Sing it - funding has just got funky

January 26, 2007

Fame inspires Kevin Fong to don his leg warmers and revitalise the academy.

Get ready for your RAE star jump - it's time to break a sweat

Fame costs and right here's where you start paying - in sweat."

So a couple of weeks into the new year and already we're beginning to shed resolutions while deciding which of our Christmas gifts has enduring value and which are destined to end up on eBay by late February.

This year I bought my wife the DVD boxed set of the 1980s TV series Fame , an inspired choice - which I spent most of the break watching. Some might say that my buying stuff for other people in the full knowledge that it is ostensibly for my own enjoyment is a despicable practice. I agree, but it's a weakness I recognise and something I'm genuinely trying to improve upon.

Certainly things are much better than Christmas 2005, when I bought my mum a PlayStation 2.

Anyway, this year as I was lying on the sofa, filled with enough Brussels sprouts to kill a small hippo, watching classic episodes of The Kids from Fame over and over again, it occurred to me that here in front of my very eyes was the model of higher education that we in the UK should be aiming for. For those not familiar with the format, Fame was a series about the fictional New York School of Performing Arts, a college with a bunch of kids who have so much talent that they make the X Factor final look like a New Year's Eve karaoke contest in the Dog and Duck. Think Grange Hill meets Phantom of the Opera and you're about halfway there. The storyline was pretty straightforward: when the going got tough the tough got singing, dancing or both and, unlikely as it sounds, this proved to be an effective method of solving most of the world's problems.

But I think people have missed the true central message of that programme; it was so much more than just a show - it was a guide to modern university harmony. With the tag line "Fame costs and right here's where you start paying - in sweat" it provided the perfect blueprint for higher education Utopia. Granted, if you cast your mind around your own department, the prospect of copious perspiration does perhaps conjure up some pretty ugly imagery - but, no pain, no gain.

If you want this approach to work, you'll need to embrace the Fame concept in its entirety. For example, if you've had a falling-out with a colleague, don't endure months of uncomfortable silences, simply clear the air with a funky dance-off in the common room. Estates department letting you down with the central heating in the winter again? No problem, just slip into those leotards and indulge in an energetic warm-up routine. Got completely stuffed in the research assessment exercise? Gather everyone together, turn the stereo up to 11 and have a cross-departmental commiseration boogie in the street.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Think what it could be like if you replaced that tired old grant application process with a series of live auditions. Imagine, instead of filling in reams of rainforest-depleting paperwork, you could just rock up on stage, stand in the spotlight and listen to learned but disembodied voices rising from the darkness: "I see you have prepared something for us, Dr Fong. Now for this part we want you to read it with passion and feeling, but with no originality, and in the style of the last bloke we gave a grant to." It would be so much more efficient and entertaining, I can't believe nobody has thought of it before.

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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