Wolf Hall v Universities

Why Wolf Hall is not like Higher Education

Wolf Hall, best-selling book and hugely successful TV adaptation has, not at all inevitably, prompted comparisons with higher education. University common rooms up and down the country have seen many an animated discussion about the similarities (I am told).

But, despite the chatter, the sad facts are that the characters and environment of Wolf Hall really aren’t in the least bit like universities. (I’m studiously ignoring here the unlikely fact that the University of Delaware has a building named Wolf Hall.)

No similarities to universities whatsoever

No similarities to universities whatsoever

So eight ways universities are nothing like Wolf Hall:

  1. Henry VIII: Vice-Chancellors really are not in the least like Henry. Whilst VCs may have their favourites who come in a and out of favour, and a few may enjoy both the fripperies and flattery which comes with office, they generally do behave much better and on the whole do not seek to change the laws of the land to suit their preferred marriage status. And they don’t behead people either.
  2. Costume: Costumes do play a key part in the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall (see this excellent piece by my colleague Dr Gaby Neher). However, they are pretty modest and restrained compared with the crazy garb university officers, staff and students have to wear at a typical graduation.
  3. Succession: Although males continue to predominate in the leadership role, Vice-Chancellors are still generally selected following a competitive recruitment process rather than succession being determined through the male blood line. VCs’ children therefore tend not to be such a focus of interest as the offspring of Henry VIII.
  4. Jousting: Whilst academic dialogue can be challenging at times there really are very few similarities between the cut and thrust of academic debate and jousting. Horses and armour and blood and guts are rarely involved for a start.
  5. The Catholic Church: The Catholic Church comes in for a bit of a bad press in the period of Wolf Hall. Whilst it does have some pretty rigid doctrines and codes, which it seems reluctant to relax to meet Henry’s particular matrimonial wishes, the Catholic Church really is not at all like the Quality Assurance Agency. The QAA is, in general, more amenable to friendly dialogue and it does tend to consult on changes to its Code.
  6. Buildings. Whilst some of our ancient universities do have some rather grand old (and expensive to maintain) buildings and others have lovely campuses, the vast majority of staff and students will rarely experience the joys of life inside or in the grounds of a National Trust property.
  7. Off to the Tower: When senior academic managers fall out of favour they generally get sent back to their academic departments and return to their day jobs of teaching and research. This really is more than a little different from individuals being sent to the Tower of London who don’t in general enjoy quite so much freedom or indeed ongoing unity between body and head.
  8. Cromwell: No Registrar is remotely like Thomas Cromwell. Although Registrars are very focused on delivery, solving challenging political problems and ensuring the requirements of the Vice-Chancellor are enacted they really do not have anything like the power of Cromwell. They aren’t on the whole as ruthless as the BBC’s (quite benign) representation suggests. Nor do they spend nearly so much time standing around looking moody or writing by candlelight.

The final word on this goes to Simon Schama:

It grates a bit to accept that millions now think of Thomas Cromwell as a much-maligned, misunderstood pragmatist from the school of hard knocks who got precious little thanks for doing Henry VIII’s dirty work. When I was doing research for A History of Britain, the documents shouted to high heaven that Thomas Cromwell was, in fact, a detestably self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror in England, cooked the evidence, and extracted confessions by torture. He also unleashed small-minded bureaucratic “visitors” to humiliate, evict and dispossess thousands of monks and nuns.

So, no similarities at all and we can all start focussing on something else now. In the meantime do feel free to add your own suggestions about other striking dissimilarities.

Next week: why Students’ Unions are nothing like Eastenders.

2 responses to “Wolf Hall v Universities

  1. Are you saying that the 2014-15 attempt to force QAA to tender for qual assurance responsibilities a sort of aborted schism? Akin to the Hussites or Lollards perhaps?

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