Tanja’s raised voice has attracted the attention of Lily again, and Miles, who is starting to look uneasily at Tanja. While Tanja is busy berating Ren (who is trying to send a telepathic message to Miles to replace Tanja with a round of drinks), Lily gets Miles’ attention, and points to his crotch, and then at Tanja’s mouth, to indicate that Miles should stuff his cock into her mouth to shut her up, and, like, why hasn’t he being doing more of that so they don’t have to hear Tanja bore the hell out of them again?
Tanja doesn’t see this, but Ren does, and he immediately breaks the world record for the fastest erection ever attained by a human adult male. It won’t go down as the fastest recorded erection, of course, because no such records are kept outside of certain public school circles, but nevertheless, it is the fastest erection ever achieved, which God, if God exists, would be glad to attest to. Well, perhaps not glad, Ren thinks, but he would reveal the truth if asked. (Actually, thinking about it, he wouldn’t. He’d clam up. But he’d know, in his heart, what the truth is.)
Tanja breaks off, perhaps unsure of where this shit is going, or perhaps she was subliminally aware of Lily doing something in her peripheral vision.
‘You know,’ says Ren, getting back into the conversation straight away in the hope that it will make his erection go away before he has an accident in his trousers, ‘you’d be better off talking to someone like Tony Shaver about this sort of thing.’
‘Who’s Tony Shaver?’
‘He’s Tony Shaver. Or, to give him his full name, Tony Fucking Shaver. A guy in my department. He’s much more simpatico with this sort of stuff than I am.’
This is not really true. Although Tony Shaver is a massive bullshit artist, even he would find this sort of talk painful. He’s more into sociology of science than hippy-dippy kaleidoscope talk. But Ren would be glad to make Tony suffer. Also, talking about Tony Shaver is proving to be an effective rod size-reducer.
‘Miles, have you told Tanja about the QAA?’ asks Lily.
Ren, glad of a chance to escape from Tanja’s preoccupations, starts banging his forehead against the table. ‘The QAA. The QAA. The fucking QAA,’ he drones.
Tanja looks annoyed, knowing that the previous conversation is over, and this one is about to take off whatever she does. ‘All right then, I’ll bite,’ she says. ‘What’s the QAA?’
‘You don’t want to know,’ says Lily. ‘Seriously, don’t ask.’
Tanja frowns at Lily, because she doesn’t want to ask. They’re the ones making her.
‘Too late,’ says Ren.
‘The QAA is a review process that the government does every few years,’ says Miles, who is not very attentive to his girlfriend’s moods, ‘supposedly to ensure teaching quality in UK Universities. Sounds all right in theory, right?’
Tanja nods, because she is supposed to.
Ren demurs: ‘It doesn’t sound all right in theory to me. The government running anything is a bad idea, especially when it’s a Labour government. And the more complex the industry, more absurd the whole idea is. Hygiene in restaurants they can just about cope with. Anything else is a disaster. We don’t have government inspection of the quality of washing machines, for a good reason.’
‘Well, anyway,’ says Miles, whatever you think of government inspections in theory, in practise the QAA is a total disaster. Have a guess how many times the QAA people have observed our teaching in Psychology.’
‘I’ve no idea,’ says Tanja. ‘One hundred?’
‘Two hundred? Fifty? Five hundred? I’ve really no idea.’
‘The answer is… zero.’
‘Zero? What? What do you mean?’
‘Zero. They don’t watch any teaching. There’s a fortune spent on QAA, and enormous amounts of time goes into it, but none of it involves watching anyone doing any lectures or any teaching of any sort.’
‘What do they… investigate then?’
‘It’s all just a massive box-ticking exercise,’ says Lily. ‘Do you do this? Do you do that? All the things they think teaching should involve. But no actual investigation of what the actual teaching is like.
‘Not that there’s much point them doing that either,’ say Ren. ‘Why think that two or three people appointed by the government going to listen to the lecturers in a department can give you any sort of definitive verdict? Won’t they have their own subjective reactions to a lecturer? And how good are they at teaching themselves?’
