‘But why do the Universities themselves let the government push them around?’ asks Tanja.
‘The Universities sold their soul to the government,’ says Ren. ‘In return for letting government have some power over them, the government guarantees their existence, and their funding. It’s not like the Universities couldn’t operate as private industries, they could, but then you’d have all the uncertainties you get with running a private business. There’d be no guarantee that you’d have the student numbers you needed next year. Perhaps they’d all migrate to some new place. And there’d be no guarantee that the students you do get can afford to pay you what you needed. But under the current arrangement those risks are greatly reduced. The government pays the student fees. Competition is reduced because the government controls the market, and the quotas, so the status quo changes only very slowly, if at all. Grayvington, for example, knows that, unless it’s incredibly stupid with its money, it will still be in business in thirty, forty, fifty years time, at the very least, and probably a lot longer, because it has the government behind it.’
‘Okay, I can see the attraction of that.’
‘It’s a good deal for them, especially for the Vice-Chancellors, who get paid huge money by academic standards to operate as bosses in a sheltered market. But the problem is that the government wants more control in return for the money and the guarantees it’s giving. It’s gradually been taking away power from the Universities, and that’s going to ramp up over the next few decades. This is not something that gets commented on much, because most academics are left-wing, so government control over industry seems so natural to them that they barely notice that it’s an issue. Of course, they’ll complain about what sort of control the government should have, but they don’t really see the fact of government control as an issue.’
‘But you can’t just let industries do what they want, can you?’ says Tanja.
‘Let’s not have that discussion now,’ says Ren.
‘Well, okay. But if, like, you academics don’t like what the government is doing why don’t you just all stand up against them? Right? Protest. Why don’t you just not cooperate with the QAE and RAA?’
‘QAA and RAE. Like I said, academics are cowards, and no-one wants to be the first one to stand up and be shot down..’
‘Then why doesn’t the Union do anything?’
‘The Union complains a bit, but the Union is useless. It has no credibility. It’s run by hard leftists who are mainly interested in boycotting Israel. Last week it put out another report on why Israel is the most evil country in the world. The only practical thing it’s capable of doing is making placards saying “Evil Tory scum”.’
Tanja looks dubious, but Miles defends Ren. ‘That’s true, unfortunately. Look, I don’t agree with a lot of what Ren says, but the Union isn’t very effective, and the academics who oppose the RAE and the QAA don’t want to rock the boat.’
‘Sounds like you mostly agree with me then,’ says Ren.
‘Well, I would disagree somewhat on the matter of how academics view the RAE and QAA,’ says Miles. ‘While some academics hate them, some think they’re good things.’
‘That’s true, some academics do think that,’ says Ren. ‘So we are in agreement.’
‘The real problem is the Vice-Chancellors and the managers,’ says Jay, like it’s his turn for a rant. ‘If the Union was in charge then things would be better. Although I don’t suppose you agree with that,’ he says, shooting a sardonic glance at Ren.
‘The Union, no, but the academics yes,’ says Ren. ‘I think we’d be better off with the academics back in charge. They might be a bit incompetent sometimes at running things, but the move to professional management has been a disaster for Universities. Would you, as an economist, agree with that, Lily?’
‘Definitely,’ says Lily. ‘So many people said that academics can’t run things, you need professionals, or academics you turn into professionals with high salaries to match, but they’ve made just as many, if not more, bad financial decisions, and other bad sorts of decisions, as the old academics did. The old academics were much more careful with money. Look how many Universities have currently got themselves into serious debt now that they’ve been taken over by supposedly proper professionals, who don’t know very much except how to spend money.’
‘And even worse than that, the modern managers are slowly squeezing the life out of the sector,’ says Ren.
‘Are you sure you’re not left-wing?’ says Jay. ‘I heartily endorse those sentiments.’
‘Well, I’m sure we can find much to fight about later, but let’s celebrate our current agreement.’
Ren and Jay clink glasses.
