“A few dodgy dealings in the past should not disqualify anyone from serving on a public body.”
That was how a spokesperson for the new Office for Students responded to criticism of the appointment of former market trader, Mr Derek Trotter, to the OfS board.
Mr Trotter, or “Del Boy” as he is known to his business colleagues, has responded vigorously to those who suggest that his character is not suited to a major role in higher education. “In the past I have spoken about ‘pulling birds’ and referred to a person’s posterior as their ‘jacksie’ and employed the phrase ‘a bit of humpty dumpty’ to characterise sexual congress. But these were merely youthful expressions that I haven’t actually used for the best part of the past six months.”
As a trader, Del Boy should, however, soon feel at home with the other top traders on the board of higher education’s new governing body: Elizabeth Fagan, senior vice-president at Boots, Katja Hall, previously group head of external affairs at HSBC, and Gurpreet Dehal, former managing director in the equities division of Credit Suisse.
Mr Trotter described his new appointment and its accompanying emolument as a “nice little earner”.
Is the REF now NAFF?
Suggestions that the research excellence framework should be pronounced “a disastrous failure” after compelling research evidence that it forces academics to produce scholarship “in greater quantity but of poorer quality” have been dismissed by Brian Bryan, our deputy head of REF strategy.
Mr Bryan acknowledged that researchers at the London School of Economics, UCL, the University of Oxford and the Free University of Berlin had reached their conclusion about the poor quality of REF research only after examining more than 4,000 publications, but he insisted that this missed the point of the REF. Research was not its key component.
“What delights everyone at the Department for Education is that dons who in the past enjoyed a dangerous degree of autonomy over their research now have to scurry like frightened chickens to ensure that their inadequate findings meet the REF deadline.”
Did this mean that Mr Bryan agreed with Peter Coveney, professor of physical chemistry at UCL, that these findings were another sign that the UK “has become enslaved to the process of performance evaluation of academics”? Mr Bryan said that he respected Professor Coveney’s views but felt that his allusion to dons as “slaves” might be “letting the cat out of the bag”.
One exciting task lying ahead for Del Boy and his new colleagues at the OfS is, of course, the promotion of more private for-profit providers of higher education.
They’ll be encouraged by the recent success of the Poppleton Institute of Dance and Drama (formerly The Mrs Bartlett School of Terpsichorean and Dramatic Art). In the years 2016-17, Mrs Bartlett, vice-chancellor of the institute, netted more than £20 million in tuition fee loans from her students. “I was only overtaken”, she told The Poppletonian, “by the for-profit private British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM), which pulled in a massive £24.4 million in the same period, and thereby scooped up more money in tuition fees than the London School of Economics, Soas, University of London and Harper Adams University.”
Might members of the OfS spend some time checking that for-profit providers live up to the same standards as public universities? A member of the board speaking “off the record” thought that they were more likely to remain what he described as “shtum”.