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24 Hours in HE: Board of governors


Ivory Tower: in our fly-on-the-wall documentary, the vultures are circling

Narrator: Royal Dalton University, formerly the North by North West Midlands Institute and Technical College, is one of Britain’s busiest higher education providers. It has been a tough time for universities, and vice-chancellor Sir Malcolm Baxter is in a reflective mood.

Sir Malcolm: You know, some days I just want to give it all up and work behind the till at a petrol station. I could do that. You don’t even need to ask which pump. They come in and say, “number seven please mate”. You say, “fifty pounds and a penny”. They tap and go. If you can be bothered, you ask, “Do you want a VAT receipt?” The VAT thing is genius because it makes people think they don’t actually need it. So, you either don’t print it or you can scrunch it up into a satisfying ball. Ah, sheer bliss.

Anyway, back in the real world, I have to go to a meeting of the board of governors this afternoon. That’s a real pain in the neck. Obviously, over the years, as people have retired, I’ve replaced them all with friendly faces. Nothing worse than a board of governors you can’t get on with. Of course, you want challenge, but friendly challenge. The sort of challenge that recognises what a good job you are doing in very difficult circumstances and is not afraid to reward that—despite what the local newspaper says about fat-cat vice-chancellors.

I’m not going to lie, that hurt. Mother was very upset about it. She sat in her annex in the executive lodge and was very close to tears about what that rag said about her little boy. She had to have two sherries to calm her down. I owe a great debt of gratitude to my chair, Lord Burton of Villa Park, for coming round and watching Call the Midwife with her.

The governor’s meeting today should be an occasion for celebration. I will be presenting our expansion plans. Things have not been great of late for higher education in England, so I’ve decided to get out from under that cloud with a positive mental attitude. I’m looking forward to the future, not in the rear-view mirror of Covid, Brexit, and the cost-of-living crisis, and that industrial tribunal that was in all the papers. We’ve got bold plans for a new building. The Barbara Cartland will be a monument to our confidence in this institution.

It will be multi-purpose, with the Students’ Union on the first two floors, replacing the temporary buildings they are in now. Then the library will be on floors three, four and five. Students can move seamlessly from the union bar to the periodical section for some down time. Then the dance department will be on floor six. They’ve been asking for a new building for years after the last one burnt down. Renting the Masonic Hall at the end of the road as a makeshift dance floor hasn’t been ideal for the student experience.

Then, on floors seven, eight, nine and ten, we’ll have the new offices for the vice-chancellor and his team. That’s me. The Bill Oddie building that we are in at the moment is fine. Well, at least my office is. Others say it’s cramped and damp, but not in my experience. But I think we need a statement building, and Barbara Cartland just screams. It’s been designed by the world-famous architect company MC-Cubed. I just loved their Rhythmic Gymnastics Dome at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, which is now a carpet showroom, I think.

At £60m the Barbara Cartland will be great value-for-money. The governors keep going on about a business plan and about student numbers going south. That’s the kind of negative talk that is infecting the sector these days. Luckily, Lord Burton’s tenure is almost up. Hopefully, we’ll appoint a visionary chair who is not afraid to sign off a £60m investment in the future of this university. Good governance really is the bedrock of any institution.

Narrator: Meanwhile, Lord Burton, the former CEO of North by North West Water and Sewage, has been driving around campus for half an hour looking for a parking space.

Burton: It’s always like this. I’ve told Malcolm, look, can’t you at least put a cone out for me. I suppose it’s the modern age. All these students with cars and lazy lecturers driving everywhere rather than taking the public transport that my taxes are paying for. It’s difficult enough to drive the Rolls these days, with the cost of diesel being what it is. But then to get onto campus and find you can’t park it… oh hold on, is he coming out? No, just straightening up. I hate that.

All this parking business puts me in a terrible mood for the board meeting. Malcolm will come in like a cocker spaniel looking for a treat and tell us all about how wonderful everything is. Then I’ll ask him about student numbers and the budget and the deficit and what he’s going to do about it. That really casts a pall over the whole thing. He’ll look at his shoes and mutter something about leadership. Then I’ll say, but you are £30m in debt, man. He’ll say he has a plan. I’ll say, what is it? He’ll say, I’ll work it up for the next meeting—which he doesn’t. And the whole thing repeats itself. Thank God my time as chair is nearly up.

The latest thing is he wants a new building for £60m. The Barbara Windsor Centre or something, although I don’t see what she has to do with the North by North West Midlands. Some of the board are asking serious questions about whether Malcolm is the right man to lead the university into the future. I’ve been meaning to ask him when does his visa from Australia run out. It will be a pity to see Lady Baxter go, though. Great taste in sherry. Not sure about that Call the Nit Nurse thing she watches.

Narrator: Sharon McNulty is the elected staff governor. She managed to find a parking place at 6.30 this morning. She is grabbing a coffee in the Ozzy Osbourne Café before the board meeting at 2pm.

Sharon: He’s got to go. Everyone is fed up being 132nd in the league table. In my department of psychology we are restructuring again. It’s endless, without any plan or strategy. The university asks for redundancies, six people go. Then we recruit more students than expected, and the university discovers it doesn’t have enough staff to teach them and then hires back five of the people they’ve just paid to leave because they are the only ones who know how the course works. It all costs more money than was saved. We get further in debt and sink further down the league tables. Personally, I’ve been sacked and rehired three times. This is my second stint as staff governor.

Then there is the Barbara Cartland folly—£60m for a dance studio above a library. If he turns up this time without the business plan he’s been promising for two years, the governors are going to ask him to think about whether he wants to spend more time in Australia with mother. Anyone could do a better job than Malcolm. I bet he wouldn’t even get a job behind a till in a petrol station.

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