Fourth Degree by Laurie Taylor – 18 April 2019

All campus life is here

April 18, 2019
Montage with Mona Lisa
Source: iStock montage/Alamy

Painting over the cracks

Laurie Taylor reports

 “Although it’s not in the same league as Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, this is still a major find.”

That was how one leading art critic reacted to the news that an undergraduate at the University of Bath had discovered the missing portrait of its former vice-chancellor, Dame Glynis Breakwell.

Although the £16,398 portrait was officially unveiled back in February, it then alarmingly disappeared from view and has never been seen in public again.

That is, until Sibyl Hallward, a third-year art student who was intrigued by the mystery, paid a visit to the attic of the university’s Chancellor’s Building. And there, sandwiched between the rafters and clumsily wrapped in old newspapers, was the missing portrait.

“It was”, said Ms Hallward, “a eureka moment. There in front of me was the actual picture of the person who has done so much to ensure that Bath is known for something other than its Jane Austen bus tours. There in front of me was the face that launched a thousand condemnatory headlines.”

But that is not the end of this extraordinary story. According to inside reports, the portrait ceremonially unveiled by the Earl of Wessex showed a dignified Dame Glynis seated in an armchair. But in the portrait discovered by Ms Hallward, Dame Glynis’ dignified demeanour has been replaced by “a very broad smile” and now also features a large bubble above the sitter’s head, in which the words “Screw you, Bath. I’m sitting pretty” are clearly visible.

A spokesperson for the university described Ms Hallward’s claim to detect a literary parallel in her discovery as “tendentious”.

Deeply disturbing

As academics throughout the UK busy themselves with the compilation of finals papers, a leading literary theorist, Roland Bathcake of the University of Old Sarum, has poured scorn on those exam setters who rely on such “tired and overworked phrases” as “critically assess” and “critically evaluate”.

“What is wrong”, asked Dr Bathcake, “with such exciting alternatives as ‘critically comment’ or ‘gravely examine’ or ‘seriously ponder’ or ‘meticulously appraise’ or ‘rigorously scrutinise?’ ”

But there are some limits to such linguistic reformulations. Dr Bathcake reserved particular opprobrium for the English literature professor from a mid-Somerset university who began every question on his 2018 Milton paper with the “frankly demeaning” instruction “knowingly plagiarise”.

Fake news

Although the university watchdog, Higher Education Degree Datacheck, has been deservedly praised for helping to shut down 75 bogus universities in the past five years, evidence is emerging that its work may have inadvertently generated acute anxiety among genuine academics.

One senior professor at a top-50 university told Fourth Degree that while it was important to learn that there was something fundamentally fraudulent about such institutions as Hampshire’s University of Boggy Bottom, Worcestershire’s Upton Snodsbury University College, and Norfolk’s Great Snoring Institute of Technology, it would have been helpful if the watchdog had laid out its criteria for finding a university to be bogus.

“On my own campus,” he said, “we are currently hard at work adding bogus claims to our prospectus, compiling bogus figures and statements for the next teaching and research excellence frameworks, handing out bogus firstclass degrees and inventing bogus reasons for paying our vice-chancellor an obscene emolument. All in all, it would seem that the only distinctive criterion for a university to be declared bogus by the watchdog is if it happens to be in possession of a silly name.”

Do you ever think that you might work in a bogus university? Send details of your concern to Higher Education Degree Datacheck, marking your envelope “Get me out of here”.


Print headline: Painting over the cracks

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