The year-long pantomime that was government in 2022 started trying to be managerial and serious, just as the true pantomime season got into full swing and TV started showing the usual
repeats specials. Rather too much sherry and mince pies before the pantomime highlights compilation meant that I fell asleep during A Christmas Carol – so I’m not sure if this was just a dream (or a nightmare) …
This year every university and college is putting on its own pantomime. What’s showing near you? We offer these plot summaries to help you choose what to watch.
Higher Education Cinderella has been condemned to a life of servitude, enforced by the ugly sisters DfE and the Office for Students (you can’t usually tell them apart). Life is only tolerable for HE Cinderella thanks to all the friendly student mice, and UUK, an apparently kindly character in the service of the household, but with suspiciously shiny Buttons. There is much excitement in the land as Parliament decides to stage a magnificent Election Ball to find a suitable person to be the government Prince. Cinderella would love to go but has no well-paid staff to wear; the DfE and OfS ugly sisters prepare eagerly by appointing more recruitment consultants. Suddenly the UCU Fairy Godmother appears and declares “You shall go to the Election Ball”. The USS pumpkin is miraculously transformed into a golden pension and the student mice turn into horses, although there do seem to be fewer of them. Best of all, Cinderella’s pay rags turn into a shimmering and apparently permanent contract, and her glass ceiling is transformed into slippers. Cinderella climbs into her pension, pulled by all the student horses, to attend the Election, but her Fairy Godmother warns her that she must return home before the election result is announced. At the Election Ball there are several wannabe Princes: none appear to be very Charming, but nevertheless they pay her close attention, making all kinds of promises. Some even make pledges. Suddenly the first exit poll appears and Cinderella rushes back home, losing a glass slipper in her haste. The pension turns back into a pumpkin, and the Fairy Godmother has disappeared and seems unable to work her magic. However there is a new Prince after the Election Ball, who has announced that he will scour the kingdom to find the person who can wear the glass slipper. He visits the household and cries with delight that Higher Education Cinderella is the one for him, but since there is only one glass slipper there must be a cutback in student numbers. Cinderella goes back to sit on the pumpkin with her low pay, weeping over the lost mice. She realises the glass slipper thing was all cobblers.
Higher Education Dick has lost more and more income as his student fees were eroded by inflation, but he hopes that if he strikes out for a better life he might find somewhere the staff are paid with gold. He travels hopefully and reaches what might have been the golden triangle, but it seems no better than the old place. He spends years trying to make his fortune, without success. His Admissions Cat catches lots of home student mice, but he is forced to send it abroad in the hope of making his fortune from lots of international students. In despair Dick strikes out again, accompanied by Freedom of Speech Bill.
Dick (suspiciously): “Is there somebody following us?
Bill: ”Let’s ask the audience. Is there anybody following us?”
Audience (shouting excitedly): “It’s the minister!”
Bill: “Where is she?”
Audience (still excitedly): “She’s behind you!”
Bill: “Oh no she’s not”
Audience: “Oh yes she is!”
And they were right, the minister was right behind the Bill. Bill trudges on but suffers so many proposed amendments he slows down until he eventually gets passed. On the road Dick hears the sound of UCU bells saying to him “Your turn again, Whittington” and he goes back to his place on the picket line.
Jack and the Beanstalk
Jack lived in desperately poor circumstances with his departmental colleagues, until one day all he had left was one research grant. He decided to take his research to the conference market to see if he could generate any more funds. But even before he got to the conference he met a pro vice-chancellor (Research) who said if he handed over his grant as a contribution to overheads the PVC would give him a handful of sabbatical beans. He went back excitedly to his department to tell them the good news, but they pointed out that by giving the grant away the whole department was doomed. Jack was distraught and he threw the sabbatical beans into the departmental workload model. The next day when he woke up he was astonished to see that everywhere he had thrown a sabbatical, a research grant application had sprung up. Pretty soon the grant applications had grown into a full-fledged research grant money tree which stretched right up into the UKRI. Jack started to climb and when he got to the top he discovered a land where there lived a giant called Russell G. He crept into the giant’s home, sneaked away with some more research grants and went back to his department. That kept them going for a while, but soon they needed more funds and Jack had to climb the money tree again. This time the giant was waiting for him, and roared “Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum, I smell the blood of a teaching institution.” Jack raced back to the money tree with the giant close behind, scrambled back down to the ground and hacked at the money tree until it toppled over. Unfortunately the giant was already halfway down. It fell right on the top of the department and squashed it flat, leaving only a handful of the most research-active staff, which Russell G picked up before leaving.
A Higher Education princess is warned that if she pierces her tuition with a student fee she will die. She tries to rid the kingdom of all traces of tuition fees, but still they slip in and gradually get bigger until they become impossible to avoid. At last she succumbs and as the fee takes effect she falls into a deep sleep, becoming lost because she is, like almost everyone else, beyond the reach of Test and Trace. Nothing will wake her until one day a prince arrives on a pantomime horse and vows to rescue her from her slumbers. The horse is played by the twins REF and TEF: no-one is quite sure which end is which, until the front half confirms the protection of the research budget and all the talk about low quality courses comes out of the rear end. Before the Prince can rescue the princess he decides, out of an abundance of caution, to commission a review by the Office of Budget Responsibility. (In the past this had, unwisely, been deemed unnecessary for a pantomime with a short run.) The OBR review shows that waking the princess will cost almost as much each year as Covid PPE contracts, whose benefits are mostly still being sought long after the VIP lane was closed. So the prince decides to leave her asleep.
In every case the performance ends with the audience singing a seasonal favourite, “The 2022 days of government”, ending with the chorus:
“On the last day of 2022, the PM sent to me:
five Secretaries of State
four DfE reshuffles
three HE Ministers
two pension schemes
and an HE (Freedom of Speech) Bill)”
… then I woke up, and I wasn’t sure whether this was Christmas Past, Christmas Present or Christmas Future. You decide.
Rob Cuthbert, editor of SRHE News and Blog, is emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @RobCuthbert.