Carry on up the campus

A vice-chancellor who wants to start a degree in casino management is the protagonist of a new academic novel. Lucy Hodges reports
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The Independent Online

A new academic year means, yes, a new campus novel, holding up a mirror to the iniquities of contemporary university life.

"The leaves were just beginning to turn when I arrived in Washington DC for the annual conference of the International Academy of Philosophy," says Dr Felix Glass in Degrees 'R' Us, the latest book by a writer who prefers to remain anonymous.

"It was the start of the autumn term – or the fall semester, as our American colleagues have it – but in the lobby of the Hilton Plaza hotel, teaching and students were forgotten." What the professors really care about is who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down.

It is not long before we meet some of the same characters from the first novel, A Campus Conspiracy, published last year. But the vice-chancellor is a new appointment, a hard-drinking, wife-beating financial wizard who comes from Australia and can make money for St Sebastian's University by putting on courses that students want to study – in casino management, celebrity studies, professional golf or brewing technology.

He dispatches Dr Glass, a philosophy lecturer, to Las Vegas, where a partnership is planned with the King Midas Casino College. This turns out to be more a brothel with a casino attached, run by the Mafia-like Mancinis and staffed by scantily clad "students".

When Dr Glass questions the wisdom of this partnership, the VC admonishes him: "You must understand, mate, when I took this university on, it was looking bankruptcy in the face. The government is giving us less and less money and is insisting that we attract more and more outside funding if we are to survive. The Mancini organisation is outside funding. We can't afford to turn down this chance and there's an end to the matter."

Like its predecessor, the book is a burlesque with some very funny comic scenes, notably when the partnership with the Las Vegas college is finally scuppered. But it is less dark than the first novel and the vice-chancellor, for all his dipsomania and violence, is portrayed as an amiable rogue.

Despite the slapstick tone and content, the book has an intensely serious purpose, according to Dan Cohn-Sherbok, 62, professor of Jewish theology at the University of Wales, Lampeter. He claims to know the author but is not responsible for the words, he says.

"I do know who the author is but it has to remain a secret," he says. "The poor author doesn't want to get in trouble with his institution."

The thesis – that universities have sacrificed standards and serious purpose for money-making activities – is the theme, just as it was for the first campus novel written by Anonymous. "The proliferation of bad degrees is largely due to the government," says Professor Cohn-Sherbok.

"Universities are forced to operate in a way that that they didn't in the past. Now they will do anything for money."

The author of Degrees 'R' Us has done his or her research. Believe it or not, there really are degrees in casino management and brewing technology. And the detail about the battered wives' refuge where the wretched vice-chancellor's wife fetches up is carefully researched, according to Professor Cohn-Sherbok.

The novel is dedicated to Boris. Is that the Boris Johnson we all know and love? Indeed. The author dedicated the book to the Conservatives' former higher education spokesman because Johnson was happy to endorse the first book with a fulsome quote.

The inscription in the dedication is a quotation written in a mixture of New Testament Greek and Hellenistic Greek, which, being a classicist, Boris Johnson will be able to understand. It is translated for the rest of us as: "The young pursue only folly; By degrees their wisdom is lost."

This quotation is attributed to John the Boughtonite. You may wonder who this is. Is he a figment of Professor Cohn-Sherbok's, oops, I mean, Anonymous's imagination?

The first book became a bestseller for its publisher, Impress Books, but that is not saying very much, given that it publishes only academic books otherwise. The big question is whether anyone will want to make a film or television series of it, as they did with Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim and Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man.

Certainly, the publication of this new book shows that the campus novel is alive and well in the United Kingdom, according to John Sutherland, emeritus professor of English literature at University College London.

"Universities are more and more like factories," he says. "The more joking about that, the better. A lot of research is being put together by robots on a car assembly line."

The writer Sue Gee, who runs the MA in creative writing at Middlesex University, agrees. Higher education touches more and more people's lives, so there should be plenty of people keen to read academic novels, she says. "The whole issue of standards is very live," he says. "It matters to students what the quality of their educational life will be."

Jeremy Sheldon, who teaches on the MA in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London, is himself thinking about writing a campus novel about a lecturer who finds himself being stalked and has to work out who is doing the stalking. The dynamics of the lecturer/student relationship have become much more complicated as a result of the introduction of tuition fees, he believes. The cost of a degree puts pressure on students, who, in turn, put pressure on their teachers. Perhaps that leads lecturers to take it out on the institution by exposing some of the forces at work in fictional accounts. All of which will provide writers with fodder for many years to come.

'Degrees 'R' Us', Impress Books, & 7.99

An extract:
"Soon the philosophy department would no longer exist. Like chemistry, it would disappear. Instead there would be celebrity studies, highland dance, professional golf and who-knows-what-else."

"It seemed that financial profitability had become the only criterion of success. Alf Flanagan had only been appointed to St Sebastian's because he perfectly understood the signs of the times. He was a wife-beater. He drank too much. He made no claims for outstanding erudition. None of that mattered because he did know how to make money."