Higher education is a gym after all #HEBill

“The closest analogy to the relationship between the student and the university is that of a gym and its members: unless you turn up and sweat nothing will happen; there will be no change.”

That’s Janet Beer, now Vice Chancellor of Liverpool University.

If they passed a bill to regulate gyms in the same way the Higher Education Bill is set to regulate universities, here’s what happens to gyms.

University of Bums on SeatsEveryone has been grumbling about gyms. Public transport grumbles because people have outgrown the seats. The health service grumbles because younger people have started to get health conditions which only older people used to get. Tinder users grumble because nobody is as buff in person as they look on screen.

In a fairly popular move, the government makes gyms take responsibility. They have to bribe or otherwise persuade their members to complete a National Gym Member Survey which is all about what the gym offers but doesn’t touch on what the member actually did, whether they became physically stronger, or even more buff (that data is extrapolated from commercial loyalty cards).

These results and others feed into a league table of gyms called the Gym Excellence Framework. Because some years ago the government hardly managed to persuade any gyms that they should charge less than the imposed upper limit for gym membership (gyms had reasoned that charging less made it seem as if their facilities were old and dirty), it decided instead to use the league table to generate a gym rating of gold, silver or bronze, where bronze means the gym is a sub-standard loser.

Bronze gyms aren’t expected to become silver gyms, but instead have to charge less for membership than the others, and can only give membership to UK citizens (since they are expected to have lower standards or needs than international members, and it’s a good way to separate the two populations). This means that their facilities do quickly become old and dirty and the staff, hounded and resentful. But on the other hand bronze gyms are a less scary investment prospect for members from poor families who are in two minds about joining a gym at all. Those gyms tend to concentrate on things which help members quickly stand out from the crowd, such as pecs, sixpacks, inguinal creases, and post-natal bums and tums. The members who attend bronze gyms are much harder to transform into the advertised outcome, but the only alternative is to shut down. However, shutting down is viewed as no bad thing because then the gold gyms could either expand or the poor members could just go back to the economically useful occupation of consuming food.  The health service is private now, so for each will bear the consequences of their own decisions without anybody else needing to pick up the bill.

Gold and silver gyms have a dilemma about how to attract new members. They used to be mostly concerned with musculoskeletal and cardiovascular health, but those don’t make much of a first impression and have low brochure glanceability, so they’ve had to divert into sculpted torsos as well.  They had hoped that sculpting the torsos was compatible with the circuit training and the hot yoga, but it soon became clear that a proportion of members were signing up with different expectations. This has led to a trend for gyms to offer pay-as-you-go personal trainers and fat-busting ultrasound treatment, and there are even noises about making these the core offering. However, some of the trainers have residual doubts about their new role. Attempting to get members to take responsibility for their own outcomes, they tend to draw increasingly far-fetched comparisons – between gym membership and academic study, for example.

And while it may be true that nobody is grumbling about gyms any more, but that may be because there is less pressure on the system since the prime minister after Teresa May (surprise winner in an election whose outcome was widely attributed to low educational achievement) hugely increased the rate of incarceration, deported 3 million UK residents, and allowed food prices to spiral so high and work to become so arduous that the need for gyms at all has all but disappeared.

And on University Challenge, Warwick just beat University of East London 195 to 55.

Image credit: University of Bums on Seats is the work of Cynical Bastard about 15 years ago.

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