Ivory Tower: Another year, another pantomime in higher education and research
Dr Kim Hackett (c/o Research England) as Little REF riding hood
George “THE science minister” Freeman as Buttons
Michael Green Grant Shapps as Baron Hard-Up
Robert “bobby dazzler” Halfon as The Woodcutter
Gillian “we need to talk about Kevin” Keegan as Lady Fitzhardly
Nus “no I’m not one of the ones stepping down” Ghani as The other science minister
Suella de Braverman as Cruella Deville
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson* as Grandma/The Dame
The assorted former education ministers of 2022 as The diddy men
Kier Starmer as Man waiting in the wings
Sir Gavin Williamson CBE as The Wolf
*Courtesy of Sue Gray Theatrical Agency, available for after dinner speeches
Musical accompaniment by the Brexit Dividends
Set design by Sunak & Hunt Recession Builders
Script by Barely Credible Fictions
Directed by no one in particular
Random inspections by the Office for Students
Sponsored by the Universities Superannuation Scheme*
*Benefits can go down as well as up, your future may be at risk
[Due to ongoing industrial action, the performance will conclude 30 minutes early, no refunds—the management]
1. A bakery in the village of Teaching-on-the-Zoom
Little REF riding hood: Oh my, I’m so tired after another day of baking for all the villagers. But I’ve a basket of goodies for my sweet old grandma who lives in a cottage in the woods. Hold on, who is that knocking on the door at this late hour?
Buttons: It’s only me Little REF riding hood.
REF: Why, it’s my good friend Buttons, who seems to be in the wrong panto.
Buttons: That’s no way to speak about Beis.
REF: What can I do for you Buttons? I’m all out of bread and only have this basket of goodies to take to my grandma’s cottage in the woods.
Buttons: I’ve got a report for you.
REF: Oh Buttons, you know I don’t like to gossip.
Buttons: No, I mean the long-awaited sequel to the Metric Tide.
REF: You mean, “The Metric Tide 2: the tide is going out on universities”?
Buttons: That’s the one. There are people who would like to get their hands on it before the embargo comes off. So, can you hold onto it for me and don’t give it to any strange people.
REF: Well, that ought to rule out most of the higher education policy world.
Buttons: Thanks REF, I know I can count on you.
REF: And all the boys and girls in the audience will help me, won’t you boys and girls?
[Half-hearted muttering from the audience]
REF: You can do better than that. You’ll help me, won’t you boys and girls?
Voice from the back: Whatever.
Another voice: I don’t have a contract that gives me a significant responsibility to conduct research, so you can stick the REF.
Yet another voice: I’m precarious.
Buttons: And I’m Sagittarius.
Voice: It means they don’t have a contract, you clown.
Buttons: Oh I see, err… put the report in your basket for safe keeping, REF and good luck to us all.
2. A deep dark forest
REF: Here I am in the tangled Woods of Regulation. I do hope I make it to grandma’s house with this basket of goodies and a copy of Metric Tide 2, which I just know she will love to read this Christmas, available as a PDF download. But who is this strange fellow?
Woodcutter: I’m the minister for skills, apprenticeships and… sorry, I’m a simple axeman.
REF: What are you going to cut?
Woodcutter: Not tuition fees and we are ruling out international students as well.
Cruella: Not so fast, simple woodcutter.
REF: Why it’s Cruella Deville of Home Office Hall.
Cruella: Not anymore, we turned all the halls into detention centres. What’s in your basket?
REF: Just baked goods for my grandmother and a copy of an eagerly anticipated report on the use of metrics in research assessment.
Cruella: As long as you are not hiding a family of foreign PhD students propping up low-quality courses in Harry Potter studies.
REF: They would have to be quite a small family.
Woodcutter: Is it one of those magic baskets?
REF: At Research England we like to think of it as more of a basket of measures, appropriately weighted to reflect the complementary components of research assessment.
REF: I should also point out that the REF team operates on behalf of all the funding councils of the UK and not just Research England.
Cruella: I’ve got my eye on you. And you lot too [She points at the audience. There are hisses and boos. She leaves the stage].
Woodcutter: Thank goodness she’s gone.
REF: She’ll be back, took less than a week last time. But who are these strange new people?
