Thursday, 16 October 2014

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the University of Vulgaria

In the peculiar world of modern universities, status matters. "How might an institution raise its status?" Vice-Chancellors might ask themselves. For those institutions whose mission has been the sometimes thankless (but nevertheless important) task of  providing opportunities to those who otherwise would miss-out on Higher Education, this is a particularly difficult question. It is unlikely that such institutions will possess Nobel prize-winners (or even Noble prizewinners, as the VC of Essex thought the other week! see They are unlikely to possess world-beating research units, or even have the capacity to win significant research income, nationally or internationally. What they have are sometimes needy students, who caring staff do their best to serve. So what might a VC do?

One suggestion: invest in flying cars.

Cars are sexy, after all. Get a supercar to win prizes, knock everyone's socks off... that'll set tongues wagging! "Well, who'd have thought the university of Vulgaria could pull that off! Wow! Someone's really turned that place around!" I can understand Vice Chancellors thinking "get me a flying car!". Either that or something like "get me a world-leading biotech facility from somewhere!" (which would also knock everyone's socks off), or "get me a new business school", etc.

But this is the story of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Baron of Vulgaria. The Baron, having seen a flying car at a recent exhibition surrounding by scantily-clad dancing girls (difficult to know if he wanted the car or the girls), ordered the capture of the car's inventors. He poured resources into a special laboratory for the production of the car, and stuffed it with REF-able professors, all experts in the field of 'avian automotives'. But being under pain of death to produce their mechanical miracle instilled a kind of intellectual stultification that meant absolutely nothing came of it.

The Baron's wife wished to incarcerate students and force them to pay huge fees for their incarceration. Students were captured by the head of marketing (the so-called 'student-catcher'). He would tour towns and villages in Vulgaria in a wagon emblazoned with adverts for 'degrees'. "Students! Students! get your Degrees here! Lots of lovely degrees! Anyone fancy Avian Automotives? Come and get it here!" Many students were captured (although not many wanted to do avian automotives), immediately transported to the Baron's castle, and forced to sign contracts promising the Vulgarian government's loan agency lots of money they hadn't earned yet. They were subjected to hard-labour: this involved sitting in lectures on mechanical engineering, getting rather bored and being forced to fulfil endless "contracts of assessment", until such a point that they would be released (after having completed a final humiliation ritual involving fancy dress!) The Baron and his wife had a peculiar relationship, singing at this final ritual to each other "You're my little Choochy Face /And you're my Teddy Bear..." a routine which would leave others feeling rather bilious.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was the magical car at the heart of it all. Chitty could see things for what they were. There were good, honest, caring people. And there were people who were pretending to be something they were not. And there were people who, in their pretending, in their alienation from themselves, had cast a spell of deceit over too many others. Chitty flew into the Baron's castle and beeped it's horn. "Wow! A real flying car!" they all said. The students freed themselves from their chains and awarded each other certificates (the Vulgarian quality controller was furious!). And they all saw that the Baron had no clothes on. (ok - I've slipped into Hans Christian Anderson - but he was a fantastic sociologist!). They found their voice, and turned the Baron out of the castle.

"No more gimmicks! We are who we are!" they said. And with that, everybody in every other kingdom looked towards them. And everyone else wished they could be a bit more like them...

The end.

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