Ivory Tower: Universities media relations crisis? You know who to call
In a corner of SW1
Juniper: I’m just saying it’s more normal to go to Acas.
Jo Grady: I’d rather we kept this on the down low.
Alistair Jarvis: You are trusted sector arbiters.
Juniper: That’s good to hear, isn’t it Oliver?
McCall: Abs o’ loose tea.
Juniper: What did you say?
McCall: Abs o’ loose tea. Vary pleashed to harit.
Juniper: Can you take that ridiculous mask off. It’s not helping.
McCall: Sorry, carry on.
Jarvis: As I was saying, we’d like to keep this out of the media.
Grady: Yes, and you are cheaper than Acas.
Juniper: Never knowingly under procured.
McCall: If I understand the problem correctly, you would both like the strikes to come to an end.
Jarvis: God, yes, this has gone on long enough.
Grady: We think we’ve made our point.
Juniper: Just so I understand the brief better, what is your motivation here?
Jarvis and Grady [together]: Money
McCall: I don’t get it.
Grady: The cost of the fighting fund is bleeding us dry.
Jarvis: The compensation claims from students could be astronomical.
McCall: But the fighting fund is capped and there has been no appetite for student compensation claims so far.
Juniper: Is there something else you want to tell us?
Jarvis: We are approaching that time of the year when VCs have their appraisals and so their salaries are set for next year. No one wants to go into that while students aren’t being taught.
McCall: And the union?
Grady: We’ve just had elections to the national executive committee and have our annual congress coming up.
Grady: Obviously, as a union we have got other things to be getting on with now.
McCall: Such as?
Grady: Bloodletting, blackballing, in-fighting, that sort of thing.
McCall: I don’t believe you, either of you. What else is there?
Jarvis: You first
Grady: No you go first.
Jarvis: Alright, no one wants to get the blame for the whole virus thing.
McCall: I see.
Juniper: I still don’t, what are you talking about?
McCall: It’s very obvious Alexander. It is only a matter of time before universities and schools go into shut down. This will cause chaos with teaching, exams and graduations, affecting one and a half million students. The union’s next step in the strike would have been a marking boycott but it can’t be seen to be exploiting the situation. As for the vice-chancellors, it’s the end of days if students can’t finish their course. The government and the OfS will blame them for everything. From here on in it’s a lose-lose situation.
Jarvis: Exactly, but at the same time we can’t just capitulate.
Grady: Absolutely not.
Juniper: Couldn’t you just call a truce for the greater good?
Jarvis and Grady [together]: My members would never accept that.
McCall: Obviously, neither side can lose face.
Jarvis: But there is absolutely no prospect of resolving either the pensions dispute or the pay strike.
Juniper: Talks not going well?
Jarvis: The pension scheme came close to breaching its regulatory covenants and could be obliged to ask members for increased contributions.
Grady: Less than half of universities are on strike over pay, there is no incentive whatsoever for Ucea to offer a new deal.
Juniper: But you are not prepared to shake hands and call it a draw?
McCall: For the good of the nation?
Jarvis and Grady [together]: And help this government?
Jarvis and Grady [together]: Absolutely not
Jarvis: Brexit…and Boris…obviously.
McCall: And what’s your red lines?
Jarvis: Scheme members must pay higher contributions to have the same level of benefits.
Grady: Long-striking staff must experience victory.
Juniper: I see, it really is stalemate.
McCall: The ass’s bridge, as it were. The thing is I also think both sides are so dug in that the strike is somehow working for them.
Grady and Jarvis [together]: Our members have never been so united.
Juniper: They won’t be once the quarantines start.
Jarvis: It’s going to get bad.
Grady: Have you seen the panic buying?
McCall: Yes, I sometimes think the panic buying is the only thing stopping the country tipping into recession.
Grady: Look, we need a fix and we need one soon.
Jarvis: Staff need a reason to go back to work and employers need a reason to think they’ve won.
Juniper: It’s a conundrum and no mistake.
McCall: Perhaps, one best contemplated over a sherry. I wonder where Janet has got to.
[Enter Janet with a tray]
Juniper: Jo, Alistair, have you met Janet our degree apprentice in university media relations?
Grady and Jarvis [together]: We met on the way in.
McCall: That doesn’t look like sherry.
Janet: It’s tea.
Janet: It’s ten in the morning.
McCall: Spoilsport, we’ve got a particularly knotty problem to solve.
Janet: I know, I was listening as I made the tea.
Juniper: Janet, is our sounding board for how the student population thinks—very handy for all those reports we have to do for the OfS.
Janet: I’ve had an idea.
McCall: That we should get more sherry in?
Jarvis: UUK is always keen to hear what students think.
Grady: Staff working conditions are students’ learning conditions.
Janet: But I work here, for these two.
McCall: And what an education it is.
Janet: It’s taught me a lesson.
Juniper: So, what is your idea Janet? And don’t say it is getting a subscription to Take a Break magazine for the waiting room, again.
Janet: Actually, I was thinking of operation green wash, Mr Juniper.
McCall: Oh Janet, you are a genius.
Juniper: I’m sorry, what are you talking about?
McCall: Green wash Alexander, do try to keep up.
Jarvis: I’m lost.
Janet: You know we had that fella in the other day who wanted to fix his pension scheme.
Jarvis: Bill Galvin was here?
Janet: Yeah, anyway, we wrote him a report—well, I wrote him a report, these two went to the opera at Covent Garden.
McCall: Those seats were a gift from my mother.
Janet: I saw the envelope, they were a gift from British Petroleum.
McCall: My mother is on the board.
Janet: Anyway, while these two were sipping champagne with Alan what’s his name
Janet: I came up with the idea that the pension fund should stop investing in oil, tobacco, mining companies and big pharma, and push all of its members to the ethical investment portfolio / option.
Jarvis: I see, did Mr. Galvin accept that?
Juniper: He liked it very much, unfortunately feeding the hungry does not make as much money as selling tobacco and oil, so operation green wash is currently a future aspiration.
Grady: Ethical investment can make just as much money as anything else.
Janet, Juniper, McCall and Jarvis [together]: Na, not really.
Grady: But if USS investments earned less money, the members would have to pay higher contributions.
Jarvis: I’m sorry but a green pension scheme would just be so woke, a real victory for the lefties.
McCall: It would be very easy to explain to students, justifying the disruption.
Juniper: Or, justifying a deal.
Janet: Exactly, now would anyone like a top-up?
McCall: I think there is some Gonzalez-Byass in the bottom drawer of the desk.
Juniper: Excellent, Janet you have once again surpassed yourself. We could call it “the new green deal”.
McCall: I think that one is already taken.
Juniper: Jo, do you think your members could go green rather than red?
Grady: I do.
Juniper: And Alistair do you promise from this day forward to only invest in organic cotton baby grows and cruelty-free avocados?
Jarvis: I do.
Juniper: I therefore declare this strike annulled. May you both have many happy years accommodating one another in an endless, low-level antagonism.
McCall: All’s well that ends well.
Juniper: Oh dear Janet, I do hope you are not coming down with something.
Janet: I might be Mr Juniper. Maybe I should self-isolate.
McCall: How long for? Could you leave the keys to the desk bottom drawer before you go?