A critical guide to good colleges (Caithness excepted)

10th October 2003 at 01:00
I expect a number of my learned readers made the annual pilgrimage to the Edinburgh Festival, or rather, given the financial rewards for educating the nation, to the Fringe.

For the benefit of those modern day Amish at the John Wheatley Institute who would never have anything to do in principle with such eastern frivolities, I need to explain how the thing works. There are far more events than potential spectators and the media overflows with reviews. Yet choosing what to see is almost impossible.

The reviews are written by retired HMIs who, after many years spent ensuring that all adjectives have been airbrushed out of history, have moved on to the Elysian fields of hyperbole.

So while breathless words such as "amazing", "tremendous" and "spellbinding" pepper the page, it is all still as obtuse as a Standards Commission circular.

All this made me wonder how to tell what it is that makes a good college.

It's time we developed a simple guide to help. First, any good college needs a principal with a sense of humour. I don't mean one of those teacher sarcasm jobs designed to batter hardened youths into submission, nor the unnerving neurotic hilarity that greets the latest funding council circular, but rather a full and mellow guffawing at adversity.

God knows it can't be fun trying to run a college these days, but nothing steadies the troops better than a leader who recognises the existential absurdity of life.

Second, the college needs a financial Keeper of the Purse. Good ones left their previous employer, Scrooge, Scrimp and Save, when that otherwise excellent firm abandoned the practice of steaming stamps off letters. They live in a world where hotel costs are cyrofrozen at 1972 prices and they never do the lottery because of the odds.

Unlike principals, they don't need a sense of humour, and usually make do with smiling grimly at the pathetic efforts of others to understand their secret language of accounting convention.

Third, and this is very important, the college needs lecturers. Now I know many of you will be surprised by this point as you will have already worked out that the noble and ancient profession is being replaced by nanobots made by Pepsimicrosoft Inc, which are now available in all good supermarkets.

When placed in the ear these tiny knowbots provide auditory guidance on a wide range of topics including how to speak American, what celebrity magazine to buy today and how to be discovered by reality television.

Harder knowledge tasks like arithmetic, interpreting political spin and operating remote controls will be provided by intelligent agent software available soon on your mobile.

So why do we need lecturers, I hear those of you without knowbots ask. Well it's quite simple really; the one thing nanobots can't do is complain. And without the ancient practice of whingeing, where would we be?

All sorts of things would go unchallenged. College lecturers would be paid less than school teachers, they would be subject to inspection like workers in the modern satanic mills of call centres and they would often have to work in old-fashioned buildings, too hot in summer and too cold in the other 11 months of the year.

Worst of all, they would be forced to spend a large proportion of their time completing forms to satisfy a number-crunching monster. And that is just too awful to even contemplate - isn't it?

So there you have it. The blueprint for a good college. Forget all that time-consuming preoccupation with evaluation frameworks and quality audits.

Of course, I'm assuming here that you have a choice, and realise that for the poor inhabitants of Caithness this is a meaningless concept.

I hope the funding council is paying attention before it commissions another set of consultants at a cost that even those rich burghers who attend the Festival might find excessive.

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