Honour the people who count

January 18, 2002

Once again a university boss is honoured while his loyal auxiliary staff go unnoticed, complains Valerie Atkinson

The newspaper placards lauded a local hero: "University chef knighted". Amazing - a member of catering staff elevated to such heights. A splendid reward for all those degree-day feasts and conference dinners, but most of all for the daily grind of providing nourishment for students and staff.

Just as we were thinking that the triumph of Middle Earth might be complete tosh. Just as we resigned ourselves to the fact that the "little" people so beloved of Tolkien and his duped consumers would remain eternally anonymous after all, their fate to remain consigned forever to subordination and invisibility. Just as we were forced to unpick the Blair dream of liberating the submerged masses and again discover less magic, more realism, the elitist status quo preserved - there it was. A member of university support staff recognised for their invaluable contribution. A symbol of hope for every hard-working, loyal auxiliary member of every institution in the country.

But no. Read it again. A wayward eye missing a crucial "i". Not chef but CHIEF. Of course.

We are gratified, certainly, to have our vice-chancellor recognised so. Delighted that he has brought such acclaim to our establishment and to our city. Pleased that a diligent, dynamic individual who has achieved so much has got his just deserts.

But among those producing more than just desserts in his kitchens are people who have been loyal employees for 25 years and more, and whose jobs may now be at risk.

Far from being feted for their allegiance, this staff group is being downsized, or rationalised. For the university is bent upon "facilities management" - another opaque expression, resonant somehow of shifting refectory tables or wiping blackboards. In this new, increasingly commercial millennium, its meaning is far less innocent. Some of the so-called "facilities" are people, their "management" a system of re-organisation that may deny them natural justice. And many of them have given years of service equivalent to - or, in certain cases, longer than - the soon-to-be-knighted vice-chancellor.

Knighted or benighted? Chief or chef? Does the fate of the individual rest mainly upon the grandeur and implied status of his or her working title? No one would seriously believe that a member of university catering staff, however dedicated or long-serving, would arise Sir Knight. Only a truly egalitarian state would observe the equality within the difference, and then it would be unlikely to be observing The Orders of Chivalry under the Protection of the Royal See. If, indeed, it understood such an extraordinary phrase.

But obfuscation rules, OK? This is a university, after all. Operational management, customer satisfaction and financial targets are buzzwords imported from a different world, an uncertain, alarming commercial world in which there is poor protection for "little" people - a world where the best, and worst, to be expected is the survival of the fattest.

When you are managing facilities, you are at liberty to downgrade cleaning and catering staff, rob administrators and others of their appointed roles and force them to reapply for jobs with titles they do not understand, which have even more obscure job descriptions. There are fewer jobs to be had, of course. Many of them at lower grades and less well-paid. Divide and rule - forget the Fellowship of anything. And in the darkness, bind them? Not likely. If the institution has its way, it will be every chef, cook, cleaner, porter, deputy, administrator, facilities manager for themselves.

The health and strength of an institution - like that of a democracy - is reflected in the condition of the most vulnerable of its subjects. If recognition of the contribution of a vice-chancellor by a knighthood is to have any momentum at all in the immediate sphere in which it has influence, then it should be to provide a positive trickle-down effect. And, within the institution, that effect should be to find appropriate, meaningful ways in which to sustain, applaud and reward the vast battalions of "little" people who have contributed to and continue to underpin that success.

Valerie Atkinson is a department administrator at the University of York.

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