Baron: I’m Baron Hard-Up from the Department for Business, Energy and… sorry, from Austerity Hall.
Lady: And I’m Lady Fitzhardly, I run the village school. Well, it’s more of a multi-academy trust with shareholders. What’s in your basket?
REF: Baked goods for my sweet old grandmother and an explosive new account of metrics in research assessment.
Baron: That’s something I should probably be interested in if I thought I was going to be at Beis beyond next week.
Lady: I’m too busy, I’ve got leaking roofs across the school estate, which need orphans to stand under them with a bucket. Let’s go Baron, it’s nearly time for the cabinet Christmas lunch. [They go.]
Woodcutter: My, there are some strange people in the woods.
REF: It’s getting dark, and I need to be on my way to grandma’s house.
Wolf: Not so fast!
REF: Oh no, it’s the big bad wolf of the Tangled Woods of Regulation.
Wolf: That’s my friend James you are thinking of.
Woodcutter: Stand back wolf, I’ve got an axe and I’m not afraid to use it.
Wolf: And I’ve got a list, which I’m not afraid to use either. Let me see, Bobby the Woodcutter… here you are. Oh my, quite the CV…
Wolf: Allegedly. But who is this?
REF: I am Little REF Riding Hood, director of the Research Excellence Framework 2021 and owner of the village bakery.
Wolf: And what’s in your basket. Any secrets?
REF: Bread rolls and a sensational tell-all account of data use in…
Wolf: I see. And where are you going now?
REF: To my grandmother’s house in the woods, but I seem to have lost my way.
Wolf: That must be Polaris House, no one can figure out how to get there. If I take a short cut… Well got to be going, bye. [He goes.]
Woodcutter: I must be going as well, but I’ll be working near your grandmother’s cottage if for any reason you need help.
REF: Thanks, but as a REF assessor I have a licence to carry firearms, so I’ll be fine.
3. Grandma’s cottage
REF: Here we are at grandma’s house, and I’ve managed to get here with my basket of goodies intact and my hands on a short, sharp, evidence-informed look at current and potential uses of research metrics against a set of tightly defined objectives, a must-read for all university and research managers over the festive period. But I wonder if grandma is in. [Knocks on door, no answer] Grandma! Grandma! Oh, where are you grandma? [Aside: could someone give him a prompt? Grandma tumbles onto the stage.]
Grandma: Ah, greetings people. Let me just get my notes [searches pockets] forgive me… forgive me… ah here we are. May I just say, how wonderful it is to be addressing this gathering of rich libertarian businesspeople prepared to meet my speakers fee at the… forgive me… forgive me… yes, the Henry Rollo Society….
REF: The Ivory Tower Christmas panto.
Grandma: Oh no it’s not.
REF: Oh yes, it is.
Grandma: Is it? Well, I’ve got about 20 minutes of material, mostly anecdotes about wallpaper, to be honest.
REF: But look grandma, I’ve brought you the latest ground-breaking publication from the best-selling authors of The Metric Tide.
Grandma: Is it a thriller?
REF: It certainly is, and available to download from the Jisc website.
Grandma: No, I’m too busy writing this Shakespeare book. Then I’ve got my memoirs to do. Listen, has anyone seen the notes I made about my career?
Voice from the audience: It’s behind you!
Grandma: Oh no it’s not.
Everyone: Oh yes, it is!
Grandma: Let’s not start that again. Has anyone heard the one about Cincinnatus and his plough?
Wolf: We seem to have wandered off the script. Am I due to come in now?
Grandma: Gavin is that you under that rug?
Woodcutter: Is that my cue?
Grandma: Is that squidgy Halfon? Are you sure this is the Henry Rollo Society annual lunch?
Diddy Men: Can we do our song yet?
Grandma: Will I still get paid?
REF: I’m sorry boys and girls, there seems to have been a mix up with the story, but you’ll never risk losing the plot again if you read Metric Tide 2, the dramatic new account of design considerations in future research assessment programmes.
Voice from the audience: We’re walking out.
Another voice: Indefinitely!
Another voice: Speak for yourself.
The curtain falls and the lights go out.
Buttons: Hold on, I’ve got a plan B.
Everyone: Oh no you don’t!
Ivory Tower will return in the new year