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The Ivory Tower awards 2021


Ivory Tower: Our annual celebration of the worst of higher education and research

It was another evening of glitz and glamour at the 2021 Ivory Tower awards, sponsored by Juniper-McCall University Media Relations. After last year’s online event, described by one participant as “the worst two hours on Zoom since the Johnson family quiz night”, nominees and guests gathered at the Travel Tavern off junction 8 of the M25.

Handing out the awards were the sponsor’s senior partners Alexander Juniper (head of denial and rebuttal) and Oliver McCall (head of fake news and unwelcome publicity). Mr Juniper said, “for the umpteenth year running we are delighted to partner with the sector on these much sought after awards, which really set their recipients apart from their peers”.

Mr McCall said, “this is the first time I’ve been out the house since March, I’m really looking forward to being in the bar, where I’ve got a lot of catching up to do”. Also in attendance was Ms Janet McAnespie, a degree apprentice with Juniper-McCall, who had the presence of mind to call the fire brigade when the hotel’s smoke alarms went off at around 11.30pm.

As guests shivered in the cold of the Travel Tavern car park, Mr Juniper explained via a hastily assembled microphone that this turn in proceedings had been a great way for everyone to experience the government’s new guidance for award ceremonies—“hands, space, face and fresh air”. Here are the nominees and winners from last night’s event.

D’artagnan award for helping your friends

It has been a great 12 months for the chumocracy, from uncompetitive contracts for Personal Protective Equipment to uncompetitive tenders for government polling and advice. There have been seats in the Lords up for grabs, as well as government U-Turns after attempts to abolish the process on parliamentary standards. Higher education and research have enjoyed their fair share of eye-brow raising appointments.

The judges wanted to acknowledge the contribution to general hilarity of former nightclub manager turned hereditary peer Lord Jim Bethell for his explanation as to why he could not make WhatsApp messages available to a judicial review of the award of PPE contracts. First, his phone was lost, then it was “defective”, then it was described as “a personal device that had been passed to a family member upon its replacement by Lord Bethell”.

The good lord seemed unaware that WhatsApp messages can be stored in the cloud as well as on devices.

However, the winner of this prestigious category is James Wharton, appointed as chair of the Office for Students in January of this year. Wharton—also elevated to the Lords—is a long-term friend of the education secretary who appointed him, Gavin Williamson. The two men ran Boris Johnson’s campaign to become leader of the Conservative Party.

In his new role at the OfS, Wharton is leading the charge to make the Office for Students the Venus de Milo of arms-length regulators. We look forward to the comedy potential of future appointments to the roles of chief executive and the much-anticipated free speech tsar.

Own goal of the year

There is never a shortage of individuals and institutions in higher education and research who will eagerly put their foot in their mouth given the opportunity. This category recognises self-inflicted wounds in the field of university-media relations.

Last year, education secretary Gavin Williamson walked away with more gongs than J Arthur Rank. Although Williamson once again managed an impressive tally of mishaps—including his attempts at “levelling-up” by cutting London weighting for universities in the capital—the judges felt that it was time for new blood on the carpet.

Nominees included universities minister Michelle Donelan for implying that the government’s Free Speech Bill could allow Holocaust deniers to speak on campuses; the University and College Union for calling a national strike in higher education on a Friday in December to achieve “maximum impact”; and the Middle Common Room of Magdalen College Oxford, which voted to remove a picture of the Queen as a symbol of "recent colonial history" and in doing so united everyone from the Daily Telegraph to Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham in condemnation. 

However, this year’s slow hand clap award goes to the universities minister for the suggestion that David Irving might be able to reclaim his bus fare.

Science diplomat of the year

Following the UK’s departure from the European Union, the judges felt the time was right to recognise the contribution of the gaff and the good to the cause of science diplomacy. Who could forget Boris Johnson’s turn at COP26 in Glasgow, when he told an astonished world that the UK was not “remotely a corrupt country”.

Other nominees include home secretary Priti Patel for her “brightest and best” immigration route, designed to attract Nobel Prize winners to Britain, which in fact has attracted zero applications. The Treasury also deserves an honourable mention for cuts to the overseas aid budget, which has seen vital research in the developing world cancelled.

However, this year’s outstanding contribution is from the science diplomat of the year David Frost for his work in ensuring that the UK has yet to associate with the transnational Horizon Europe research programme eleven months after an agreement to do so. By repeatedly threatening to trigger Article 16 of the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement over his own authored Northern Ireland Protocol, Frost has managed to lose friends and alienate people, with UK researchers currently frozen out of the scheme.

Administrative Excellence Award

This category recognises an absolute commitment to bureaucracy and red tape. Once again there is no shortage of nominations in the field of administration and paperwork.

Honourable mention must go to the Home Office for the Nobel Prize visa route that has attracted no applicants. Recognition is also due to the unloved Higher Education Restructuring Regime, which has come and gone with about as much interest as a late-night documentary about stamp collecting on GB News.

A special mention for looking for sunlit uplands goes to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. As the UK’s food supply was collapsing post Brexit amid security, import and domestic production woes, the council launched a funding call entitled “Transforming the UK food systems for healthy people”.

However, the winner of this year’s award—sponsored by Computer Says No, “for all your IT enquiry solutions”—is the Turing Scheme. The educational exchange programme, designed as a domestic alternative to the European Union’s Erasmus+ has an unhappy history.

