The idea is to try to work out which classic book best exemplifies the state of further education in the 1990s. Dickens would have to be banned, of course. It would be all too easy with Hard Times sitting up there on the shelf alongside Bleak House.
George Orwell, then? Given the "climate of fear" prevalent in some colleges these days, more than a few might vote for 1984. And then there is Animal Farm. Who could forget this little gem describing the management techniques of the farm's new order: "There was endless work in the supervision and organisation of the farm. Much of this work was of a kind that the other animals were too ignorant to understand.
"For example . . . the pigs had to expend enormous labours every day upon mysterious things called 'fees', 'reports', 'minutes' and 'memoranda'. This was of the highest importance for the welfare of the farm. . . but still (no) pigs produced any food by their own labour; and there were very many of them, and their appetites were always good."
But no, in the end the comparison won't work. Because surely there can't be anyone in FE equivalent to Orwell's chief pig, the wily and dictatorial Napoleon, who is so enamoured of the good life that he sets up his own brewery on the farm?
My real nomination, then, would have to go to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell's turn-of-the-century tale about a band of much-put-upon house painters in the fictitious town of Mugsborough. Tressell's thesis is that his painters - and by extension the working class generally - are acting philanthropically by selling their labour so cheaply to their employers. The ragged-trousered bit reflects how little they have left out of their meagre wages to even clothe themselves.
In the book, the painters' employers, Rushton and Co, boast proudly of the high quality of their work, despite their extremely "moderate" charges. In reality, however, Tressell shows that all the talk about "quality" is just that: talk. The firm systematically cheats its customers, just as it does its employees. Cuts and petty economies ensure that everything is done on a shoestring - the whitewash watered, the paint thinned, oil substituted for varnish, and so on.
If that all sounds a touch familiar, then hold on. There is much more in similar vein. Take the issue of management, for instance. Rushton's can only operate as it does because of the devoted services of Hunter, its general foreman. Tressell makes it clear that this middle-man (he even calls him a "manager" at one point) is a wretched hireling just like those beneath him. And like them, he too is shamelessly exploited, overworked and downtrodden by the owners of the company.
The big difference, however, between the manager and the managed, is that when Hunter gets kicked from above he in turn kicks on down the line. The workmen have invented a nickname for him: Misery!
Misery's chief management tool is to bully. He is for ever to be found sneaking round behind his men's backs checking up on them. They must be harassed, harried, never allowed to settle. Extra effort must be continually demanded of them. New tasks found for them to fulfil. Enough is never enough. However much they do, Misery will want more!
In one scene he is shown pondering how he can sack some of the older "full-price" men in order to bring in a substitute, Newman, at a lower rate. Eventually he works out how it should be done, and is shown offering a new, cut-price contract to the man: "Newman was taken by surprise and hesitated. He had never worked under price; indeed, he had sometimes gone hungry rather than do so; but now it seemed that others were doing it. And then he was so awfully hard up. If he refused this job he was not likely to get another in a hurry. He thought of his home and his family . . ."
Of course if the novel had been set in 1997 rather than 1907, Misery could have been spared the indignity of such bargaining. No doubt he would have turned to an agency to provide him with a pool of disposable labour, men (and possibly even women!) forced by the principles of "take it or leave it" to offer their services at cut-price rates.
Despite the unremitting drudgery depicted in most of the book, Tressell ends it on an optimistic (some might say wildly idealistic) note, looking forward to the ". . . gilded domes and glittering pinnacles of the beautiful cities of the future, where men shall dwell together in true brotherhood and goodwill and joy". What will bring about this Heaven on Earth, he states, is". . . the Golden Light . . . diffused throughout all the happy world from the rays of the risen sun of Socialism".
Further education's own band of philanthropic workers have, unlike Tressell, who died at 40 with his novel still unpublished, lived to see the day dawn when a "socialist" Government is the power in the land. How much we have seen, or will see, of those "gilded domes" and "glittering pinnacles", in our colleges is another matter.
Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a London FE college