Ivory Tower: The UK’s premier university media relations team handle the fallout from the USL
Somewhere in SW1…
McCall [on the phone]: Of course I’ve got his phone number…yes, I texted him…he promised to fix it…but what I want to know is where is my PPE contract?…McCall’s Home Brew Hand Gel is a family company…yes, half the shares are in mother’s name…there’s got be some benefit to her living on the Isle of Man…yes, of course I went through the VIP route, I was at school with the minister’s sister…so don’t tell me about cronyism, it’s an utter disgrace. I’m a crony and I’m not being given preferential treatment, couldn’t even get me bumped to the front of the vaccine queue. I had to pretend to be mother’s sole carer…I am in a sense, I take care of her stocks and shares portfolio, obviously…No, that’s not fair, we are not lobbyists, we are university media relations consultants, it’s quite different…hold on here’s Alexander, I’ll speak to you later, bye Michelle.
[Enter Alexander Juniper, Senior Partner and Head of Rebuttal]
Juniper: It’s an absolute disaster.
McCall: The PPE contract was disappointing but I’m over it now.
Juniper: Not that, what have you been doing all morning, haven’t you seen the news?
[Enter Janet, degree apprentice in university media relations]
Janet: Thank goodness you are back Mr Juniper, the phone has been ringing off the hook.
McCall: What’s going on?
Janet: I’ve got the vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester on line one, she says she has joined a university super league by mistake and wants a way out.
Juniper: Is that the same vice-chancellor that we had to hire a storage lock-up at King’s Cross just to store the records of her lockdown gaffes?
McCall: University Super League?
Juniper: Ask her to hold, I need to think.
Janet: I’ve got the vice-chancellor of the University of Lancaster on line two, he says he wants to release a statement condemning the league as pure greed, while holding out the possibility of joining it in the future.
Juniper: Tell him not to release anything, I’ll call him back.
McCall: What on earth is happening?
Juniper: Oliver, while you have been gassing with your friends at the DfE, a group of 12 elite universities have announced plans to form a league of their own to share all research funding and all student numbers among themselves.
McCall: This is a disaster.
McCall: Why didn’t we know about it?
McCall: This is what happens when people work from home. They start having ideas of their own.
Juniper: It’s a betrayal of every fan of university media relations.
McCall: They start thinking they can handle their own PR.
Juniper: It’s pure greed, trying to save on consultancy fees.
McCall: I’ve just found their website. This is terrible. Just look at those colours.
Juniper: This is what happens when restaurants are closed.
McCall: One lunch at Claridge’s and we could have killed the idea stone dead.
Juniper: Or at least obtained a 12-month contract for a feasibility study.
McCall: The sooner they all get back to the office the better.
Janet: Mr Juniper, I’ve got a Mr Cameron on the phone, I think it’s about catering for the media relations society annual dinner, he says something about being in the soup and wonders if you are prepared to sup with a long spoon?
Juniper: Not now, Dave. Tell him I’ll drop by the gypsy caravan later.
McCall: It says here, the University Super League will be a closed shop for the elite, putting an end to competition between institutions, and ensuring income streams for its core members.
Juniper: It’s a disgrace.
McCall: To be fair, it sounds very much like the strategic review you did for the Russell Group a couple of years ago.
Juniper: I know, it’s a complete disgrace, they’ve just stolen some of our best work.
Janet: Manchester is still on hold by the way, now I’ve got the VC of Birmingham on the line saying they are taking flack from their board.
McCall: For joining a super league of elite universities?
Janet: No, for not being in it.
Juniper: Take his number and tell him under no circumstances to release any videos.
McCall: A statement would be fine, but absolutely no videos.
Janet: Blinkin’ ink, Mr Juniper, the VC of Liverpool is phoning now.
McCall: I thought you said this was a super league of elite universities?
Juniper: Someone has to finish at the bottom.
McCall: Tell her, she’ll never walk alone and we’ll call her back.
Juniper: The worst thing about this whole sorry affair is how badly the communications have been handled.
McCall: That’s our job. If anyone should be handling communications this badly, it should be us.
Juniper: What were they thinking? It shows contempt for our traditions.
McCall: Higher education is nothing without the consultants, don’t they know that.
Juniper: It’s an absolute cluster shambles. There’s been a huge backlash and now half of them want out.
McCall: That’s why whenever I go to visit a vice-chancellor I always carry my spine donor card.
Janet: I’ve got the chair of the Office for Students on the phone saying the government is considering legislation.
Juniper: Why, it’s not a free speech league?
McCall: I thought it was free speech union.
Juniper: The only thing this lot are united about is the desire to be seen to be the first to leave.
McCall: Who is driving this, maybe I should ring them to offer our services, try and rescue a scintilla of dignity from the inevitable U-turn.
Juniper: Speaking of which, how is Gavin?
McCall: Still in a job.
Juniper: Your coaching is working then.
Janet: I’ve got the LSE on the phone demanding they speak to you Mr Juniper.
McCall: I haven’t seen so many vice-chancellors flip flop this quickly since the pension strike.
Juniper: Some of your finest work, but I think it is going to take more than carrying cups of tea down to the picket line to fix this one.
McCall: You would have thought the government would have been keener on the plan, given it combines the outright greed of market capitalism with controls to prevent poor people going to university.
Juniper: They’ve lost their moral compass since Dom left.
McCall: A Tory government denouncing a cartel of elite interests, what is the world coming to?
Janet: Mr Juniper, you have to do something, I can’t cope out here. I’ve got two Scottish VCs on the phone denouncing the typical English bias of the USL and wanting to know if hotels are open in London yet so they can visit their club.
McCall: We are going to get the blame for this, even though it’s nothing to do with us.
Juniper: This is the darkest day for higher education since the Lib Dems’ tuition fees U-turn.
McCall: Yes, we weren’t consulted on that one either. We missed out on weeks of premium rate advice fees.
Janet: Can I make a suggestion?
McCall: Please do Janet, we’re stumped.
Janet: It looks like these universities didn’t anticipate the backlash and now don’t want to be seen as global brands detached from their communities.
McCall: It’s taken us years to grow those brands.
Juniper: Go on, Janet.
Janet: Well, wouldn’t the best thing be for everyone to pull out leaving only two left in the league who are quite happy to be elite, they could compete against one another in perpetuity regardless of performance or merit or whether anyone else is remotely interested in watching it.
McCall: You mean the boat race strategy?
Janet: That way they get to be in a league of their own, no one is that bothered by it because they are already thought of as toffs, and everyone else can be united in dislike and jealousy against them.
Juniper: Janet, Janet, Janet…
Janet: Yes, Mr Juniper?
Juniper: Never graduate.
McCall: I’ll start drafting a grovelling apology for the breakaway VCs.
Juniper: You can put Manchester through now Janet, and then see if they’ve got any more storage space available at King’s Cross, this could be a long call.