Why I ...think campus novels reveal the changing identity of university heads

May 21, 2004

Consider the principal of a redbrick university in the 1950s, "A small ventricose man with a polished, rosy bald head", and a laugh like a sound effect in a horror film. This character had only a walk-on role in Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim , lightly quizzing Jim Dixon before his address on "Merrie England" and sitting in horror as the lecture implodes.

Amis' principal was a comic rather than a malign character. He wielded nothing like the power over Dixon's life exercised by the baleful Professor Welsh, head of history. Above all, the principal is immediately recognisable as just another eccentric professor.

Peter Scott, vice-chancellor of Kingston University, summarises the evolution of postwar management in British universities as having three phases: donnish, democratic and managerial. Lucky Jim was published in 1954, at the apex of donnish dominion. Academic self-government was taken for granted; administration was minimal and deferential.

Scott's second phase - the democratisation of governance - was brief. Accelerated by student protest, universities became less hierarchical; departmental headship was no longer a droit du professeur . This phase was captured in Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man (1975), set in a green-belt university and fleetingly graced by vice-chancellor Millington Harsent. He spoke in tones "of demotic regality", and was "all things to all men... but in reverse; he was thought by the conservatives to be an extreme radical, by the radicals to be an extreme conservative".

Unnerved by student militancy in 1968, Harsent subsided. When the repellent Howard Kirk's misdemeanours filtered up through the disciplinary procedure ("I find it all awfully distressing," mumbled the head of department, "and I am sure the vice-chancellor will too"), he escaped unscathed.

But within the brew of democratisation, another yeast was at work. During the 1970s, there was steady growth of planning, estates management and marketing. Managerial cadres were appointed to support vice-chancellors just beginning to roll their tongues around the phrase chief executive officer.

The crucial years in the rise of the new managerialism were 1981 to 1985: from the first Thatcher cuts to the Jarratt report on university efficiency. Spurred by the charge of inefficiency, universities embraced strategic planning, restructuring, line managers and cost units. Zero-based budgets trumped Senate votes; the bottom line came out tops.

A new breed of vice-chancellor was appointed - and is encountered in Frank Parkin's The Mind and Body Shop . His sole qualification is a diploma in laundry administration. By the first chapter he has abolished the departments of classics, mathematics and English, and his politics professor boosts income by advising military dictators.

Parkin's farce was jostled on the shelves by Bradbury's Cuts, David Lodge's Nice Work and Andrew Davies' A Very Peculiar Practice . Four novels by four academics, published between 1985 and 1988, and (according to one commentator) with a common theme - "the collapse of... university life under Visigoth government policy".

Yet the vice-chancellors in this quartet are not as convincing as Sir Stanley Oxborrow in Anne Oakley's Overheads (1999). He headed East Midlands University at about the moment that new Labour was elected. His closest associates are management consultants. Sir Stanley is an intelligent and ruthless ideologue. He believes in what he is doing. "It's my job as vice-chancellor" (he said, waving aside an appeal to procedural niceties) "to make this university work."

We don't have a campus novel for the top-up fees era (although the office-holders of Poppleton trespass where Universities UK hardly dares to tread). But whatever the plot holds, the virtues of the vice-chancellor will serve as a lens for the dissection of universities.

Colin Bundy
Director
School of African and Oriental Studies
University of London

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