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24 Hours in HE: the re-awakening


Ivory Tower: we visit our fly-on-the-wall documentary series as students return to campus

Narrator: It’s a new term at Royal Dalton University, formerly the North by North West Midlands Institute and Technical College, one of Britain’s busiest higher education providers. But this year things could not be more different. Seven months into the Coronavirus pandemic and after a long lockdown of the campus, Royal Dalton is getting ready to welcome back students while keeping its distance from them. Vice-chancellor Sir Malcolm Baxter is looking forward to the new term.

Sir Malcolm: If I’m being honest it hasn’t been easy. All the sniping and mocking and questioning of my decision-making has been hard to bear. When I hear the same things over and over again from someone who ought to know better, I say, “Mother, will you just give it a rest”. But we were determined to open up to students again in a Covid-secure way, especially once it became clear the government wasn’t going to give us a bailout. We’ve really done our best to make the campus as safe as possible. There are hand-sanitiser stations in every room. We were lucky there, who would have thought bulk buying hand-gel would cost so much. Fortunately, it turned out that one of our chemistry professors was running an illegal still out of his lab. This only came to light with the explosion during lockdown. The fire brigade wasn’t best pleased, I can tell you. Anyway, rather than face criminal prosecution, the professor agreed to start producing hand gel instead of bathtub gin. So that’s a win-win. We’ve also issued all staff and students with face masks. They are kind of neat, with a Royal Dalton logo on them, and our motto “Vivere et discere”, you live and learn. Great marketing for the university, obviously, as our thousands of students mix with the community and take public transport reminding the local people of the massive influx of 17-21 year olds into the area, and everything they bring with them. Also we’ve obviously had to make sacrifices during the pandemic. It turned out that when visitors to my office in Neville Chamberlain House passed through the vestibule of my executive assistant Anthea, she was unable to socially distance. So, Anthea has moved her desk out into the car park. At the moment the weather is holding up, but I think the plan is for her to be in some sort of gazebo over the winter months. She’s also got a Royal Dalton scarf and hot water bottle. It’s an example of the adjustments we are all going to have to make at this difficult time. Visitors to my office now report to her desk, in the car park—some poor pro-vice-chancellor has had to give up their parking space for that—and she then comes up to my office on the 10th floor to tell me the visitor has arrived before going back down to bring them up. I’d really be lost without Anthea, she’s a great sport. I’m going to miss her next year when she reaches 65 and retires to spend more time with her grandchildren. Of course, we’ve been fully supported by the powers that be. Only last week, I had a personal Zoom call with universities minister Michelle Donelan who assured me that London was right behind us, about two weeks behind us in terms of infection rates, anyway. She said that the government was committed to levelling the north by north west midlands. At least I think that’s what she said, the WiFi kept cutting out, it’s like that round here. But I have to say some of the figures related to this pandemic are truly shocking. When I heard 1,114 I couldn’t quite believe it. What? Is that the number of Covid cases in our halls of residence? No, that’s the number of consultants advising on the Track and Trace system. Mind you, I won’t say a thing against ‘big four’ consultants. I used them last time we restructured Royal Dalton. I gave them a brief on gathering ideas to change the university. And fair play to them, they went out and duly sat in the offices of all my deans and asked them for ideas on how to change the university, then wrote it up, and handed it over along with an invoice for £2 million. It certainly saved me a job. Now, if you’ll excuse me I need to go have my photograph taken handing out ready meals to the students locked up in their accommodation. £20 per tray is such great value, it’s just tricky trying to slide the Pot Noodle under the door.

Narrator: Ian Blackforth, head of security and student surveillance, is one of the busiest people on campus. Ian is making a drive-by inspection of the Jasper Carrot halls of residence where 500 students are self-isolating.

Blackforth: Some of them think it’s funny. I mean just look at that, posters stuck up in the windows with messages on them—whose going to clean that, eh? Have you ever tried getting Sellotape off a windowpane? I bet they haven’t. Bet they’ve never even cleaned a dish before, precious little snow…I mean, look at that one there about the vice-chancellor, that’s harsh. How did they get enough Post-it notes to write that? And you don’t spell it with a K. And that one there, what good does that do anyone? Royal Dalton University may be many things but it’s certainly not a prison hulk. It couldn’t float for one thing. It’s too leaky, would be no good at all. I have to say, the media are blaming universities for bringing students back to campus in order to make money, but some of these young people have brought this on themselves. Fresher’s week was mad: an all-night party, no social distancing, drunkenness. And that was just the vice-chancellor’s reception for local MPs. Look, I get it, I was young once too. The things we used to get up to in the north by north west midlands sea cadets: cider and black and Kajagoogoo, great times. But there is a pandemic on now, and we’ve all got to play our part. That’s why I’m trying to win hearts and minds by introducing student Covid-combatants. I think the message is much more effective when young people hear it from one of their own. So, I’ve hand-picked some students from the policing and criminology course to tour the halls in hi-vis jackets handing out Covid safety leaflets. I told them to take no prisoners and really get into people’s faces, really breathe down their necks. It started off well, but oddly a lot of our volunteers are now self-isolating. I guess they couldn’t follow their own advice. It’s not for everyone the life of a Covid marshal. Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, pavements, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man…wait what’s that? Right that’s too much. I’m going in to take that down. That’s not how you spell my name. Do they kiss their mothers with those potty lips?

Narrator: It’s a busy time for head of student anxiety, Jen Montague. Formerly, the owner of Jen’s Crystal Shop in the high street, she is now dedicated to aligning the chakras of Royal Dalton’s many students and staff.

Montague: Yes, it’s very much pushed us all out of our comfort zones. Look at me, doing things I never thought were possible. When the shop burned down, I was at a real loss as what to do. I had to deal with the paperwork, of course, and all those persistent questions from the insurance company, and the police. But they never proved anything. So, I said to myself, Jennifer, it’s time to ride the change donkey. I got on that mule and gave it a great big kick and it shot off down the high street all the way to Royal Dalton University. Now, I’m responsible for the anxiety of thousands of people in the middle of a global pandemic. I never thought my journey would lead here when I got my certificate from the Internet Institute of Wellness. The course was actually validated by Royal Dalton, so maybe it was cosmic karma or something. I said that to the vice-chancellor during my interview. I remember saying to Sir Malcolm at the time, does he usually conduct interviews in the sauna? He said it was a new mindfulness thing he was trying out. Anyway, I got the job and here I am. But if I’m honest, I feel a little bit out of my depth. I really identify with those students who experience imposter syndrome. The other day, I had to go to a meeting of the outbreak control taskforce at the council. There were all sorts of people there: police officers, council officials, public health people. I was representing the university on my own. Sir Malcolm was supposed to be there, but he said he was booked in for some mindfulness training at that time. So, I was sitting there surrounded by all these bigwigs, and someone leaned over to speak to me. Only turns out to be the head of planning for the council. They said, “didn’t you used to work in Jen’s Crystal Shop on the high street?” I didn’t know what to say, I just sat there frozen, you know the way some people do in Zoom meetings to pretend they haven’t heard something but only in real life, like. “Funny how it burned down like that,” they said. People can be so hurtful, that’s why I always recommend to our students that they carry a tincture of hyssop and chamomile, or any rescue remedy really, along with a crystal that suits their personality. I believe that wellbeing is our best defence against this pandemic, that’s why I’ve ordered healing crystals for all staff to have on their desks and for all students to put in their windows—might help them spell someth of those disgusting words they’ve been posting.

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