Ivory Tower: We set sail from Liverpool on the good ship higher education
1. Ext. Liverpool docks
2023 1912, almost quarter past seven
Bridget Phillipson and Keir Starmer are quayside saying their goodbyes as the RMS Titanic Success prepares to sail. The quay is a scene of hustle and bustle.
Starmer: Now remember what I told you, Bridget.
Phillipson: Yes, Sir Keir.
Starmer: Decorum and reticence at all times. Only speak when spoken to, and never answer a direct question. If anyone asks you anything, always mention 13 years of Tory failure. As a follow-up, contrast it with the achievements of New Labour. And if you are really in a tight spot…
Phillipson: I know… say that we don’t know what state the public finances will be in when we take office, so won’t be making any false promises at this stage.
Starmer: Before you go, I’ve got something for you.
Phillipson: What is it Sir Keir?
Starmer: It’s a get out of jail card. If you are truly in trouble, with nowhere else to turn, you have Morgan McSweeney and Peter Mandelson’s permission to use it.
Phillipson: Champion, what is it?
Starmer: Attack James Wharton as a Tory peer chairing the Office for Students. I know, I know… it’s fine, we’ve focus-grouped this, it plays well.
Starmer: Where’s Matt Western got to?
Phillipson: Here comes the bonnie lad, now.
Starmer: Are you prepared, Matt? What do you think of student loans?
Western: It’s all going to be very difficult, and it keeps me awake at night.
Starmer: Good answer, did Morgan write that?
Western: No, seriously, it does.
Starmer: Jolly good, off you both go. Have a safe trip and don’t speak to any strange journalists.
[He waves them off]
2. Int. The bridge of RMS Titanic Success
The officers stand to attention as the captain enters.
Captain: As you were, I’m Stern.
Bosun: I’m sure you’ll be fine when we get to know you.
Captain: No, I’m Stern.
Bosun: If you say so.
Captain: Introduce me to the team.
Bosun: This is first officer Lapworth. She’s responsible for keeping us on an even keel.
Captain: Good luck with that.
Bosun: And this one is Leyser.
Captain: Lazier than Lapworth?
Bosun: No, captain, this is Ottoline…
Captain: Onedin Line? That’s something entirely different. Who’s that in the corner?
Bosun: That’s Corner, ma’am.
Captain: Yes, that corner there, who’s that?
Bosun: That’s chief engineer Corner, ma’am. She’s in the executive chair.
Captain: Yes, well, as long as I’ve got a nice chair in my office too, then we’ll be fine.
Bosun: Any orders, Captain?
Captain: Full-speed ahead.
Bosun: Are we crossing the Atlantic?
Captain: No, down the Mersey and once round the Isle of Man should be enough. No one here will notice the difference.
Bosun: We’ve had warnings of choppy waters ahead.
Captain: What do you think Lapworth, is the good ship higher education going to sink?
Lapworth: All the forecasts I’ve seen are for buoyant universities and plain sailing.
Captain: Jolly good, now who’s dining at the Captain’s table this evening?
3. Ext. The prow of RMS Titanic Success
Phillipson and Western are on deck as the ship leaves the Mersey estuary.
Phillipson: Alreet marra?
Western: No, I’ve been thinking about Sir Keir’s speech at the conference.
Phillipson: That he didn’t say anything about how we would fund universities?
Western: It’s the nagging voice inside saying, this isn’t for you. You don’t belong here.
Phillipson: Don’t worry pet, we are surrounded by academics. They all think they are working class even though they all have PhDs and Waitrose cards. No need to feel class-conscious.
Western: I’m not worried about class, it’s that we don’t have any policies that will fly.
Phillipson: OK, stand up here on this railing. Put your arms out and close your eyes. How do you feel now?
Western: Terrified, as if I’m about to plunge headfirst into the depths of the icy ocean.
Phillipson: Now you know how it feels to look at public spending forecasts.
Deck hand: Oi, you two! Stop mucking about and get off those railings. Didn’t you hear the health and safety briefing?
[The pair run off before the deck hand catches them]
4. Int. The bridge of RMS Titanic Success
The Bosun enters ahead of someone, clearly not a crew member, wearing a cloth cap, collarless shirt, waistcoat and a spotted handkerchief as a necktie.
Bosun: Captain, this is Grady, she represents the passengers in third class.
Captain: We can’t afford passengers on this ship.
Bosun: We can, Captain. It’s literally what we do.
Captain: Need to scrape the barnacles off the boat.
Bosun: But not the passengers, surely, Captain?
