Ivory Tower: students return as we rejoin our fly-on-the-wall documentary
Narrator: Royal Dalton University, formerly the North by North West Midlands Institute and Technical College, is one of Britain’s busiest higher education providers. As we approach the start of another academic year, vice-chancellor Sir Malcolm Baxter is pumped for the new term.
Sir Malcolm: In the summer, mother and I managed to get away for two whole weeks, driving around the vineyards of the Loire Valley. Well, I mostly drove while she snoozed in the passenger’s seat—those wine tasting sessions really seem to tire her out. That was in the fortnight between Clearing and the news that we should check all our buildings for crumbling concrete. Fortunately, we have considerable experience of dilapidated estate, so we were able to reassure the Department for Education that we were on top of the rubble by now.
So, once again, it’s time to gear up for the annual event, when hundreds of faces that I’ve never seen before, throng on the steps of the library in a carnival of hope and naive enthusiasm, thinking that they can change the world. But enough about the five days of industrial action planned by the University and College Union.
Actually, we won’t be having strikes at Royal Dalton this year because we have done a local deal with the union. After last year’s graduation fiascos—we gave the students an “I.O.U a degree” certificate—we really couldn’t wait any longer for the Universities and Colleges Employers Association to come to a national resolution. So, we rolled up our sleeves and reached a compromise with our own staff over pay.
I think it’s a great deal and one that other universities should follow. On salaries, obviously we can’t step outside the single pay spine for higher education, so instead we are offering staff 25 per cent off gym membership, a LIDL voucher, and an additional recurring payment of £1,500 phased over 12 months. We are calling it a Baxter Bonus.
Pushing the envelope
Now, some will say that sounds a bit like a salary increase and, in a sense, I can see why they might think that. But we recognise, during this cost-of-living crisis even £1,500 won’t go very far, especially after tax. That’s why the Baxter Bonus will be paid directly to staff in the form of cash. The payment will appear at the end of the month in staff pigeonholes in a plain brown envelope—we always say that we like to keep up the traditions of the old North By North West College whenever we can.
This way, the Baxter Bonus does not affect our use of the single pay spine, while it will be the responsibility of individual staff members to declare the supplementary direct payment through a self-assessment tax return in January—lots of them have two or three jobs anyway, so it shouldn’t be any additional admin for them.
I’m delighted that our local union branch officers have been so pragmatic about this and grabbed the envelope with both hands. Almost as delighted as I am by our new one-to-one tuition initiative in the arts and humanities. Now Royal Dalton can rival the quality of teaching offered at Oxford and Cambridge.
I’m told that on our English Literature degree this year we have a selective intake of five students, but luckily after the last round of restructuring we have five members of staff left. So now we can offer personal tutors to each of our undergraduates.
I’m also told that the Russell Group place down the road has 500 students a year on their BA English with some of them taught in overflow lecture halls by television screens. Well, they do have a lot of science labs to cross-subsidise. The great thing is that the discipline is clearly healthy while our students have an Oxbridge experience, of a sort. It’s a win-win really.
Narrator: With the state of school buildings making the news in recent weeks, Victoria Murray, Royal Dalton’s newly appointed head of estates legacy, has a lot on her plate at the start of term.
Victoria: When I saw the job advertised, I thought that’s got my name on it. I’ve had a rich and rewarding career in catering and facilities hire, but I wanted to challenge myself. I was really surprised to discover I was the only applicant. That was at the end of July, so it’s been a whirlwind induction for me.
I was also surprised to find out after my appointment that my boss, the PVC Estates and Sports, professor Jock McAndrews, was taking a year’s sabbatical in Australia—apparently, he’s going to be bringing back innovative best practice in estates management and golf courses. So, really, I’m learning on the job. Who would have thought concrete was such a big thing in buildings?
This Raac buisness has been hurting my head. I suppose the risk is that it might hurt someone else’s head. That’s why we have been handing out hard helmets and high-vis jackets to the freshers as they have been moving into the halls of residence. With the help of our amazing student services team, we’ve turned it into a sort of game—in which group of students can post the best version of YMCA on TikTok. It’s community building, apparently.
Sadly, we have had to close the Noddy Holder Lecture Theatre. I’m told there is a risk of complete collapse with Noddy. We have also had to decant the Student Union into the Arts Centre, moving the arts performances into the Health Care building, which means moving the paramedics into the Business School, then switching the accountancy students into the Sports Hall, the badminton players and Wednesday afternoon roller disco into the refectory, moving the food carts into the English Literature department, which I think is fine since they only have five students now.
Our student services team is on it again, with the great idea that the five students could serve on the food stalls as part of embedding work-placed learning in the humanities curriculum. I guess my old skillset in hospitality has come in useful after all.
Narrator: Newly elected Student Union president Jemima Birchwhistle is preparing for the new year. The challenges are coming thick and fast.
Jemima: It’s bad enough having the roof fall in on two of the other sabbatical officers, now the whole union is being moved over the Arts Centre. Well, I say Arts Centre, it’s an old municipal swimming pool that’s been covered over, with a cinema screen stuck on the end. I just hope they’ve checked the flooring over the pool area for Raac, otherwise the live screening of the Rugby World Cup final we’ve got planned could end in the deep end. At least the two sabbatical officers will be out of hospital in time for the occasion.
We’ve had to take a long hard look at the events we had planned for this year, after the Free Speech bill was passed. Sir Malcolm is always very supportive of the Student Union, and he sent me an email letting me know that I have complete autonomy over who we invite to speak.
At least, I think that is what he meant by “you are on your own over this and you are fully accountable whatever happens”. I’m really pleased that he sent a lawyer over to review our constitution. He was able to reassure us that we are a separate legal entity from the university, so there won’t be anyone in the senior management team assuming responsibility for what goes on in the union.
In saying that, we’d rather not get into trouble with the Office for Students. So despite some complaints on social media, the fundraising bingo night with our local Conservative MP, Sir Oswald Klebb, is going to go ahead.
Not everyone is happy about his recent comments on climate change, gender, Russia, Trump, poor people, hungry people, black people, brown people, the disabled, or tuition fees. But we’ve sold three tickets and wouldn’t want to deny anyone the right to listen to Sir Oswald shouting out random nonsense, you know, “Should still be Liz’s den, number 10”, “Striking doctors, number nine”, “Covid rules buster, 19”, “Party Gate, 88”.
We have, of course, cancelled the consent and boundaries workshops we had planned for Fresher’s Week—far too controversial in this climate. Also, hard to do in those old wooden changing booths at the side of the pool.