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Ivory Tower: our comedy column gains access to the first meeting of the universities taskforce

In a socially distanced room at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Amanda Solloway: Look at them, it’s like the start of The Muppet Show.

Director General: They can hear you minister.

Solloway: Ah…welcome everyone, I am Amanda Solloway, the science minister, I am the chair of this taskforce. Oh look, Michelle’s waving, should I wave back?

DG: She can hear you minister. Maybe she has her mute on.

Solloway: Michelle dear, you’ve got your mute on. YOU NEED TO SWITCH IT OFF.

DG: No need to shout minister, she can hear you fine.

Michelle Donelan: Sorry, I had my mute on.

Solloway: Yes, you had your mute on. Why are you waving?

Donelan: I just wanted to say that I am the universities minister and I am co-chair of this taskforce.

Solloway: That’s what I meant, obviously. Who’s that waving, now? He looks like a bank manager.

DG: They can all hear you minister.

Richard Lochhead: Sorry, I had my mute on.

Solloway: Yes, you had your mute on. Why are you waving?

Lochhead: I just wanted to say that I am the universities minister and the science minister as well.

Solloway: Is he? That’s confusing.

DG: Yes, minister, he’s from Scotland.

Solloway: Does that make a difference?

DG: I’ll explain it to you later minister.

Solloway: Right, let’s crack on. Who’s that waving now?

Kirsty Williams: I am the universities minister too.

Solloway: Hold on, I’m pretty sure that’s Michelle.

Williams: I am the minister for Wales.

Solloway: I thought that was Simon Hart.

DG: She is from the senate, minister.

Solloway: She’s American?

Diane Dodds: I’m also the universities minister.

Solloway: Does Michelle know about this?

Dodds: And the science minister.

Solloway: Hold on, Dom Cummings definitely assured me that I’m the science minister.

Dodds: I’m with the DUP.

Solloway: Do they believe in science? I thought that was against their beliefs.

DG: She can hear you, minister.

Dodds: I can hear you, minister.

DG: Perhaps, when speaking to me minister you should press your mute button, like this.

Solloway: I see, so they can’t hear me now?

DG: No, minister.

Solloway: That’s handy. Let’s crack on. Welcome to this inaugural meeting…why are they all waving now?

DG: You have your mute on, minister [switches it off]


Solloway: Sorry about that, look there are a lot of us here and we’ve only got 40 minutes on this call—I told you to pay for the upgrade—so, I won’t take a register, let’s just get on with it. Welcome to the first meeting of RUST.

Donelan: RUST?

Solloway: The Research in Universities Sustainability Taskforce, that’s what it’s called, no?

DG: The University Research Sustainability Taskforce, minister.

Solloway: Ok then, welcome to the USR Taskforce.

DG: I think that was something else in the Ministry of Defence, minister. Try, URS Taskforce.

Solloway: URS? That sounds like one of those viruses like SARS or MERS. Oh, I see what I’ve done there.

Donelan: Gavin Williamson suggests we call our self U-Force. We could be the U-Force commanders.

Dodds: That means something else in Northern Ireland.

Donelan: Err…perhaps, we should just call it the UK University Research Sustainability Taskforce.

Lochhead: I don’t think my government would be happy about that.

Dodds: It’s fine by me.

Williams: Won’t you have to get that approved by your power-sharing partners Sinn Féin?

Dodds: They’re not the boss of me.

Solloway: Maybe we could move on.

Dodds: You’re not the boss of me either. Not since that backstabber Johnson sold us out to Leo Varadkar.

Solloway: The angry lady seems very familiar, how do I know her?

DG: Press mute, minister.

Solloway: She works for the press? What’s she doing on this call?

Donelan: Can we just get on with it?

Solloway: Do you have another call to get to, Michelle?

Donelan: No, I’ve got an Ocado delivery coming at 2pm.

Solloway: Right, let’s try again, welcome to the UK University Research Sustainability Taskforce.

Lochhead: No, not having that.

Solloway: It’s just semantics.

Lochhead: It depends what you mean by semantics.

Solloway: By semantics, I mean…oh, never mind. Welcome to the University Research in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England Sustainability Taskforce. There is that OK?

Everyone: Yes, fine.


Solloway: You’re what?

DG: URSWINEST, that would be the acronym for the committee like COBRA and like SAGE.

Solloway: “like SAGE” is that the David King lot of independent scientists?

DG: No, that’s i-SAGE, they are like SAGE but not actually SAGE.

Lochhead: They seem pretty sage to me.

Solloway: I’m totally confused now, ice-age are like sage but are not sage?

