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24 Hours in HE: staying alert


Ivory Tower: a special socially distanced episode of our fly-on-the-wall documentary series

Narrator: The Coronavirus pandemic has affected almost every aspect of our daily lives, but what impact has it had on Royal Dalton University, formerly the North by North West Midlands Institute and Technical College, one of Britain’s busiest higher education providers. The campus is empty, but university life keeps going on and on. Vice-chancellor Sir Malcolm Baxter is reflecting on the last few months.

Sir Malcolm: Do you mind just keeping your distance with that camera. Bit more. Just a bit more. I’m quite phobic you see. Because of the Coronavirus? No, after all the abuse I got online about my wrinkles when the first series went out. Let me stand next to this “Royal Dalton University: 9th best university in the Midlands” banner the comms team have produced. Well, they had a bit of budget left over since we’ve had to cancel most of our activities. That better? Now, I have to say it has been a very challenging few months here at RDU. We’ve had to move all of our teaching on-line and we’ve had to close our research labs. We’ve had to innovate a lot in a short period of time. Some things we’ve got right, but some things we’ve got wrong. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and looking back, perhaps the drive through graduation wasn’t the best idea. The traffic jam went all the way back down Robin Hood Way, round Cyrille Regis Road, and back onto Shelby Street. Problem was people thought it was the queue for the Coronavirus testing centre, so by the time they got to the front of the queue they were confused when they were handed a scroll rather than a swab. Some complained that they would never get that down the back of their throat or up their nose. I was there in my gown over a hazmat suit, I kept my mortar board on with an elastic strap. In the end the whole thing came to a standstill when one overly supportive family turned up in a Luton van and got stuck trying to reverse away from the podium. But at RDU we take our motto very seriously: vivere et discere, you live and learn. So, now we do graduations by Zoom. Of course, that limits the number of people we can graduate at any one time because the ceremony can only last 40 minutes. It’s not ideal. Every day I’ve been talking at my senior management team over Zoom. Now that we are enacting our emergency plan, I am Gold Commander and they are the Royal Dalton Taskforce. We do get interrupted by people looking for an online antiques fare but to be honest it’s a welcome distraction from the director of estates saying that he is washing his hands of it all. But I think we are getting there with preparations for next year. We are planning a hybrid model. I’m going to get a Lexus and the director of finance is getting an Audi. Of course, our main priority at the moment is the students and making sure that they have all the information they need for the next academic year. We are sending them daily updates on how to get in touch with Student Finance England to pay their fees and reminding them that it’s never too early to take out a contract at one of our luxury living student halls, now with corona-secure hot tubs. I know that others are pessimistic but I’m pretty confident that the students will enrol in great numbers come September. Having been locked down with their parents for months they will be desperate to get away. I know I am, mother has been staying with me in the lodge and we’ve streamed every series of Falcon’s Crest and we are now onto Knotts Landing. I can’t say I’m enjoying it, some of those locations don’t even look like Nottingham.

Narrator: One of the few people allowed on campus at the moment is head of security and student surveillance, Ian Blackforth.

Blackforth: Most of my staff are furloughed right now, jammy gits. So, I have to do a daily check on the estate myself. First, I look in on Neville Chamberlain House, where the senior managers have their offices. That’s been a priority to make Covid secure so that the team can meet in person rather than online. The VC says it’s something to do with no more Falcon’s Crest, but I thought our mascot was Darren the donkey. Anyway, we’ve had to knock through a few walls there and turned the whole of the top floor into one open space, so we could fit the 20 metre table in. Then we’ve put up Perspex boxes for each of the management team to sit in. That makes it a bit hard to hear what someone is saying at the other end of the table. So, we’ve put a laptop inside each of the plastic boxes to help the managers speak to one another. The VC is happy, he says it’s a big improvement on sitting at home. After, I’ve checked out Nev Chamberlain, I head over to the Noddy Holder building where we still have some students staying on campus. Turns out they can’t all go home. I did try, by switching the heating and water off for a week but apparently, they have a contract or something. So, we’ve had to make sure that they are respecting the lockdown rules and not behaving inappropriately. Every morning at 8.15 sharp, I have them out in the courtyard, two metres apart, doing squat thrusts and press ups. I’ve got my whistle and I stay well away by shouting instructions through my megaphone. It started as a way of encouraging more of them to go home, but now I think it’s become something I really enjoy. Hold on, I’m just getting a call through. Obsidian commander speaking, over…You want into the Ozzy Osbourne building? Can’t get into Ozzy without a request from your line manager. Have you completed the online form? The link is on the Corona do’s and Corona don’ts Wiki just beneath the video about how to distil your own hand sanitiser…Oh sorry, it’s you Gold Commander. Why do you want into Ozzy, that’s where the audio-visual library is kept…? I keep telling you I don’t know what a good alternative to a falcon on the crest would be.

Narrator: At a time of crisis, good communications are key. It has been a busy few weeks for Helen Carlisle, the Royal Dalton head of pronouncements and rebuttals.

Carlisle: It’s been very challenging really. I’ve been staying at home for the last three months but now I’m ready for a holiday. When the university went into lockdown, the first thing I did was to Zoom my team and we started to draw up a stakeholders engagement grid, listing absolutely everyone we needed to contact urgently. A couple of weeks later we were ready to roll out our communication strategy to let people know we were still open for business. We called it “Don’t Interrupt”, you may have seen the hashtag? It’s really important that we get key messages across like, don’t overwhelm the communications team with inquiries, go and ask your tutor what is happening, no refunds. I think it’s been really successful, the number of people interacting with us on social media has gone way down. But of course, it’s not all been about Covid-19. We also had to respond to concerns from students about the racism protests. So, yes, we’ll be taking down the statue of Oswald Mosley outside the business school. Pity, we get a lot of visitors coming to take a selfie with it. Strange that they always seem to be wearing black shirts, is that a Peaky Blinder thing?

Terms of use: this is a free email for fun on a Friday, it should be shared widely like an existential feeling of dread whenever the Downing St press conference begins. Want to invite Sir Malcolm Baxter to talk at your leadership team? Want to say hello? Email ivorytower@researchresearch.com