Monthly Archives: February 2014

Lettin’ off steam: a letter to the CEO

To: Professor Barnie Dickett
President of Cromore College

Dear Barnie –

You remember the old days when we used to be sitting around in the Senior Common Room chewing the fat about the Corporate Plan and the best way forward for the University of Ulster and the whole of Northern Ireland? That was the wonderful thing about the SCR – we could share our thoughts and ventilate our feelings among friends and colleagues without having to resort to … well, a blog like this one!

It didn’t seem to matter if you let off steam, either. Supposing you thought a member of the Senior Management was losing the run of himself, or taking things a step too far (or a step too short) you could just walk up to him and say, “what are you having?” – and in an hour or two you had the whole thing sorted – talked through from top to bottom long before closing time.

We even had a name for it – parity of steam. In those days, steam valves were thought to be a great thing altogether. Some expert even invented the word “cybernetics” to explain how a steam valve could be used to make a machine work more efficiently, or even achieve “perpetual motion” – something that happens to me all too often on a drinking spree. (Of course, you had to keep pouring in the drink to keep it going.)

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Breaking News: Danske hits the buffers

For anyone who believes that the enforced closure of the Senior Common Room at the Ulster University campus in Coleraine was the handiwork of a conceited corporate clique of university executives and their banking partner Danske in consort with the “out-sourced” caterer Mount Charles, the breaking news that Danske is withdrawing from the South of Ireland comes with a bitter-sweet aroma. For anyone who believes, in addition, that the “partnership” which put the CEO of Danske in the Chairman’s seat at the University Council was a devil’s handshake from the outset, the news comes as confirmation of the folly of an overtly monetarist administration. 

Danske closures

Danske closures

Having taken over the Irish National Bank in the Republic and the Northern Bank in Ulster, Danske is now closing individual customer services in the South and padlocking its branches throughout the North.

Its retreat in good order from the private sector – having reduced a purported £400 million losses in 2011 and £2.8 million in October 2013 – has not impacted on its international standing. To the contrary, of course; but it certainly bespeaks a diminishing commitment to communities in either part of Ireland, making it harder for Danske to look like a credible philanthropist whenever social investment is not directly linked to profit.

A recent judgement for €2.47 million against John Perry,, the Irish Minister of Small Business, may be sufficient to wipe out the remaining deficit – as well as sparking a cabinet scandal [see Independent.ie – online]. In recent years, Turkey has become the first national language of the Republic, and Danske has shown its international credentials by talking it better than any other.

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UU Portrush: Centre of excellence

Catering College, Portrush

Catering College (before) …

When the University of Ulster decided to migrate the Catering College from Jordanstown to Portrush in 2001, the hospitality industry was up in arms.

Answering his critics, the Vice-Chancellor Richard Barnett said he “wanted to establish a centre of excellence in research and consultancy for the industry”, and pointed to “cross-border tourism body in nearby Coleraine” as a substitute for the benefits of on-tap work experience in the hotel capital of Northern Ireland. That tourism body now occupies a rental office in a former shirt-factory on Beresford Place in Coleraine which has trouble paying its rates while the Catering College is a now a nasty pile of rubble.

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The new realism: Ulster’s cultural assets

Scenic Common Room

Scenic Common Room

The University of Ulster’s Administration has abolished the Senior Common Room and converted its scenic premises on the top floor of the catering block – with stunning views of the Bann estuary – into a set of rooms variously designated “corporate dining”, “high-quality meeting rooms” and “teaching suites” in their publicity statements. Which of those alternatives will actually emerge is a matter of speculation. Which was originally intended is less uncertain since the Senior Executives surrendered their former glory-hole to the second-floor refurbishment of the student catering area. 

In the famous words of the Elizabethan diplomat Sir Henry Wotton, an “ambassador is an honest gentleman who lies for the good of his country”, and anyone who believes the press releases of the University’s “spokesperson” in this matter  – all of them transmitted under pressure from the student sit-in conducted during 2nd-19th December 2013 – obviously hasn’t heard of Watergate, or any other -gate of more recent memory. (Let’s call this one Banngate for convenience.)

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Happy day! democracy comes to Ulster

In spite of the increasingly democratic character of the Senior Common Room  – which admitted postgraduates, routinely hosted undergraduate clubs, and had been acting as a venue for budding poets and musicians for some years past – an undeniable air of privilege clings to the identity of any so-called Senior Common Room. Predictably, the University Senior Executive Team sought to exploit that traditional title, with its musty whiff of Old-Boy culture, in vindicating their plan to abolish the staff bar on the specious grounds of “elitism” and “patriarchalism”. But what part of those charges simply reflect the prejudices that fuelled their own behaviour in the matter?  

UU Corporate Plan 2011-16

UU Corporate Plan 2011-16

What the membership of the SCR objected to most of all was the absence of any form of negotiation, any public discussion, surrounding the closure of their premises. This was carried out with a confusion that partly reflected the Administration’s own uncertainty about the extent to which it had to go to secure the licence in the area, but also revealed an explicit contempt for the members of the club in so far as no one thought it necessary to tell them what issues were at stake, what realities were impinging on the Executive’s thinking, and what economic alternatives to the intended catering monopoly the Administration was facing.

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“Out-sourcing” and phoney economics

Let’s be fair – you have to consider both sides of the question. So in this post we’re going to look at the closure of the Senior Common Room from the Administrative standpoint. These are recessionary times and universities have to pay their way like everybody else. Fees are back in place for the first time since the 1960s, and the “charity institution” status of the university is a matter of tax exemption only. In every other way it behaves like a profit-making corporation. It is a corporation; it corporatised itself some years ago, if only to fall in with the current ethos of Public Administration and to endow itself with a CEO. And hey! it’s leadership cohort – Vice-Chancellor and Chair of Council – are both corporation men, pur sang.

The boys at Mount Charles

The boys at Mount Charles

In this climate, the Vice-Chancellor (aka CEO) and his Senior Executive Team (SET) have the task of keeping the University in the black – and that means out-sourcing as many services as possible in order to cut back on the wages and pensions bills. Hence no more cleaning ladies working for the University on terms of virtual tenure, and no more pensionable Security Staff loyally serving the College up to the statuary age of retirement. It also means continually shaving away at the proportion of teaching staff to students and docking student support wherever possible – especially in regard to the traditional provision of cheap food for the student body. 

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Wake-up call: a hard rain’s gonna fall

Moral pressure – it’s like a fireman’s hose applied to the sullied conscience of the Senior Executive at Bannside College. Sure they’re right – haven’t they got a business plan? Isn’t our wee university  “innovative, dynamic and progressive”, like it says on the logo? The only trouble is that its business leaders – aka the Vice-Chancellor and his merry bankers – have tied themselves into a contract with an “out-sourced” caterer called Charley Boy who is demanding the whole of the staff and student body as its rightful clientele. “A separate bar and sandwich service run by the Senior Common Room? No way, Ricardo! All or nothing – deliver the deal the way you sold it to us or you can take your Salford Sandwich and eat it”.

Iron Lady

Iron Lady

On January 28th, the Provost and two other members of the Senior Executive Team met members of the Senior Common Room on instructions from the University Visitor. Not that the meeting corresponded to his blue-print in as much as it was supposed to be convened by an independent chairman. Instead, the Provost took it upon herself to chair a meeting held in the swish apartments of the Senior Executive  – an “egalitarian” panelled suite discreetly tucked behind the rampant unicorn that embodies the kitsch heart of the College in the iconography of HM Heraldry Office.

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