Sorry Dr Wildfell, you're history now

Millhampton University, Southernshire, is a model seat of learning for the Nineties. But not everyone is looking forward to the new academic year. By Fran Abrams
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As he passed Millhampton University's new bleached oak reception desk, Dr Mike Wildfell glanced up at the corporate logo that had recently appeared there. Softly lit from underneath, it consisted of three lines, representing a shoot of young corn. It had cost enough to pay his salary for two years, he reflected, but his skills were now surplus to requirements.

After almost 30 years at Millhampton, Dr Wildfell was no longer as "research active" as some staff, his head of department had pointed out. Early retirement was gently suggested - he did not seem to have adapted well to the new management ethos, he was told.

This last point did not surprise him, as there had been little need of such things when he first joined the department of economic and social history. Then, there had been theories, ideals, seminars with groups of seven or eight students which would spill over into fierce argument in the refectory. Now, with twice as many in each group and 100 or more crammed into the lecture theatre, he didn't even know some of their names.

Back in the Sixties, when he had arrived, the campus had been in the thick of the anti-Vietnam war protests. The only student occupation in recent years had been over rent rises imposed to cover loan payments on the new halls of residence. Dr Wildfell was all in favour of expansion, but he had never really got to grips with the entrepreneurial spirit that had swept the campus in the past few years, bringing with it the names of multinationals over the doors of the new buildings and an ever greater emphasis on making money.

Millhampton had always been a recipient in the past: the local merchant whose bequest made its foundation possible; the charitable trust that helped to build the refectory; the government grants that aided expansion in the Sixties. Now it was a contributor - only half its income came from the state, and its worth was calculated partly in terms of the role it could play in rebuilding local industry after its collapse in the Eighties. Even his own department had got involved, raising revenue by selling the publishing rights to archive materials.

Dr Wildfell's extensive knowledge of early left-wing movements seemed sadly dated in these surroundings. His replacement, Ulrika Dortmunder, was a dynamic 35-year-old from Frankfurt with an impressive record of publications on the history of consumerism and technology.

As he reflected, Dr Wildfell pulled uncomfortably at his tie: he felt ill-at-ease in this attire, but it was obligatory for the meetings of the academic quality enhancement committee, which had replaced the old academic board. He would not be sorry to leave that behind.

He sometimes wondered whether he would have understood the proceedings better if he had taken one of the modern-language modules now offered to all students: terms such as total quality management, performance indicators and strategic planning left him cold, but the vice-chancellor used them all the time. He even referred to students as "customers" and to candidates as Millhampton's "client base". When Dr Wildfell had asked what the aim of the new conference centre was he had been met with shocked expressions: "To make money, why else?" one of the pro-vice chancellors had replied.

Mike had bridled at that. "I thought I was here to teach students," he said. The pro-vice chancellor's expression was patient, pitying: "As you know, Mike, this university has a teaching record or which it can be proud. But without the extra funding we receive because of our good research ratings and commercial ventures, we simply couldn't sustain it. We have to be a go-getter in the modern world."

Go-getter! The expression had crept into a few similar conversations recently. "So why not spend more time lobbying for better support and less building ... conference centres?" Mike asked, almost spitting out the final two words.

"We're not just a state-funded educational institution now," came the reply. "That is one of our core functions. But we are much more than that. We are a major player in the local and national economies. In fact, our influence and our remit is global. We can take our role on the world's cultural stage or we can fade into the wings for ever," he finished grandly.

Mike had not replied. He could think of nothing to say.

Things were no better at the Met, he'd heard. Dr Wildfell had been as cynical as the rest of his colleagues about the former poly's elevation to university status, and had laughed uproariously when he heard that its vice-chancellor had recently been seen sporting a Mickey Mouse tie. But he had felt sorry for the staff there when news of the Met's financial troubles had broken, and even though these had now been ironed out, a certain residue of empathy had remained among Millhampton's staff: there but for the grace of God, and all that ...

"Excuse me - aren't you Dr Wildfell?" The face looked familiar. "I'm Steve Rexel - you used to teach me. I graduated in 1969."

Even in an expensive suit, the man was just recognisable as the long- haired, T-shirted student who had led an occupation of the admin block in 1968.

"Steve! It's good to see you! What are you doing here?"

"I'm looking for the Innovations and Development office, actually," he replied, looking sheepish. "I'm thinking of renting a unit on the science park as a base for my computer software company."