Does the world need another academic comedy?  Specifically, one set in a university?  It may not be an entirely overpopulated field but it’s certainly one with its share of classics.  From Tom Sharpe’s hilarious Porterhouse Blue, through David Lodge’s wild and wonderful Campus Trilogy, to the ground-breaking A Very Peculiar Practice from Andrew Davies and the BBC, it’s no secret that there’s humour to be found in university life: bloody tons of it as it happens.  And there’s no shortage of good modern variants too.

But, as glorious as these labours were, and are, and whatever the different styles and levels of darkness in the humour, they all have a very simple common point of reference … they’re all set in so-called good universities.  Whatever downs their authors may have had on (the real) Cambridge, Birmingham or Warwick, the fact remains these institutions occupy comfortable places towards the top of any university league table, whatever (dodgy or otherwise) metrics are used to compile it.  They might complain about underfunding, awkward students and dysfunctional admin processes but, frankly, they don’t know they’re born!

But what about those institutions at the other end of the scale?  The ‘post 92s’, the ‘polyversities’, and the seemingly never-ending stream of newer ones appearing almost monthly?  Is there a worthwhile story to be told in a really crap university, where disillusioned, second-rate academics reluctantly teach lazy, third-rate students?

Well, no actually, because those institutions don’t exist.  What happens instead at the bottom of the tables is that good lecturers work twice the hours of their Russell Group counterparts, with little or no recognition, sacrificing their own research ambitions as the years pass by them in a blur.  They teach students with genuine potential, but who never had the privileges of the top university entrants, often balancing family problems and the need to work for a living along the way.  It’s hard, it takes its toll, and it requires a unique kind of dedication – from both staff and students – that’s difficult to understand from outside; humour often masks despair.  Of course it goes bloody wrong all the time: disastrously, hilariously; it’s bound to … but it’s usually not for want of trying!  In their own bumbling way, these folk are heroes.

But there is a unifying downside to these newer institutions: they’re almost always shambolically managed at the highest levels.  There’s no definitively proven, common explanation of why this should be but a credible theory – held by many – is that the ‘top’ people in the ‘lower’ universities: vice chancellors, deputy VCs, directors of major admin departments and deans of faculties, divide essentially into two broad groups.  Firstly, those using the smaller institution as a career stepping-stone to something better and, secondly, those that are just too useless to ever go anywhere else.  The danger with the former is that they look for short-term fixes that embellish their CVs rather than the long-term health of the institution – often quick profit rather than investment.  The problem with the latter, usually having worked their way up in ‘the old college days’, is that they’ve absolutely no idea what an actual university looks like.  The combination is suffocating: procedures are mercilessly tightened and spreadsheets meticulously balanced as real innovation, human potential, academic freedom – sometimes even academic integrity – fly out of the window.  And that’s even without the ever-growing spectre of commercialisation and private greed.  It really has become tough at the bottom!

Now, on a personal note, I realise the obvious risk here: that this story, and its characters, is going to be assumed to be based on people and places I’ve worked with or in.  That isn’t true.  Over four decades, I’ve studied, researched, taught and examined at everything from further education colleges, through higher education institutes, polytechnics and post-92s to red-bricks and Russell Group universities.  Yes, obviously, over all that time, I’ve worked with some unique characters, eccentrics, wonderful dedicated individuals (some right pricks too) and collected some bonkers stories, but none of them are here in anything like unrefined form.  Instead, what follows is a combination of all of it: mostly fabricated, sometimes simplified, often combined, usually expanded, but always, I think, giving just a lingering taste of the originals, wherever and whenever they were.  I just hope reading it is half as enjoyable as it’s honestly been living through it.  It’s only been by getting all this down in print that I’ve genuinely come to terms with what a blessed career I’ve had.

So, yes, in a sense this is a story of a crap university; but it’s hopefully much more than that.  It’s a celebration of those staff and students who make a ‘new’ institution what it really is – and what it should be proud to be.  It’s a tale of somehow getting the job done; sometimes just getting through – often on no more than a day-to-day basis, camaraderie and conflict, struggling to maintain the individuality and inventiveness of a ‘proper’ university weighed down by blithering incompetence from on high.  It’s about turning frustration into fun.

It’s not exactly Lord of the Flies to Coral Island, but it is the higher education equivalent of Grange Hill rather than Brookfield Grammar.  Or, for those of us old enough to remember the music of the 70s/80s, if Porterhouse, Rummidge and Lowlands are Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2), then Nat Shackleton is Madness’s Baggy Trousers!

Vic Grout, February 2023

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This isn’t expected to be a huge commercial success but if you can make a small ‘coffee’ donation (or a little more if you can) below, that would be really appreciated.  Anything collected will be split 50/50 between supplementing the personal pension pot and ‘We Shall Overcome’/Pauline Town at the Station Hotel.  Further on down the page, you can enter your email to get notifications when new material appears. Finally, after that, there’s a comments box where you can send feedback on the story as it unfolds, plot, characters, etc., or thoughts on the project as a whole …


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