Dodds: We do not accept the ice-age happened in Ulster, or dinosaurs.

Solloway: She’s the science minister?

Dodds: And it’s not URSWINEST

Solloway: Does she want me to call her, your Highness?

Dodds: No, it’s Northern Ireland not Ireland Northern, URSWNIEST.

Solloway: No, you’re the Swiney-iest. What does that even mean?

Lochhead: Actually, our deputy first minister is Swinney-iest.

Solloway: Whose that?

DG: Richard Lochhead, minister.

Solloway: I know that, I mean who is this deputy first minister, I thought that was Dom Raab.

Lochhead: John Swinney is the deputy first minister.

Solloway: I know I’ve been working from home, but I’m totally out of the loop now.

David Sweeney: Actually, I’m the Sweeney-iest.

Solloway: Is that the deputy first minister, then?

Sweeney: No minister, I’m from Research England.

Solloway: He sounds Scottish.

Sweeney: Yes minister, I am.

Solloway: So, why is that other one here as well?

Lochhead: That’s just the sort of patronising attitude we’ve come to expect from the English who run research in the UK.

Sweeney: Like me?

Donelan: Does she really not believe in the ice age? It’s real, I’ve watched it loads of times with the kids.

Sweeney: Perhaps, it might help if we got back to the agenda, ministers?

Dodds: Are you talking to me?

Sweeney: I was addressing all the ministers.

Dodds: No, I meant her with her ice-age funnies.

Donelan: It’s funny the first time, once you’ve watched it a couple of times it kind of wears off.

Williams: I liked Ice Age 2.

Solloway: I’m a fan of the ice-age as well, have you seen the new exhibit at the Natural History Museum?

Williams: In Cardiff?

Solloway: Why would they move the Natural History Museum to Cardiff?

Lochhead: The Natural History Museum is in Edinburgh.

Solloway: What? Is it some kind of tour?

DG: No one has been to the Natural History Museum, minister, because of, you know, the whole lockdown thing.

Dodds: We don’t have a Natural History Museum, we have an Ulster Museum.

Solloway: Makes sense.

Donelan: Amanda dear, perhaps you should get back to the agenda.

Solloway: Hasn’t your shopping arrived yet, dear?

Donelan: Next week’s will have arrived by the time we get through this.

Solloway: Right, item one, membership. I won’t go through the list, but I assume you are all here. Well, in the sense that you are all virtually here, if you know what I mean.

Lochhead: Where’s here? Since we are in cyberspace, I don’t think we should presume that we are in England.

Solloway: Are we seriously going to quibble over the meaning of “here” now?

Donelan: It’s neither here nor there.

Solloway: Sorry?

Williams: As far as I’m concerned, I’m in Wales.

Donelan: Yes, we can tell, your WiFi keeps cutting out.

Solloway: Look, wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever we are called, we are all “here” and that’s the main thing. Can everyone agree on that?

Alistair Jarvis: We’re barely here.

Solloway: You’re closer to me than the rest of them.

Lochhead: Isn’t that the problem?

Jarvis: Looking at this vast committee dealing with the future of universities, we are barely on it.

Solloway: Is your WiFi playing up too?

DG: I think he means the university sector would like more representation.

Solloway: So, they can hand in another crazy bailout request? No way.

Jarvis: I can hear you.

DG: Perhaps, minister, the universities would be reassured if membership of the committee were to be flexed so as to take on board independent voices from across the sector depending on the topic under discussion.

Solloway: You mean, like extra members?

Jarvis: Yes, they could contribute but not affect the outcome of discussions.

Solloway: You mean like Dom Cummings on Sage?

Jarvis: Not quite.

Solloway: What’s that red light flashing in the corner?

DG: We are about to run out of time, minister.

Solloway: Yes, we need to hurry up that’s what the prime minister told me.

Lochhead: We don’t run at Boris Johnson’s pace.

Wiiliams: Is he running again? Seems a bit early after coronavirus.

Lochhead: Just like his strategy for unlocking the economy.

Dodds: If Boris Johnson were to come over here, we’d give him something to run from.

Donelan: Got to go, my delivery has arrived 5 minutes early.

DG: Less than one minute, minister.

Solloway: Can’t you put 50p in the meter?

DG: Date of next meeting, minister.

Solloway: Of course, is same time next week good for everyone? Oh, where have they all gone?

DG: When the minutes are ready, shall we make them public, minister?

Solloway: Probably not for this first one. Let’s leave it until Dom attends the next one.

DG: Very good, minister.

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