Ivory Tower: Another glittering year for the worst of higher education and research
Last night, guests gathered (£250 per head, 10 per cent discount for a table of 12) at the Happy Sunshine Lodge at South Mimms service station for our annual celebration of contributions to the rich comic tapestry of university life. The awards ceremony was once again sponsored by Juniper-McCall University Media Relations.
Speaking by mobile phone from somewhere on the M25, senior partner Alexander McCall welcomed guests, explaining that a lorry had shed its load, and everyone should have another drink and talk about rumours the REF was going to be put back a year until he turned up. Left to hold the fort, a visibly refreshed senior partner Oliver McCall was heard to ask whether it was time for the bandeoke?
Awards were presented by star of television Joe Longstone, the engineering student who won the nation’s hearts on series eight of Lust Island, but failed all his exams after not telling any of his tutors that he was going on the show. Speaking on behalf of the Juniper-McCall agency, Janet McAnaspie, a degree apprentice, said: “It’s been an exhausting year, and many of us are just counting the days until Christmas. Once we get this ridiculous award ceremony out of the way, the team are very much looking forward to putting their trotters up.”
Highlights from the list of last night’s winners:
Professional of the Year
This award goes to the individual who has demonstrated extraordinary levels of commitment and hard work to go above and beyond what could reasonably be expected from someone being paid a large salary to do a privileged job. As ever, the category was keenly contested with a deluge of entries, mostly self-nominations from vice-chancellors up and down the country.
Special mention goes to the chair and the chief executive of the Office for Students. In March, they were found to be especially committed to their desks in Bristol, when freedom of information requests by Research Professional News revealed that James Wharton and Susan Lapworth had each visited only five higher education providers between February 2021, when they took up their roles, and 10 March 2023.
However, the clear winner was education secretary Gillian Keegan. Over their disappointing, barely warm chicken main, the gathered diners were treated to a showreel of some of Keegan’s “best bits”, which included the hacking of her official social-media account by crypto pirates, and her call for minimum service levels in universities at the Conservative Party conference.
The highlight came in her performance at the start of the school year during the row over reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) in educational settings. Footage emerged from the end of a television interview with ITV in which Keegan, somehow believing she was no longer standing in front of a rolling camera, castigated the journalist.
“Does anyone ever say: ‘You know what, you’ve done a f****** good job because everyone else has sat on their a**e and done nothing?’ No, no signs of that?” she asked. Later, Keegan insisted that she was referring to “the Department [for Education]” when she asked for plaudits.
It subsequently transpired that while roofs were collapsing in primary schools, said department was undergoing a £32m refurb for a “light and airy working environment” that will be “fit for purpose for years to come”, with “improved lighting, superior acoustic properties and a muted colour palette”, according to developers Willmott Dixon Interiors.
Disruptor of the Year
In recognition of those who have gone the extra mile to disrupt higher education, this award always attracts a strong field. Special mention must go to Euan Blair MBE, son of “50 per cent Tony”, whose university-alternative apprenticeship finder company Multiverse was awarded “unicorn” status having been valued at £1.4billion in June last year.
However, last month the company reported a near-tripling of pre-tax annual losses to £40.5m in its seventh straight year of losses. Multiverse also announced 44 immediate job losses, mostly in the US. The University of Bristol and Yale University graduate blamed too-hasty expansion in north America for the write-down and redundancies.
But the much-coveted award for 2023 goes to the University and College Union, which not only managed to disrupt universities with industrial action over pensions (successfully) and an exams boycott over pay (less successfully) but also managed to disrupt its own strikes, with members voting to call off the assessment boycott weeks before dozens of branches pulled out of five days of action planned for fresher’s week.
The union subsequently lost its national mandate for industrial action in universities when a ballot of members failed to reach the legal threshold of 50 per cent participation. UCU, which has been dogged by long-running disputes with the Unite branch that represents its own employees, is now engaged in a four-way leadership contest that will run until 1 March.
The Quatermass Science Prize
In recognition of the UK government’s ambitions to become a science superpower by some point in the future when it is no longer the UK government, this award goes to the individual who has demonstrated extreme commitment to innovation and a slightly disturbing interest in science, but, let’s face it, usually space. This year’s winner should frankly be receiving a lifetime achievement award for his contribution to policy comedy.
In January, Britain’s giant leap forward took a nosedive when nine satellites launched from Spaceport Cornwall were lost over the Irish Sea. Step forward then business secretary Grant Shapps to commemorate the non-event.
He posted on his Twitter account—which was still called Twitter back then—before the comedown, an image showing the secretary of state for the final frontier chatting to two official-looking men next to a rocket. The keen-eyed observed that the photo looked an awful lot like one published the summer before, which had also featured Boris Johnson in the shot.
Claims were made that the once and future prime minister had been Photoshopped out of the picture. A source close to the minister for rocket science said: “Grant wasn’t aware anyone had edited the picture.” The post has since been deleted from his account.
