOU banners adorned every spare bit of wall. Clearly no expense was being spared, I thought, until I tasted the wine and my illusions of being in with the smart set were shattered.
There were a couple of photographers hanging around, snapping in a desultory way, then suddenly a burst of applause and they all pretended to be paparazzi as Big D appeared driving a sort of plastic bubble car, looking for all the world like Noddy, though without the hat with the bell on the end.
We all parted to let him through, then watched as he struggled out of the contraption. Well, actually, he was assisted out of it because he is, shall we say, on the large side, or perhaps just under what might be described as obese. Undaunted, he stepped up to a microphone and started his speech. From what I could understand, thanks to the able translation skills of my mate Ted, who is also Irish and heads up a research team with the biologists, the bubble car is an example of the amazing technological skills of our colleagues, and will help to save the planet since it runs entirely on composted waste matter. I wanted to ask how you actually got the compost into the machinery and how much of it would you need to do 50 miles or so, but there was no time for questions such as that and, anyway, it would probably have been a churlish thing to do, much as I enjoy being churlish. The usual bunch of sycophants praised Big D and one of them hailed the “thrillingly exciting example of what our fine university can do when first-class minds and skilled technicians come together for the benefit of humanity”.
Then the speechifying turned to YOU, to how we all owned our university, we were all organic parts of it, and how the organism that is the university also belongs to everyone who has ever been here – it belongs to all our alumni across the world. Aha, I said to Ted, that’s what this is about. It’s a fundraising ploy and YOU is part of the spin.
But Ted was better informed than me. It turns out that the YOU campaign was indeed going to be part of a fundraising drive, but then came the double whammy of the financial downturn and our less than wonderful research assessment exercise result, which has us somewhere way down in the tables. So our spin-doctors, otherwise known as the University Communications Office, decided to turn the YOU campaign into something slightly different. YOU is now all about ownership, mutuality, participation and any number of other overused platitudes floating around in the public sector these days. The principle behind YOU is apparently the same as that used by British Airways when it labelled itself the world’s favourite airline, a cunning ploy because nobody could prove or disprove that claim. We are going down the same path with YOU. We are packaging ourselves as the friendly university, the university that eschews elitism and wants everyone to feel they have a stake in it. Your Own University – can’t quarrel with that, can you? Just a pity it doesn’t actually mean anything.