‘So why is it such a big process if it’s just answering some questions on teaching?’ asks Tanja.
‘That’s what government bureaucracy is like,’ says Ren. ‘You won’t believe how enormous it has all got, just, as you say, to ask some questions about teaching. In my department they’ve had to put a whole room aside just to store all the documents required. And we’re spending about eighteen months’ worth of manpower on it, worth about sixty thousand pounds. Just for the endless filling in of the endless forms. For a smaller department. Across the University sector, with hundreds of Unis, each with dozens of departments, we’re talking an enormous number of millions per round spent on useless form-filling. All that is money that could have been spent on much better things.’
Tanja is looking goggle-eyed at Ren.
‘It doesn’t even measure anything worthwhile,’ says Lily. ‘It’s not even really claiming to be measuring teaching quality. It’s just assessing how well a department measures up to what the department itself claims its teaching goals are. Not that it even does that. Most of the time it has to assume that the department is telling the truth, and it doesn’t really have any way of knowing that. So it’s not really even measuring how well a department measures up to its own goals. But that is the intention. To assess how well a department measures up to its own teaching goals, rather than measuring how well the department teaches.’
‘Yes,’ says Jay, ‘which also means that if one department makes bolder claims than another department, then the first department could get a lower QAA score than the second even if it’s the better teaching department.’
‘And what they are measuring changes every time,’ says Douglas. ‘I discovered that what they’re asking us this time is different to what they asked us last time. So the QAA scores, even assuming they really did tell you about the quality of a department’s teaching, don’t tell you anything about that department’s teaching quality over time. Any change in scores is just as likely to reflect a change in the questions asked this time, rather than any change in teaching quality.’
‘You know what really pisses me off?’ Jay almost shouts. His scientific researches have enabled him to hit the exact frequencies that makes his voice resonate throughout nearby galaxies. ‘In most other fields the inspectors, who come from that field, think that they should look after their own field to some extent, so they give all the departments good scores, or pretty good scores, unless you really are a bad teaching department.’
Ren can feel the wooden walls on the other side of the place shaking as Jay speaks. Is he an amateur opera singer? A trained histrion? He looks the part, with his shaggy black hair, and his theatrical moustache, goatee and jowls, which the goatee fails to disguise (the goatee fails to disguise the jowls, that is. The goatee isn’t meant to disguise itself, or the moustache).
‘But in my field,’ Jay continues, ‘they take it all really seriously, they’re true believers, the stupid bastards, so they give out some undeservedly low scores to show how pure they are. Stupid, stupid, bastards.’
Jay’s enunciation, you have to admit, is excellent, but it’s not really a conversation that Ren wants advertised to everyone else in the place. Some of the other patrons are throwing annoyed looks their way, but as is the way with loudies, Jay is oblivious to this.
‘So,’ Jay goes on, ‘one good department in one field might get a much lower score than a poor department in another field. It’s so unscientific that all just becomes a worthless exercise.’
Ren shrugs. ‘You lefties only have yourself to blame,’ he says in a low voice, in the hope that this will make Jay speak more quietly. ‘You always think the government can fix things, but usually it makes things worse. No situation is so bad that the government can’t make it a disaster.’
‘But has it improved teaching?’ asks Tanja.
At that the academics all burst out laughing. Jay laughs like he’s in a theatrical version of a spoof of a Hammer Horror film. In fact he looks like he’s currently performing five nights a week in a theatrical version of a spoof of a Hammer Horror film.
‘Christ no,’ says Miles, wiping his eyes. ‘It hasn’t made teaching any better at all.’
‘All it’s done is removed all the old internal incentives we had as academics to teach well, and replaced them with external incentives,’ says Lily the economist. ‘External incentives don’t work as well as internal ones.’
‘Especially when the monitoring systems for those external incentives are so poor,’ says Ren.