Mr Shapps, brother of Big Audio Dynamite keyboard player Andre Shapps, has held three separate cabinet briefs this calendar year. Perhaps it is part of a hitherto unknown cloning experiment.
Student Experience of the Year
There was a clutch of strong nominations for this one, including prime minister Rishi Sunak’s stated desire to torture everyone with maths lessons until they are 402. Alternatively, “the people’s peer”, Nadine Dorries told the Financial Times that prime minister Rishi Sunak is “not a very clever guy”. He “came 200-and-something in his year at Oxford”, whereas [Boris] Johnson came “top of his year”.
The FT interviewer pointed out that would be difficult since, unlike Sunak, Johnson did not receive a first-class degree. Dorries replied of Johnson: “You won’t meet anybody cleverer.” That’s the same Boris Johnson who was later said by Patrick Vallance to have been “bamboozled” by the scientific advice given during the pandemic.
However, the award goes to deputy chair of the Conservative Party and TV troll Lee Anderson, who in July recounted to the viewer of his GB News show an anecdote about how “a certain group of people” attempt to “indoctrinate” students in our universities.
“It happened with my son 10 years ago in Sheffield,” Anderson said. “He came back different, with long hair and a beard, clothes were different, a different attitude, a different outlook on life,” the MP declaimed.
“He looked into my eyes and said: ‘Dad, I’ve got to tell you something about myself…’” The man known to millions as 30p Lee thought to himself: “Harry, just get on with it. You’re my son—I love you whatever you are.”
The student then revealed: “Dad, I’m a vegetarian.”
“Absolutely shocking—let that be a warning to you,” concluded Anderson, pointing at the camera to his no doubt astonished viewer, if they were still watching.
Culture Warrior of the Year
In the age of woke and the woke-obsessed, this category could have merited its own awards ceremony. Special mention goes to a fine innings by education secretary Gillian Keegan who, if not dealing with Raac, is busting woke.
Only last week she demonstrated her commitment to the culture wars by simultaneously managing to offend everyone in Greece and the entire population of Scotland in a single 30-second news clip when she said the “Elgin marbles” (pronounced “El Jin” by the education secretary as if she was trying to order a G&T in Benidorm) could not be returned to Athens because “it was the law”. Pity governments can’t do anything about changing the law.
However, the outstanding contribution to the culture wars goes to secretary of state for science Michelle Donelan, who ends the year in dispute with Research England over the membership of the funder’s equality, diversity and inclusion expert advisory panel. But her big achievement this year was railing against “woke science” at the Conservative Party conference.
“We are the party of facts, the party of evidence,” Donelan told the assembled greying audience, in a week when the energy secretary Claire Coutinho had doubled down on unfounded claims about a Labour meat tax. “We are the party of scientific rigour. I will stand up for these core values,” the secretary of state intoned, as if double-blind peer review would be a doorstep issue at the next election.
She then attacked “the slow creep of wokeism” that threatened the “guiding light” of science. “I think it matters when scientists are told by university bureaucrats that they cannot ask legitimate research questions about biological sex,” she said falling to mention which university pen pushers were in the pocket of Big Woke.
“Unlike Comrade Keir [Starmer, Labour leader], we will not sit idly by and let an intolerant few stifle the light of science that leads us in the right direction,” she declared, before announcing a review into the use of sex and gender questions in scientific research and statistics. Subsequently, the party of facts is planning to pass legislation that declares Rwanda a safe country, despite the unanimous view to the contrary by five Supreme Court judges.
University of the Year
This much sought-after award goes to the institution that has made a special effort to entertain in the field of university media relations. “There’s no such thing as bad publicity, as long as they spell your name right”, PT Barnum is reported to have said, but then again, he never visited the University of Bolton.
Seldom out of the news in another busy year for the university, the month of May saw the institution lose its naming rights over the home of Bolton Wanderers Football Club. Since 2018 it had been called the University of Bolton Stadium.
The rights have since been held by a Bolton-based recyclable building products manufacturer, with the ground now known locally as the Toughsheet Stadium, which apparently is not a comment on management style at the university.
The university that gave us mayfly higher education minister Andrea Jenkyns’s social mobility think tank, Rise, unfortunately fell foul of an Office for Students investigation into its business courses in September, one of only two universities that did. However, in October, the university bounced back, as Conservative-donating vice-chancellor George Holmes was a guest at a dinner hosted by MillionPlus with the Labour education team at their party conference in Liverpool.
Later that month, Holmes told the media that his graduates were missing out on top jobs because of prejudice. He said people should be proud of Bolton, before announcing an institutional name change to the University of Greater Manchester. The switch is under consideration at the Department for Education, perhaps they might like to consult with the actual University of Manchester (themselves a previous winner in this category), who might have a view on the idea.