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24 Hours in HE: unbolted


Ivory Tower: our fly-on-the-wall documentary gains access to campus just as term concludes

Narrator: It’s exam time at Royal Dalton University, formerly the North by North West Midlands Institute and Technical College, one of Britain’s busiest higher education providers. This year the assessment period has been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, again. Vice-chancellor Sir Malcolm Baxter is in philosophical mood.

Sir Malcolm: I usually love this time of year, with students queuing up for their results, external examiners visiting us from all over the country, writing my speech for graduations, sipping champagne at the board of governors’ summer garden party, booking my flights for one week without mother on the Algarve. But this year is very different—damn green list! Much of our assessment has been online and all our exam boards are on Teams. Can you imagine watching online as someone reads out a set of numbers over and over. It’s just like Eurovision. Of course, the government has said that all students could return to campus from 17 May. The truth is that we had finished most of our teaching by Easter. That’s because of the great curriculum review we did a few years ago. Our “Profit First” programme looked at how we could teach in such a way so that our students profited the most from our courses. That meant finishing teaching two months earlier than the Russell Group university down the road. You see, we passionately believe that students don’t benefit from too much downtime over Christmas. They tend to relax, neglect their studies and have a good time. We wanted to put a stop to that. So, we bring them back as soon as legally possible in January and then go hell for leather so we can squeeze the next teaching block in before Easter. That has the advantage of freeing up all our lecture theatres and teaching rooms by mid-April, meaning that we can make them available to corporate hires. That way students get a great experience of what it is really like working alongside industry professionals. The students love it. Having no classes after Easter has proved really popular. I know that because the students and their parents are forever emailing me about it. Funny, that it’s not reflected in our student satisfaction scores yet, but I guess it will take a while for the curriculum review to bear fruit. But as a senior management team, we want staff and students to know that we are committed to Profit First for the long-term. Of course, freeing up the curriculum post-Easter means that the marking season for staff is now three times as long as it used to be. Personally, I’m really proud of this innovation. It’s important that the students get quality feedback from the academics. That’s why our staff spend the best part of three months filling out detailed feedback sheets which students can pick up in June. It’s true that most students have gone home by then and we end up shredding most of it as confidential waste, but that’s a great opportunity for us to show our commitment to our green values. As a keen environmentalist, no sight cheers me so much as the diesel truck turning up to cart away bags and bags of uncollected exam and essay scripts. We do a lot of things online now, of course. Some of the technology has been a real game changer. I especially like the plagiarism software that we have, Dob-them-in it’s called. It can detect when the students have cut and pasted from past efforts or copied things from the internet. I think it can be a bit over-sensitive though. Just for fun staff in the English department ran my speech for graduation through it and found that 80 per cent of it can be found on a website called buymyspeech.com; I really don’t know how the website got a hold of my graduation oration, maybe it fell out of one of those bags of confidential waste.

Narrator: June is usually a busy time for head of estates and fabrication strategy Graeme Underwood. This year his team has been challenged, with so much uncertainty.

Underwood: I’m not ashamed to say that I’m one of those people who have enjoyed lockdown. I’m going to miss it really. Not that I’ve had to work from home. Being responsible for a physical estate of approximately 54 hectares means that I’ve been on campus nearly every day, just without colleagues, and the roads have been empty. But it’s been a positive experience. For the most part we’ve had no students, so we’ve been able to maintain a great social distancing scheme. The buildings are spotless thanks to our deep clean and purge rollout that has seen us spend £250,000 on disinfectant and £370,000 on sanitizing products. I admit that in the beginning it was a challenge to source the kit for keeping us Covid-secure. It was a real godsend when our local MP Sir Godfrey Waterloo-Tanhauser phoned us to say that his brother knew a pub landlord who could get hold of face masks and hand gel at a good price. It’s fair to say that it wasn’t the cheapest on the market, but you get what you pay for don’t you? It was important without the students or academic staff around, and most of the catering and estates staff on furlough, that the campus was completely sterile. It’s been the same with student halls. In September we had a bad outbreak of the virus in Noddy Holder, the biggest of our residences. But once we deployed our ring of steel strategy, bringing in bouncers from the currently closed Bonkers nightclub in the high street, we really got the situation under control. And after we sent the students home at Christmas, we haven’t had an outbreak since. I’m proud of our Covid testing facility that we used for rapid testing. It was a real challenge to find a temporary structure big enough but luckily the Bingo Mars circus had just stopped touring, so they let us use their big top. We did a deal with them, and we allowed them to park their lorries and caravans on campus next to the tent. Of course, some wags have said that Royal Dalton was already a giant circus before Bingo Mars turned up but haters gonna hate, aren’t they? Now that things are due to unlock, we can look forward to another few student-free months over the summer, and I’m pleased to say that looking at the way the Russell Group place down the road has been sucking up all our applications, we’ll probably be able to maintain a student free year in September and October.

Narrator: Arthur Barrington, professor of imperial history and race theory, is a rare thing at Royal Dalton, an academic who doesn’t mind admitting that he voted Tory. Recent announcements from the government on free speech mean that Professor Barrington has now found his once unfashionable views vindicated.

Barrington: Yes, Boris is completely right. University is all about exposing yourself to multiple points of view and then deciding that you want to stop being a student, get a job, own a Lexus, move to Sutton Coldfield, buy a house, join the freemasons, and read the Daily Telegraph. It worked for my generation, and look what it’s done for the country? Never been better, out of Europe, our borders closed, and at last sensible policies for higher education. For many years, I have suffered the ignominy of only one or two students signing up for my lectures on empire-building, and those two would usually say that they were only there because the other classes were full. I’m so pleased that Gavin Williamson has re-ignited seeming long-forgotten debates. It’s very important that students learn about great men like Cecil Rhodes, Clive of India, Raffles of Singapore, and Morgan of GMTV. The snowflakes around here said they didn’t want to submit my book, Who Moved my Bell Curve?, to the REF. They said it lacked rigour and was completely absent of historical scholarship. But I’ve had the last laugh. Next month I start work as a curriculum adviser at the department for education.

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