Anna Hughes writes the unofficial minutes of her college governing body The silent, but ever-efficient Joan, our minute-taker and PA to the principal and vice-principal, was missing. The stranger in her place looked eager to please.
"What's happened to Joan?" I asked our chairman, Alan.
"Sadly, she has gone to France to join her husband who has got a new job. Angela here is from an agency. She'll tide us over until we make a new appointment."
Charles, our business governor, who chairs our personnel sub-committee, continued the questions. "What salary are you offering for the post? The usual. Full-time nine-to-five?" Rex, our principal, took over. "pound;22,000 - it's about the going rate for this type of job." The temp, Angela, looked interested.
"My God!" gasped teacher governor Mary. "Will she have a degree? A post-graduate teaching qualification? Many years experience? And will she - or he (pointedly) - be expected to work most evenings and weekends on college business?" Temp Angela lost interest.
Fergus, who represents our nearest university, looked up from a little book he was consulting: "I reckon that's only three points off the top of the standard scale for full-time lecturers."
"In other words, Rex," I said, "you value your PA - who achieves nothing for our students - more highly than the lecturers." I felt Mary needed some support.
Silas, the financial director, joined the fray. "We've no option but to find a good PA at - or slightly above - the going rate."
The same applied to lecturers' salaries, he insisted. "We offer salaries on the scale used by all colleges." And suddenly sounding like Lowland Scot New Labour, he surveyed the gallery. "It's prudent financial practice to keep the college's salary bill as low as posible. We have been particularly successful here by employing agency teachers - pay only for their time in class and have others provide pensions, insurance, and holidays."
Mary was incandescent with rage. "So you get utterly de-motivated full-time lecturers and confused, de-motivated students suffering a stream of changing lecturers!" Alan tried to calm the situation by bringing Charles back into the discussion. "Surely in business, Charles, you have to recruit staff at the going rate?" "And keep close control of the wages bill," added Silas.
Charles leaned back in his chair and adopted the expression of a doctor about to give a patient a nasty jab. "The majority of industry does just that. True. The result is short-term gain for the balance sheet. But long-term, it's high staff turn-over and low morale. Both of which cost dearly in terms of poor profit, innovation and customer service." And with just a touch superiority, he added: "I, of course, have rejected this approach in my own company, with the result that Lingford Industries is the leader in its field."
Silas was silenced. No one dared suggest that the senior management team were no good as employers. Alan quickly got us onto the official agenda.
It was only when we got to "other business" that tensions rose again. "You have probably read in the educational press that there has been discussion on the need to upgrade the remuneration of college principals. Rates are falling behind. I suggest that the personnel sub-committee look into this - without Rex, of course - and perhaps consider bonus payments for the senior management team."
It is the only time I have ever seen a governor walk out of a meeting in disgust. I didn't catch what Mary actually said, but I can guess.