Sue Rivers is an independent higher education consultant and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
It’s easy to fall into the jargon trap. Three-letter acronyms for everything, or in HE (just two letters itself), often more like four-, five- or six-letter alphabet jumbles.
Having worked in higher education for quite a while now, I admit to making assumptions about the currency of the closed-world language of the sector beyond our community. A recent encounter with Voice Recognition Software (VRS) has led me to consider whether we speak an entirely different language in academia!
I’d argue that it’s timely for us to think about the language we use, whether it’s sufficiently accessible to those not immersed in it day-to-day. The new quality processes, like Annual Provider Review, require us to communicate effectively with our significant non-academic others, such as governors. Are we sure we are getting the key messages across? Would an outsider engaging in conversation with us conclude that we might as well be speaking in Klingon?
I sat by my computer screen, still and silent as, word by word, the text began to appear; however, nothing had prepared me for the verbal vicissitudes of VRS.
Suddenly, as if developing a mind of its own, VRS began to intersperse meaningful and accurate dialogue with attention-seeking, (and presumably) random quirky phrases, such as ‘fantastic terrier’, ‘funky and cake’ and ‘seagoing dancers’. I held back any initial frisson of alarm, reasoning that editing out a few minor blips was a small price to pay for such an obviously brilliant, timesaving and effortlessly efficient IT function.
However, my particular VRS, fuelled with overconfidence, started to add creativity into its own curriculum, by emitting thought-provoking philosophies such as: ‘a cheese Knesset never stands still’. Then it started on higher education management structures, declaring: ‘We have a shed service model here’, ‘The library is set up as a network of drunk kings’ and, most disturbingly, ‘God, the tubular management consultant, is Deputy Head of Careers.’
It then swiftly regressed into a form of disrespect, bordering on anarchy, stretching the concept of academic freedom by inventing alarming new academic regulations such as, ‘you are required to take one of the institutions with you when you shop’, followed by mandatory new guidance on writing policies: ‘formulate quality by posting a different light vaccine.’ Finally, it posited: ‘The UK Quality Code needs a radio: it’s getting a bit dusty!’ and, ‘In HE, everything is changing and in a constant state of flocks!’
To my horror, by way of a grand finale, it turned to renaming well known academic entities with increasing degrees of irreverence, so that Wonkhe was referred to variously as ‘one key’ or ‘1 KG’, HEFCE was known as ‘hefty’ and the QAA became ‘the Cure’. A post-1992 university became a ‘pre-moisture institution’, the private sector was ‘primate vector’ and Russell Group became ‘wrestle croup’. Clearly the programmers hadn’t read the definitive guide to sector pronunciations.
The VRS I used was a generic, rather than a specialised academic version, and these phonetic funnies were probably caused (or compounded) by poor quality audio reproduction or imperfect pronunciation. However, it made me think that if we need to get key messages across accurately to important non-academic stakeholders we should not assume that they know and understand our language, including (or especially) our beloved acronyms and initialisms. The key to good communication is: keep it simple and make it clear.
In the meantime, I would be deeply grateful if anyone can suggest what on earth VRS means when it insists on constantly repeating the phrase, ‘deep-fried corgi’? (Please leave suggestions in comments…)