Ivory Tower: our annual celebration of the worst of higher education and research
Last night saw another gala evening of glamour and glitz at the latest instalment of the Ivory Tower awards—sponsored by Juniper McCall University Media Relations, and recognising everything that is wrong in British universities. In a year of unparalleled chaos, it was a welcome opportunity to take stock and ask, did that really happen?
This year, there have been no fewer than five secretaries of state for education and three universities ministers. We spent much of the year without a science minister, before ending up with two at the same time.
Meanwhile, the guy who used to oversee research had a brief spell as chancellor, during which he drove the economy off a cliff. We end the year with Grant Shapps in charge of the research budget—just think about that for a second.
A clearly refreshed Oliver McCall said: “I can’t believe this has come around again so soon, where did the year go? Last thing I remember was being at a lockdown Christmas drinks reception at the Department for Education, or was that last year?”
Alexander Juniper said: “Once again we are proud to sponsor the Oscars of higher education and research. Remember Driving Miss Daisy won a best picture Oscar, but Citizen Kane didn’t, so it’s all just nonsense really.”
This year, the Ivories decided to get with the levelling-up agenda and took its award ceremony outside London for the first time. The event was held at the Sunshine Lodge hotel in the motorway services, just before junction 10 of the M6, an experience that many guests described as “unrepeatable”.
The full list of winners is below:
The science superpower award
This was a hotly contested category, with so many going out of their way to outbid one another with inflated rhetoric about the state of UK science and innovation. Special mention must go to mayfly prime minister Liz Truss, whose father is an actual scientist, well, a mathematician, which still counts even if he reportedly would never vote for her. Truss’s successor, Rishi Sunak, is highly commended in this category for his comment, during the interminable Conservative leadership contest, that it had been a mistake to “empower scientists” during the pandemic. The architect of the Eat Out to Help Out campaign was accused by one academic of “a blatant attack on science”, which is very reassuring given that he now runs the country.
However, the winner, for their outstanding contribution to scientific discourse, was chancellor for a month Kwasi Kwarteng, who wrote in The Mail on Sunday in March, “Those calling for [fracking’s] return misunderstand the situation we find ourselves in. If we lifted the fracking moratorium, it would take up to a decade to extract sufficient volumes—and it would come at a high cost for communities and our precious countryside. No amount of shale gas from hundreds of wells dotted across rural England would be enough to lower the European price any time soon.” The Conservative government lifted the fracking ban in September, only to reimpose it in October.
The revolving door award
This category recognises supreme achievement in effortlessly moving from one side of the fence to the other. The judging panel was torn this year on the merits of two outstanding candidates. In the end, the highly commended laurels went to former adviser in the department for education Iain Mansfield who is now director of research and head of education and science at the think tank Policy Exchange. The man behind the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) bill—which has still not been passed—popped up at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham to suggest to the audience at a fringe panel that the use of contextual admissions in universities was as bad as racism.
Meanwhile, this year’s winner’s award goes to the man who has spent the past few years exercising the important democratic function of scrutinising the department for education as chair of the commons education committee, before taking up the post of minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education—and everything else that got left off the list of ministerial responsibilities during another rushed reshuffle. So, congratulations to Robert Halfon MP who, at 23 days into the job, is one of the longer serving ministers at the DfE this year.
Loyalist of the year
The judges decided to introduce a special category this year in recognition of the endless horse trading amid tumultuous times at Westminster. Special mention must go to George Freeman, who twice fronted up Penny Mordaunt’s doomed campaign to become leader of the Conservative Party, before changing sides at the last minute and, oddly enough, ending up a few days later as one of two science ministers in Rishi Sunak’s government.
The truly outstanding winner of this year’s award, however, is former education secretary and former chancellor, now minister without portfolio, Nadhim Zahawi. He is on his sixth ministerial job this year, which must also be some kind of record. During this time, and having accepted the post of chancellor just days before, he led a deputation of ministers to Downing Street to tell Boris Johnson to quit before his own failed run at the leadership.
He then threw his weight behind Liz Truss, saying, “We need a ‘booster’ attitude to the economy, not a ‘doomster’ one… Liz will overturn the stale economic orthodoxy and run our economy in a Conservative way.” Later he would support the return of Boris Johnson, publishing an article in The Daily Telegraph telling us to get ready for “Boris 2.0” one minute after Johnson announced his withdrawal from the race. Half an hour later, Zahawi endorsed Rishi Sunak.
Militant of the year
In a year that began—and ends—with industrial action in our universities, the judges wanted to recognise an outstanding contribution to militancy in the workplace. While picket lines are very much in vogue across the public sector, the winner was a man who has done more than most to disrupt the status quo and help bring the nation to a standstill. In February, one brave soul took to Twitter to stand up against red tape in research, “What’s needed is ‘an organised force’ of academics to break the management of universities.” The author said such a force would have allies in Whitehall, especially in the R&D community. Militant of the year 2022 is former Russia-based entrepreneur and Barnard Castle tourism ambassador Dominic Cummings.
