12 JANUARY 1991, Page 16

If symptoms

persist . .

THE vice-chancellor of the university paid a visit to our hospital last week. I haven't seen such a kerfuffle in a hospital since the one in which I worked many years ago was visited by a Royal Person- age. Workmen appeared on the wards with all kinds of decorative fitments (removed once the Royal Personage had departed), the corridor was repainted for the first time in modern history and even the patients' food improved for a time. You could tell exactly how far the royal party was scheduled to progress by the point in the corridor at which the repaint- ing ceased. As it transpired, I missed the visit itself. The day before, I was reading while walking to my car in the hospital car park when I fell down a hole and twisted my knee. In those days of inno- cence one did not think of suing the Health Authority for negligence in hav- ing dug a hole where readers might fall into it, one simply rested until the swell- ing went down. Secretly, I wasn't altogether sorry to have avoided the great event.

But to return from the ridiculous to the sublime: the vice-chancellor's visit. In these times of financial stringency, vice- chancellors are important people, and a vice-chancellor's visit to a university faculty is what a visit from the IMF is to an African republic, except that it is not usually preceded by riots.

Nevertheless, preparations for the visit were extensive. The vice-chancellor has taken to heart the need for universities to be commercially viable. For example, he has decreed that henceforth students are to be called customers (just as patients compulsorily admitted to mental hospital are now known as clients). And he has also decreed that from now on secretaries typing on university paper must leave two spaces, not one, between a full stop and the start of a new sentence. This might render the work of my new secretary more legible, but hardly more intelligi- ble. Having been educated in the 1970s and 1980s, she types whole paragraphs of complete gibberish.

The hospital had to put on an exhibi- tion for the vice-chancellor, illustrating how the work of each of its departments was vital for the future of the Human Race and was therefore worthy of larger research grants. Naturally, competition between departments soon arose, and physicians and surgeons, normally self- assured to the point of arrogance, started behaving like village girls hoping to be chosen for the sultan's harem. The de- partment of medical illustration, hitherto despised and put-upon, suddenly became very powerful. Could it produce a histo- gram of many colours dramatically de- monstrating the phenomenal increase in the number of published papers emanat- ing from the department of morbid ana- tomy? The otorhinolaryngologists sent out spies to report back on the display under preparation by the oculists, and vice versa. For two weeks, the hospital was close to mass hysteria.

The visit lasted less than an hour. The vice-chancellor swept round the exhibits like a galleon in a strong wind, and left without a word. No doubt research grants will be pruned; but the teaching of medical customers (formerly students) must go on.

Theodore Dalrymple