‘I’m sure we can. They say you’re a mouthy gobshite,’ says Jay, with an extra-loud emphasis to make sure that Ren’s parents hear this opinion of their son, ‘and they’re not wrong, but you’re not all bad.’
‘Anyone’s gob need filling with some more shite?’ asks Lily.
‘Are you buying a round, or offering some speciality services?’ asks Jay.
‘I’m offering to buy you some of the landlord’s speciality services from the tank in the basement that according to Ren he brews the ale in,’ says Lily.
‘Where he also keeps an assortment of gimps, and monkeys that have escaped from the Psychology labs,’ adds Ren.
‘So that’s where all our monkeys have got to,’ says Miles.
‘Then a pint of the landlord’s finest, with extra shiza,’ says Jay.
‘Liquid pork scratchings for you, Ren?’
‘Liquid pork scratchings? Be still my beating heart,’ says Ren, ‘the woman plays you for a fool. If there really was such a thing then I’d already be a limp-limbed shell of a man lying on dirty sheets in a filthy scratching den, barely responding to the overtures of those of my timid friends who dare not indulge themselves, lest they be lost and be never able to eat a square meal again.’
‘That’s not that different from your current life, you know,’ says Miles. ‘Replace the scratching juice with alcohol and that’s pretty much you to a tee.’
‘Except that you’re lying in the even filthier bed next to me. With even gaunter features.’
‘I never said I was timid.’
Lily finally gets an order out of everyone, and acquesting she goes.
‘So given your analysis, Ren,’ says Miles, ‘why don’t you be the one to put your head above the parapet? Are you a coward too?’
‘I’m too junior for it to have any effect,’ says Ren. ‘I’m only a few months into the job. And I’m still on probation. It has to be people who are more senior.’
‘Or maybe you’re just a coward?’ says Douglas.
‘Maybe I am,’ says Ren. ‘All talk and no action. Thinking of the pension again. At twenty-eight.’
‘Well, at least you’re walking the walk on the TITE,’ says Miles. ‘Gotta salute you for that.’
‘Yes, best of luck with your new career in the service sector,’ says Douglas.
Miles starts to add something to that, but Ren interrupts him. ‘No, don’t say it,’ he says.
‘Don’t say what?’ says Miles.
‘I know what you’re going to say. That I have to start practising saying “Do you want fries with that?”. Say something more original.’
‘That’s a bit hard, because garages don’t have petrol pump attendants any more,’ says Miles. ‘There’s always clerking in an insurance office. Or is that all computerised these days?’
‘The young man carbuncular arrives, a small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,’ says Douglas.
‘I’m not pimply,’ says Ren.
‘One of the low on whom assurance sits, as a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.’
‘Bradford? Are you slagging your own off now, northern chemist?’ says Ren.
‘Not my words. One of your philosophers, wasn’t he?’
‘That’s it, I shall take up as a poet. Specifically, dirty limericks. Here’s one of mine that I’ve always been quite fond of:
There once was a man with a whim
To make use of his counterfeit limb
He procured a girl
Turned her round with a twirl
And stuck it right up her big…’
Ren coughs instead of finishing. Lily has come back with the drinks.
‘Not like you to go shy, Ren,’ says Miles, his eyebrows raised.
‘Don’t be coy on my behalf,’ says Lily. ‘I’m pretty good with limericks myself. Here’s one of mine I made up last year. How does it go again? Der-der-der, yes, that’s it.
Said a hugey who called himself Bryce
Self-fellatio would be very nice
With his penis in place
In the hole in his face
Hit the back of his throat in a trice.’
The table is in uproar at this, laughing, gasping, spilling drinks, coughing. Ren is doing all of them, and in addition his old fellow has undergone another rapid phase transition. It’s so stiff and tall it could act as the structural support for a skyscraper. Pour some concrete on it and you’ve got an instant addition to the New York City skyline. Even Gay Jay will have a boner over that. And Tanja has even cracked a smile.