Competition…

In the hazy crazy adrenalin-fuelled ride of a world that is the Higher Education landscape of late, competition, or at the very least a sense of the competitive, has become the norm. We are internally competing as a sector on multiple fronts; there is a sense of the various mission groups of the sector (University Alliance, Russell Group, Million Plus and Guild HE) all jostling for position in a never-ending sprint – like that bit on the track just after the runners break their lane allocation- then there is the competition of the league tables, each year causing people like myself to try unsuccessfully to fathom the mystical alchemic nuances of the algorithms by which success or failure is mathematically bestowed upon a given institution – this shape-shifting hydra morphs unpredictably (some say whimsically) from season to season, dreamed up by a poor solitary soul locked in a darkened room with only maffs for company (or, alternatively it is arrived at by placing the various commonly used institutional performance indicators on a dartboard at the other end of a football pitch and, after a pint or two and a good go on a swiftly moving playground seesaw, letting the arrows decide the weightings). And then there are the Times Higher Education Awards; twice-yearly back-slapping riots (read networking events) of epic proportions at which various institutional triumphs are (rightly) celebrated and the number one risk is injury on the competitive dance floor – flailing limbs (my own included) desperate to recover remnants of a rose-tinted youth are flung precariously in all directions with no hint of a care for anything approaching conformity to rhythm, the beat of the song being played, or even a whiff of personal coordination which could be construed as vaguely ‘together’. And then alongside this bruising competition there is TEF, and REF and the NSS and DLHE and the brand new Global Teaching Excellence Award from the HEA and more 3-4 letter acronyms with more algorithms and panels sitting behind them and faster and quicker, slicker, leaner, meaner, morer…

And second place, as they say, doth butter no parsnips…. (actually, they don’t really say that…)

And yet…

And yet, all of the above; all of the planning and graft and competition and sense of phenomenal work across the institution at all levels to make positive changes to our everyday practices and lives and the direction of travel which, put together will end up actually making things better, (we’re seeing it happen as I write) – all of this work will end up eventually being reflected in the performance indicators, which will then end up being reflected in the competition results (whatever they might be…). And yet…. And yet, all of this competition, once a year, for a brief incendiary moment, pales into insignificance behind perhaps the greatest competition of them all. For the briefest of time periods, all of the above is eclipsed by a competition so savage, so brutal and so without the thinnest hint of humanity or forgiveness, it could have been born of Mordor itself. I am, of course, referring to the pinnacle of athletic prowess that is…

Salford University Sports Day 2017.

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Admirably organised by @DSASevents, and fronted on this occasion by, amongst others, @rimmsie and raising a load of cash for our chosen charity of the year (@MindinSalford) it was a competition of epic proportions. The social media banter before hand contained more braggadocio and put-downs than a full performance from Sinatra and the Rat Pack and more swagger than a John Wayne box set.

The team from The Old Fire Station, including our DVC and Dean of Students, put together letters from each participant name to arrive at a well thought-out and catchy team name; WRENCH. (Surprisingly, no-one from marketing was present at this time.) T-shirts were duly printed with a wrench emblazoned on the chest, (geddit?) but this slightly-less-than-self-explanatory motif was subsequently interpreted by many onlookers to actually be a spanner, resulting in an unforeseen dip in the reputational stock of said band of crack athletes: pictorial semantics’ll getcha…

Stock clip-art interpretations aside, the event included trials to worry even the most versatile of heptathletes: basketball hoops, tug of war, space hopper relay and the ubiquitous egg and spoon race all tested previously untouched limits.

And we came third. Which is not bad. (it’s not entirely good, but y’know…) WRENCH came right behind the Students’ Union (who, understandably and rightly, have already started to gloat), who came right behind the winners; a disciplined team of academics from within Environmental Life Sciences (we are considering an appeal on the basis that they may have used performance enhancing cultures developed in the bio-med labs…)

Sadly (or fortuitously, depending on ones perspective) I actually had to live the event vicariously through the medium of twitter – I was just down the road presenting at a conference on retention. I was talking to colleagues from across the sector about some of the ways we’ve been enhancing retention at UoS along the idea of building an authentic, meaningful university community and a sense of pride and belonging in place and space.

I think I should have just asked the delegates to come and join in the egg and spoon and to soak up some of what I saw impressions of on twitter – I think that was a much more meaningful expression of belonging in action…

See you next week.

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