Outstanding support to research
This year we had a bumper crop of entries for this blue ribbon category. The judges praised the efforts of the Curry Fund, the Geologists’ Association scheme “to encourage innovation, and to help a wider public understand and enjoy geology”. As far as we know, no actual curry is involved in the funding opportunity. However, this year, there was a runaway winner, the impact-tracking service Researchfish, which managed to annoy almost everyone in academia while looking a laughing stock at the same time. A story that started with complaints about use of researchers’ data by the service grew into a furore about intimidation and bullying, after the service was accused of reporting researchers to funders and employers over comments made on social media.
Researchfish ended up rowing back and offering a sincere apology for causing “concern” among the research community. The highlight of the debacle was the comment to Research Professional News by University of Edinburgh professor James Loxley, “My tweet expressed the view that Researchfish was not, in fact, a real fish, a claim that seemed to distress them. I think there is every likelihood that they consulted data held within their systems to determine exactly which funders to contact, assuming their threats were not entirely empty.”
Long service award
There are some individuals who go that extra mile in their contribution to the hilarity of higher education and research policy. Often those individuals are notable for the time they spend in office, and the Ivories always like to recognise longevity at work. The judges noted with delight the return of Nick Gibb as schools minister for his fourth stint in the job over 12 years.
Then there is the case of Max Mendoza, the 52-year-old head of a student union in Bolivia, who has reportedly been enrolled at a public university for 32 years without graduating but drew a salary to run the union. Mendoza was arrested in May after a six-month investigation into his time as a state-paid student leader. He had failed to complete degrees in engineering, law and agronomy, with a judge involved in the case noting, “He didn’t meet the requirements. He didn’t have a bachelor’s degree [needed] to hold the post.”
However, the gong for long service this year goes to a woman who served as education secretary for a record-breaking 36 hours in July before offering her resignation for the good of the country, leaving one unelected peer as the sole minister at the DfE. Congratulations to former World Wrestling Entertainment marketeer and woke-finder general, Michelle Donelan.
The helping hand award
The Ivories like to recognise those who help their friends. Last year the award went to education secretary Gavin Williamson who appointed his long-term friend and political ally James Wharton as chair of the Office for Students. This year, the baton is handed over to Wharton himself who, in a selfless act, was part of a panel that appointed French teacher and deputy headteacher Rachel Houchen as a £9,180 for 20 days’ work non-executive director at the higher education watchdog.
The Department for Education confirmed that she is married to Ben Houchen, who, like her, was once a pupil at Conyers School in Stockton-on-Tees, and who has served as Conservative Tees Valley mayor since 2017. In 2020, The Telegraph described Ben Houchen as one of Wharton’s “best friends”. The DfE says Rachel Houchen was appointed following a fair and open competition.
Wharton also made an outstanding contribution to the higher education hellscape this year when he sent a video message to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Budapest, in which he appeared to endorse the recent election victory of Viktor Orbán. The CPAC event was also attended by Zsolt Bayer, a Hungarian journalist and co-founder of Orbán’s Fidesz Party, who has made antisemitic comments in the past.
Wharton also covered himself in glory at the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy, giving evidence as the former building regulations minister. On the stand, Wharton was unable to remember whether he had ever been shown a text entitled “An Introduction to the Building Regulations”. With news that Wharton’s predecessor at the OfS, Michael Barber, is to return to government to advise on skills, we look forward to another bumper year from the boys of the OfS.
International student of the year
There were so many strong contenders for this award. The judges praised the comedy value of appointing of Chris Heaton Harris as secretary of state for Northern Ireland and the man responsible for implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol. Heaton Harris is a former Ivories nominee for “the book” he was supposed to be writing that required him to send letters to vice-chancellors in the UK asking for examples of how Europe was being taught in our universities.
We should also praise the organisers of Gavin Williamson Day in Somaliland, which celebrates the genius of the former education secretary now sacked by three prime ministers. However, this year’s award for outstanding contribution to internationalism goes to two-time home secretary Suella Braverman for her work on post-study work visas. When not visiting migrant detention centres by Chinook, the hardworking MP can be found signing a treaty with French counterparts to police small boats in the English Channel.
The home secretary is something of a Francophile, in the early 2000s after graduating from the University of Cambridge she spent two years in France on an Erasmus programme and then as an Entente Cordiale scholar, getting a master’s in European and French law at Panthéon-Sorbonne University. Braverman later voted to end the UK’s participation in Erasmus.
University of the Year
Sponsored by Juniper McCall University Media Relations
This award has lain fallow for several years, mostly because it would be won every year by the University of Manchester, given the institution’s unstinting commitment to self-inflicted comic mishaps. Indeed, the university put in a strong showing this year as well, with the furore over a PhD student who used masturbation to comics depicting sex with underaged boys as a research method. After an investigation, the paper was removed from publication by the publisher Sage.
However, this year, Manchester has been pipped at the post for outstanding contribution to university media relations by an institution that was rebuked by the Advertising Standards Authority over a claim made on social media about its performance in the Research Excellence Framework.
The same university was also involved in a public spat with national treasure Steve Coogan over the film The Lost King, about the discovery of the remains of Richard III. The university said claims that its staff sidelined the movie’s main character Philippa Langley and took credit for her work are “far removed” from the truth. In response, Coogan said, "The university are responsible for their own undoing." This award goes to the University of Leicester.