Read all about it! The very best higher education books of the year

Paul Greatrix presents his annual list of the very best books about, and of interest to, higher education.

It’s that time of year again when the great and the good tell you about all the marvelous books they have had time to read but you inexplicably have failed to notice.

Many of them have also helpfully recommended the best books which just happen to be written by their relatives and friends. Here on Wonkhe we find it hard to resist a trend like this.

Once again we decided against asking a range of higher ed celebrities for their book choices as they might not have come up with the right answers or may have even thought we were serious about the whole thing. So here is our entirely self-generated list of the best higher ed books of year or so.

Long awaited and almost certainly guaranteed not to arrive by Christmas is the Government Response to the Augar Review of Post-18 Education and Funding (Still forthcoming)

Postcards as Proxies – Higher Education consultant Hugh Jones presents his passion for postcards all about universities with some surprising findings. Richly illustrated. Few words.

Douglas Blackstock: A Life in Quality Assurance – A rigorously researched biography on the shy and now retiring Glaswegian QAA Chief from his earliest days as militant campaigner for standards to his time in the trenches during the quality wars through to leading the line on HERA and ultimately to (not that elder) statespersonship.

In the Zoom Where it Happened you will find exciting coverage of all of the bigger decisions of the year, as they happened in zoom calls. Marvel at the inappropriate dress and behaviour of all concerned and the inability of otherwise brilliantly intelligent and rational individuals to manage the simplest of binary tasks involving the mute button.

Another publication unaccountably stuck at the printers is the Independent Review of TEF by Dame Shirley Pearce (forthcoming at some point in the next decade)

Boffins and their Backgrounds – a detailed study of Zoom and Teams background choices and what those fake office settings, loyalty to their institutions, and 70s sitcoms and game shows tell us about academic attitudes to communications and engagement.

The OIA Catalogue of Complaints. All the best complaints from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. Whether justified or not, this bumper book has the lot. Who can forget the case “Industrial Action – CS05199A Partly Justified” and the remarkable “Coronavirus – CS11808F Not Justified”.

Windows on Windows – from Microsoft Windows to the Student Travel Window and the Overton window to Everest Windows – not forgetting of course Brian Cant’s square, round and arched windows from your dimly remembered childhood. And, of course, Tina Turner’s steamy windows. A book you are sure to see through to the very end.

What Has The OfS Ever Done For Us? In this witty stocking filler some amusing higher ed types riff on the theme of the famous Monty Python Life of Brian sketch, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ With hilarious consequences. Note, over 18s only, contains very strong language and adult themes.

Understanding University Pensions (Fourth Edition, now in eight comprehensive volumes)

Boffins and their Bookshelves. From the people who brought you Boffins and their Backgrounds… building on the popular bookcase credibility social media trend this book takes it all to the extreme and offers a detailed bibliography for a cross section of notable academics who have appeared on national TV in front of their bookcases.

The Bumper DfE Covid Compendium – all the DfE advice and guidance in one handy tome. Ideal gift for the obsessive university administrator. Note, although delivery is expected “imminently” we cannot guarantee it will be there in time for Christmas.

PQA: An idea whose time has come. Yet Again? (Seventh Edition, newly updated)

Gulliver’s Student Travel Windows – A biting satire on student travel arrangements through the years

A Month in the Country – a novel which presciently anticipates the departure of students for the winter break during the student travel window prior to their staggered return.

Foundation Year by Isaac Asimov – a recently discovered science fiction classic in which a group of students in a remote part of the galaxy embark on their initial level 0 studies with ambition to progress academically and change the galactic empire.

Dons Dressing Up – the annual review of all the best in contemporary academic gowns and hoods produced by the Burgon Society and featuring many of your favourite professors gowned up (and socially distanced) in the latest 19th century fashions.

Professor Corelli’s Mandolin – Greek academic musical meanderings

Cartoon Qualifications – A comprehensive prospectus of Mickey Mouse Degrees through the ages. From the diminutive rodent’s first bachelors degree through to his and Minnie’s double PhD award in the 60s. Sumptuously illustrated.

Going Underground. All of your favourite university tunnels from around the world. With maps for the enthusiastic explorer and tips on securing access.

The Naked Lunch – an excruciating insight into unfortunate wardrobe accidents in online meetings and a bumper catalogue of other Zoom failures.

And a few other best sellers and favourites recommended by some people we met in the socially distanced coffee bar:

High Table – More of Nigella’s recipes for entertaining in college
To Kill the Mockingbirds: campus avian control strategies
The Bonfire of the Vanity Courses – Radical curriculum redesign made easy
Cheats really do prosper – why essay mills are making a killing
I’ve Got a Brand New Combine Harvester – Agricultural Economics in the Archers
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: The hottest new graduate entry jobs
The League Table of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Yet More Places for Maces: University Regalia Around the World
Carol’s from Kings, David’s from Jesus: A Cambridge Romance
For Whom the Bell Tolls – Universities and their Clocktowers
Even More Registrars and their Registers
Behind the Scenes at the University Museum
Hoods from the Hood – Graduation Paraphernalia and Street Culture
The Sign of Four Star: Sherlock Holmes and the REF

And of course we could not ignore everyone’s favourite festive read – it’s the Spiked! Annual 2020. With all your favourite pseudonymous scribblers adopting wilfully contrarian positions on just about anything. There’s pull out picture spreads, photo stories, horoscopes, interviews with the stars (including an exclusive chat with the first man to scale Brendan O’Neil’s imposingly craggy forehead), quizzes, puzzles and colouring in. This year’s annual features a fake ermine lining in recognition of the key role in the Lords and in No 10 now being played by contributors to this illustrious journal.


Finally, no book review on the site is complete without reference to everyone’s favourite tome cataloguing historical university campus-based crime capers. This really is now your last chance to acquire a copy of this remarkable artefact. Priced to clear through the University of Nottingham online shop at only £1 (just a quid! unbelievable value) plus postage. Get a few, or five or a dozen while you still can. (You can also acquire it via Amazon or on Kindle if you prefer.)

Are there other books from this year you would recommend?

Leave a Reply