Ivory Tower: our fly-on-the-wall documentary is back for the remains of the academic year
Narrator: Royal Dalton University, formerly the North by North West Midlands Institute and Technical College, is one of Britain’s busiest higher education providers. After a successful Easter vacation, during which the university closed for a whole four days, the staff and students are back to see out the academic year. Vice-chancellor Sir Malcolm Baxter has a lot on his plate as he tries to balance the books.
Sir Malcolm: One of the best things, well it’s probably the best thing, apart from the Daimler, about inheriting an institution with a healthy bank account is that we haven’t had to make the difficult choices that other universities have had to. My predecessor piled them high and sold them cheap, if you know what I mean. At our height we had the best part of 40,000 students, half of them doing media studies and that sort of thing. But we are in a different funding environment now.
You can get into the Russell Group place down the road with three Bs at A-level, so we’ve seen them hoover up a lot of our customers. But that’s a good thing, it means we can be leaner and fitter and concentrate on what we are good at—teaching everyone else who didn’t get three Bs. So, we’ve undertaken a radical curriculum review called Grasping for Tomorrow. I very much agree with the further and higher education minister that it’s not just about getting in—although we are very keen to get them in—it’s also about getting on.
Once we recruit our students, we really do need to see them through to the end of the course because, you know, if we don’t, we don’t get money for them, simple as. Our curriculum review is also very much about employment outcomes. I totally agree with the minister’s plans to make sure everyone is earning above average salaries. The other day, at senate, one of our maths professors tried to tell me that was impossible and asked me if I actually understood what average meant.
Quick as a flash, I told him that this university doesn’t do average. He said that was obvious from our league table position, but I’m not sure if he was looking at the same one as I was. We are top of the table for student accommodation, with some of the biggest rents in the country. We were even commended for the number of students we fit into a single hall of residence as part of our “the more, the merrier” policy.
Anyway, we are all about making sure that when our students leave here, they are all making good money and join our alumni giving scheme. It was a real eye-opener when I looked across some of our courses and saw how little our graduates were earning. That’s why, sadly, we took the decision to close our theology college.
Apparently, for over 100 years we have trained people for the priesthood and ministers for overseas. What was the point of that? Have you seen what some of those guys earn? It’s shocking. They would be much better off doing a degree apprenticeship in digital cybership. That’s a programme we are really proud of, working with international businesses like Uber Eats and Deliveroo to train a high-skilled workforce who can work with data and improve service using state-of-the-art devices. Obviously, students must have their own bikes before they start the course—but you get out what you put in, I suppose.
Narrator: It has been a difficult year for Colin Frodsham, Royal Dalton’s director of knowledge exchange and exploitation. This time last year, Colin’s predecessor left the university after Royal Dalton lost all of its higher education innovation funding, or HEIF. Colin has been tasked with putting Royal Dalton back in the exploitation game.
Colin: It was something of a battlefield promotion. One day, you are sitting there as deputy director for impactful exchanges, and you see your boss walking across the car park carrying a box of personal belongings and being shouted at by the VC. It’s a mistake anyone could have made. Some of these forms can be quite confusing: HEBCIS, Census, Asbestos, it all runs into one after a while.
So, yes, we’ve made no secret of it, we lost a lot of money, but we are on track to win it back this year. After last year’s return went so badly, the first thing I did was actually read the criteria for the Higher Education Business and Community Interaction Survey. That’s when I had my lightbulb moment. You see, the university interacts a lot with the community—the residents round about here are never done phoning up wanting to speak to the registrar or the legal team of someone.
We also have great facilities—such as the Gareth Southgate sports hall and the Brian Clough bar—that are used a lot by local people. But it’s not enough for HEBCIS to be doing great work like that with the community, to qualify for inclusion. The interaction has to be with academics, you know, something the punters couldn’t get elsewhere. So, while we had lots of people paying to use the Nigel Mansell swimming pool, that income was not “HEBCIS qualifying income” unless it has some sort of academic input.
I told the VC and we got our act together. Now, we have academic staff on duty by the pool, in their red and yellow T-shirts. People can come up and ask them anything, from who was Shakespeare to the size of a black hole. We call them LIFE guards: Learning Interaction for Everyone. It’s also been a big hit with the academics, with so much positive feedback. They all tell me that they would much rather be standing by the side of the pool in a pair of flip-flops than having to mark 300 scripts in 48 hours.
Obviously, the VC has been keen to redeploy staff in those departments that have been struggling to recruit students recently. I’m not sure that bit is working. I saw a member of the sociology department handing out copies of the Socialist Worker near the diving board the other day. It’s a fine line, but I reckon if he is actually selling the newspaper to local people, we should be counting that as HEBCIS income as well.
I’m very positive that we will get our HEIF money back next year, it’s super important. It’s what we use to pay the wages of the administrators who gather the data to make the HEBCIS return—I think it’s called a virtuous circle.
Narrator: Like every other university in the country, Royal Dalton will soon face the music of REF day. For universities the Research Excellence Framework is like the World Cup and Olympics rolled into one, and the results, after a seven-year wait, are due on 12 May. In the meanwhile, Anne Stringfellow, head of research support and cross-subsidence, is dealing with a workplace incident.
Anne: It’s not uncommon really. I’ve been in research support for 20 years now and it’s the same every time a REF day comes around. The thing is to keep calm and to treat the individual with respect, offering gentle reassurance [she bangs loudly on a locked toilet door]. Oi, you coming out yet? You can’t stay in there forever [We hear crying behind the door and a pitiful wail].
I suppose it’s got worse since the all-staff inclusion rule. We had a devil of a time coming up with reasons as to why people didn’t have a “significant responsibility” to conduct research. Some were quite inventive really. There was one chap in the business school, been here donkey’s years, ever since it was a borstal. Anyway, he obviously he didn’t have much going on in terms of research, couldn’t even muster one output over seven years, not even one of those reports for the local taxi firm you post on your own website.
We had to get him off the books for the REF, so we created a nothing job for him and made him the university’s free-speech champion. [She bangs even more loudly on the door.] You’ve got to come out, other people need to use it, you know. [More whimpering can be heard.] The thing is, there’s a lot riding on the REF results. It’s how reputations are made. You know, a bad set of REF results and me and the rest of the team won’t be able to apply for jobs elsewhere for another seven years.
[She bangs on the door even louder than before.] For goodness’ sake, man up and come out here. [We hear a frightened voice ask, “Why?”] Because you are the pro-vice-chancellor for research and you’ve got senate in 20 minutes [further sobbing ensues]. Honestly, working with academics, sometimes I’m really tempted to go back to P&O.