Monday, 17 September 2012

The Unseen University and Us

Last week, you may recall, I attended a couple of graduation ceremonies. As I left work on Friday, I notice a row of large limousines - apparently the poorer the council, the bigger the mayor's limo -  depositing well-fed gents (and some ladies) for a slap-up feed with the Vice-Chancellor. It's the kind of thing a university has to do: we're always looking for attention, planning permission, funding, shared activities and ways to serve the community. Plus we want to tie in big businesses, so we hand out honorary degrees to lubricate the exchange.

It all reminded me of this section from Terry Pratchett's Jingo, in which the Patrician ruler of the city explains why cheesy ceremonies are part of the social ritual:
… officially he's here because the wizards have invited him to their big award ceremony. An honorary doctorate, that sort of thing. And one of their lunches afterwards. I do like negotiating with people after the faculty of Unseen University have entertained them for lunch. They tend not to move about much and they'll agree to practically anything if they think there's a chance of a stomach powder and a small glass of water. 

Then they agree to a procession through town in silly medieval costume, much like the one I joined last week:
It demonstrates the friendly alliance between the University and the civil government which, I may say, seems to consist of their promising not to do anything we ask provided we promise not to ask them to do anything. 

We're a bit more closely entwined these days, and the Russell Group universities decided that they'd do whatever the government wanted in return for more cash, especially in research priorities: a cynical deal which has backfired badly. Universities should be critical and independent of power - less Hegemonic, if you'll forgive me. A certain spikiness is to be welcomed, but governments over the years have decided that as they control the purse strings, they're in charge. Sadly, a large group of VCs has accepted this argument without demur.

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