In the footsteps of 'Lucky Jim'

As the academic year gets under way, a new campus novel is released - by a prominent professor who prefers to remain anonymous. Lucy Hodges reports

For academics, autumn is a new beginning. In October the life of the mind starts afresh, lectures are repolished, classes reconvene with new faces and the university bureaucracy revs up again. In his novel The History Man, Malcolm Bradbury opens with the words: "Now it is the autumn again; the people are all coming back".

You could also say that with the start of a new academic year, it's time for another campus novel. And right on cue, another novel appears. As if in genuflection to Bradbury, it starts: "Term had begun. A slight fog covered the ground as I walked to my first class." Only there the similarity to the dark satire of academic life published in 1975 ends.

Although also a satire, A Campus Conspiracy is firmly set in the 21st century. Rather than ridiculing the glass and steel universities that followed their redbrick predecessors as Bradbury did, or the new universities that arrived in 1992 as Howard Jacobson did, it is full of scorn for the Research Assessment Exercise - and the effect it has on the universities. And it lampoons vice-chancellors and registrars who have become corrupted by the pressure to drum up money from rich businessmen to the detriment of academic standards and research excellence.

Unusually, the author of the book is anonymous. Like the writer of Primary Colours, the roman-à-clefabout Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, he or she may be trying to attract attention by remaining incognito. More likely, he or she is simply terrified of being identified. Academics who badmouth institutions can get into serious trouble.

"The author doesn't want to be named because St Sebastian's University is a symbol of all universities in the United Kingdom," says Dan Cohn-Sherbok, professor of Jewish theology at the University of Wales, Lampeter, who claims to be responsible for the illustration on the book's cover. "The same applies to Sweetpea College in America."

But Professor Cohn-Sherbok is willing to give me a very detailed interview about the book, all the while saying that the author is a prominent academic, so he or she doesn't want people to think it was his or her institution. The reason is, he says, that this book is much more critical of universities than, say, David Lodge was of Rummidge, modelled on the University of Birmingham. "It's much more like Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, he explains. One chapter is called "The English education system's shot to shit."

The anonymous author of A Campus Conspiracy has managed to extract a fantastic puff from Boris Johnson, the Conservatives' Minister for Higher Education, which he/she has placed prominently on the cover. "I charged through the opening chapters with a growing sense of horror, paranoia - and recognition," says Boris. "This is a rattling read, and a chilling exposé of political correctness on campus."

The protagonist, Harry Gilbert, is a professor of Christian ethics at St Sebastian's who is sexually propositioned by a student in the first chapter. She is hoping to be let off one course. Harry rejects her offer and spends the rest of the book paying for it. She accuses him of sexual harassment, he is the subject of a disciplinary case and receives an oral warning. But it is clear that the dean, Wanda Catnip, the head of department, the registrar and the vice-chancellor want to get rid of him, despite his eminence, because he is expensive.

It is not long before Harry gets into trouble again. When he asks Jenny Sloth, the assistant librarian and wife of the registrar, to order some books for students on his course, he finds himself the subject of another complaint, this time for tactlessness. He gets another oral warning. But then he falls foul of the head of IT when he asks him to mend his computer. Again he finds himself facing a formal complaint, this time for harassment.

Meanwhile a rich benefactor, the father of the girl who had offered Harry sexual favours, is keen to give the university money. Harry stands in the way. The dénouement, which leads to Harry leaving for a better-paid job at Sweetpea College in the USA, comes after he mistakenly sends a rude e-mail about his experiences to all the members of his union rather than just to his union rep and after he is excluded from the Research Assessment Exercise, the ultimate indignity. The university wants to sack him but he does a deal with the VC and leaves with an enhanced pension and a year's sabbatical on full pay.

America is no different. Although he thinks he has been recruited for his research excellence, it turns out that Sweetpea College wants his wife, the daughter of a baronet. With all that class, the college will be able to lever more money from rich donors.

There are some deliciously comic moments, as when a huge man dressed up in a gorilla hijacks Wanda Catnip's inaugural professorial lecture. The stunt is paid for by Harry's wife and gives Harry and his friends huge enjoyment. And the novel is genuinely informative, for example, about postgraduate students who attract more money than undergraduates and are specially prized by universities. Many come from overseas, some are not very well qualified and need remedial English classes, and the pressure on the examiners to get them through the exams is immense.

Universities are judged by their completion rates, therefore external examiners at one university may be asked to be lenient by another. The debt will be repaid later.

The received wisdom in the English literature community is that the campus novel has had its day. Certainly, it has changed since the heyday of Lodge and Bradbury. Zadie Smith's On Beauty was set in the fictional Wellington University, just outside Boston, but is more than a campus novel. Philip Roth's The Human Stain is a campus novel that is satirical but not comic. This new book should show, however, that maybe there is life left in the slapstick comic genre first created by Kingsley Amis.

The question is whether a campus novel can expose the state of higher education today to a wide audience in a way that conventional journalism can't. John Sutherland, emeritus professor of English literature at UCL, thinks not. The problem is that British voters don't care about higher education, he points out. "Novels have very little leverage on politics," he says. "Kingsley Amis was able to affect very little with Lucky Jim though he did manage to by getting engaged politically with the Black Papers on education."

Russell Celyn Jones, professor of creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London, agrees. "I don't think anyone is very interested in what is going on in universities now," he says. "The RAE is a bromide. Who cares about it except for academics who are trying to hang on to their jobs?"

'A Campus Conspiracy', anonymous, £7.99 from www.impress-books.co.uk

'Barraclough, Wanda and the department heads are in control. We're your only protection'

On the vice-chancellor of St Sebastian's

"Known as a ruthless cost-cutter, he had abolished all faculties in his first term and created 10 departments. At the end of the year, he sent out letters to all staff over the age of 55, encouraging them to take early retirement."

On the running of the university

"There's no natural justice at St Sebastian's. That's the problem. Instead there's a little cabal which includes the VC and his managers who make all the decisions. In theory the Senate and Council are supposed to take charge. But it's really Barraclough (the VC), Wanda and the department heads who are in control. That's why the union's so important. We're your only protection."

The real cause of the problem

"Your vice-chancellor is not as evil as you think. He's entirely at the mercy of the Government who have starved universities of funds for years. He is forced to take more and more students, and he has to educate them on less and less money. So he puts his managers under pressure. All vice-chancellors do it. He can't afford to train anyone properly and, in any case, most academics are not natural managers.

They're too much like prima donnas. So, it ends up a mess. It all comes down to money in the end."

On the research assessment exercise

"So," he asked, "how's the RIP going?"

"No, William, it's not RIP, it's RAE."

As the waiter took our orders, I explained that we hadn't yet been told the criteria against which publications would be measured. He looked confused. "What do you mean they haven't told you how all that stuff will be evaluated?"

"Well, they just haven't," I said. "I know it's stupid."

"And when is the judging going to take place?" he asked. He spoke of it as if it were some kind of agricultural show.

"In about two years' time. But it can include anything published in the last five years."

Sir William looked out the window for about a minute without speaking.

"By Jove," he eventually blurted out, "it's just like the Caucus Race!"

"The Caucus Race?"

"In Alice in Wonderland," he said. "There was no fixed course, Everyone ran in whatever direction they liked. And they went on running until the Dodo said, 'Stop'."

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