From an inauspicious start with a reduced budget and no capacity for actual exchanges, the scheme managed to get the backs up of almost everyone with its hasty implementation and short turnaround times for universities to make their application over the Easter bank holiday. The Welsh government has decided to invest in its own parallel exchange programme with the EU and the Scottish government is to do the same; students in Northern Ireland have their participation in Erasmus+ paid for by the Dublin government.

Alan Turing’s name is frequently taken in vain these days for everything from research institutes to prize medals, but when it comes to this exchange programme without exchange, the judges felt that if the World War II code breaker were alive today he would be turning in his grave.

Defending the indefensible award

This is always a highly contested category with this year proving no exception. The judges wanted to make special mention of the contribution to the rich comic tapestry of higher education from Lex Greensill, the supply chain finance guru at the centre of one of this year’s Downing Street lobbying scandals.

Former prime minister David Cameron was caught up in the row over the now collapsed company Greensill Capital which had employed him. Greensill was also a generous donor to higher education—in May, the University of Manchester discontinued a £2.5 million gift from Greensill Capital to fund a chair of fintech and other academic posts.

However, the judges felt there could be only one winner given their outstanding history as a leading apologist for the inexcusable. This year’s award goes to business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, the man nominally in charge of the science budget and a long-term defender of his government’s more unenviable records.

Earlier this month, Kwarteng took time out of attending COP26 to tell Sky News that, it was "difficult" to see a future for Kathryn Stone, the independent parliamentary commissioner for standards, after her recommendation to suspend Owen Paterson was blocked by Conservative MPs. Later that day, the government did a reverse ferret and Paterson resigned as an MP.

Eleven days after that, in a letter to Ms Stone, Kwarteng suggested he might have "fallen short" of the ministerial code and "should have chosen my words more carefully". He referred himself to Boris Johnson’s independent adviser on ministerial standards, Lord Geidt, who is himself subject to complaints from academics about his twin roles as chair of King’s College London and an advisor to arms firm BAE systems.

Culture warrior of the year

This category attracted the most nominations of any of the awards this year. The judges trawled through pages and pages of what one described as “depressing and dreary guff” to identify a truly worthy winner.

Of course, special mention goes to the Magdalen Middle Common Room and to the burghers of Oriel College Oxford for their handling of the Cecil Rhodes statue snafu. Gavin Williamson also made several impressive attempts to pick up the prize, notably with his interview in the Evening Standard in which he confused Black sportsmen Marcus Rashford and Maro Itoje, and simultaneously managed to say that the picture of the queen in his own office was “not very flattering” and imply that her majesty was a bit of a sort—“obviously every picture of the Queen is absolutely stunning”.

However, only one higher education culture warrior managed to end up in legal hot water having freely spoken. On 13 November last year, just as the Ivory Tower awards had been put to bed, it was confirmed by the law firm Carter-Ruck that the Daily Mail and Mail Online had issued an apology and agreed to pay £25,000 in damages plus legal fees to a University of Cambridge professor libelled in an article by Amanda Platell, the former press secretary to one-time Conservative party leader William Hague and then a Daily Mail columnist.

As detailed in the apology from the paper, Platell had accused Cambridge’s Priyamvada Gopal of, “attempting to incite an aggressive and potentially violent race war, and that she supports and endorses the subjugation and persecution of white people”. As libels go, it’s something of a doozy.

The paper had to admit one part of its evidence was a tweet purporting to be from Gopal but actually fake and another piece of evidence was “partially quoted”. “Professor Gopal’s actual view is that all lives should be valued,” said the Mail.

Other awards made on the night:

The Phileas Phogg Travel Prize

To Alok Sharma, president of climate change conference COP26, who flew to 30 countries in seven months during a global pandemic without being subject to any isolation restrictions.

Scholarly book of the year

Shakespeare: the riddle of genius, by Boris Johnson (forthcoming). No 10 has been forced to deny that the prime minister skipped Cobra meetings during the pandemic because he was so committed to writing this book, for which academic experts were approached to assist the author. It is reported that one academic contacted by the publisher was told, “the originality and brilliance” of the book “would lie in Mr Johnson’s choice of questions to ask and in the inimitable way in which he would write up the expert answers he received”.

Funder of the year

The award for best funding call of the year goes to the Geologists’ Association of Great Britain for its Curry Fund, which, “supports initiatives within geology which might otherwise not be possible, to encourage innovation, and to help a wider public understand and enjoy geology”. We assume it is named after a benefactor called Curry rather than involving late nights of geological discussion at a local Indian restaurant.

Student accommodation provider of the year

A highly contested category this year, as newspaper headlines informed us that students were “scrabbling” for places in halls of residence as a result of oversubscribed courses. The efforts of the University of York deserve special mention where some first-year students were offered a room 36 miles from campus in Hull. A spokesperson acknowledged the situation was "not ideal", and the solution arose from the university’s "close links" with Hull.

However, the winner by a short distance, is the University of Glasgow, some of whose freshers who were dreaming of their new life in the leafy surrounds of Glasgow’s chi-chi west end, were instead offered a room in Paisley. While not as far from Glasgow as Hull is from York, it is, in a sense, a world away.

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