Captain: Staying afloat, plotting the course, steering the ship, that’s what matters. What can I do for you Gravy?
Grady: Grady, your honour.
Captain: No, the honour is all yours, but carry on Gravy.
Grady: Look, the passengers in third class were wondering if we could have some of the basics.
Captain: Like what?
Grady: You know, somewhere to sit down, food, water, blankets, a fruit machine…
Captain: Sounds expensive to me. You see Gravy, it’s all about a shared understanding of affordability. If we give out food and water to everyone in third class, how can we afford foie gras and Château Lafite at the Captain’s table? Surely, you can see that Gravy?
Grady: Sounds like you’re the one on the Gravy train.
Captain: Gravy ship, Gravy, gravy ship.
Bosun: Captain, we are receiving reports of a storm ahead.
Captain: We can navigate around it, set sail for international waters. We can pick up enough passengers there who will pay higher fees. Who knows, Gravy might even get that fruit machine she wants.
Grady: Did I say fruit machine? Sorry, I meant pension scheme.
5. Int. The Captain’s table
Evening has fallen and the captain is dining with select guests. A string quartet plays in the background.
Captain: Delicious, what kind of soup is this?
First Officer: I believe it’s policy soup. It arrived fresh this morning from the DfE.
Captain: Are you enjoying your policy soup, Ms Phillipson?
Phillipson: It’s a bit rich for me, Captain. We don’t have anything like that where I come from.
Phillipson: No, the shadow cabinet.
Captain: Allow me to introduce some of your fellow diners. This is Sir Russell Groupé, one of our first-class passengers.
Sir Russell: I say, captain, that crowd over there in second class seem to have an awful lot of the QR salad. Do you think it could be taken off them and all given to me?
Captain: I’ll talk to the chief engineer, see what I can do.
Sir Russell: Will we be lucky enough to have you as captain for the Horizon cruise to Europe?
Captain: Will you draw me like one of your French girls?
Phillipson: Excuse me, how many universities are in second class?
Captain: Million Plus…
Phillipson: Gerraway, that’s a load’a universities.
Western: No wonder I can’t sleep at night.
Captain: Your cabin not comfortable, Mr Western? You can ask the steward for an extra pillow.
Sir Russell: I always go down.
Captain: Well, not in any league table I’ve ever seen, Sir Russell.
6. Int. The bridge of the Titanic
The first mate is looking out to sea through binoculars. Beside him stands the Bosun.
First mate: I don’t believe it!
Bosun: What is it?
First mate: That island looks so far away.
Bosun: I think you are holding the binoculars the wrong way round.
First mate: Oh right, that’s better. Blinking ink! What is that huge thing?
Bosun: Let me see… on my God! It’s the iceberg of financial reality. Change course quick!
First mate: Too late…
[The ship crashes into the iceberg. Alarms go off and the ship begins to lurch.]
7. Int. The Captain’s table
The crash sends plates and crockery flying. The diners are startled.
Phillipson: I have a bad feeling about this.
Western: Well, I’m never going to get to sleep now.
First Officer: I think we’ve just struck the iceberg of economic reality.
Captain: Abandon ship! Women and vice-chancellors first.
Sir Russell: Get me into a lifeboat with a monopoly on international student visas and an endowment fund!
[The ship begins to sink, and the passengers run in all directions. The band plays on.]
First violin: Any requests?
Captain: Raise tuition fees.
Sir Russell: More money for research.
Grady: RPI plus 2 per cent.
[The first violin shakes their head and starts up, Nearer My God to Thee]
8. Ext. The deck of RMS Titanic Success
It is dark and freezing cold. Passengers are in the water abandoning the sinking ship.
Phillipson: I’ve thought of a way out of this mess.
Western: You can get us reshuffled to the health and social care brief?
Phillipson: No soft lad, this bit of Raac concrete came off the ceiling in the dining room. We can row it back to Liverpool.
[They throw it in the water and jump on]
Western: What will we tell Sir Keir?
Phillipson: That it was all the fault of an iceberg lettuce?
Western: Works for me, get paddling.
9. Int. The bridge of RMS Titanic Success
First Officer: We seem to be sinking captain.
Captain: It certainly looks that way, Lapworth.
First Officer: Will you go down with the ship?
Captain: Probably not, I’m thinking of taking a consultancy role with Public First. What about you?
First Officer: I’ve been offered a chair in public policy or something at some university somewhere.
Captain: Jolly good, any of that Château Lafite left?
[The water swells around their feet and continues to rise]