Liquid Unseen University


Jerzy Kociatkiewicz and Monika Kostera


Unseen University, the premier educational institution in Ankh-Morpork, brought so vividly to life in Terry Pratchett’s long-running reportage series , has fallen on difficult times. While it is too early to be definite about the causes of the decline, there can be no doubt about the process. While nobody has pointed an accusatory finger at the Bursar (and, indeed, his retirement party was among the most lavish the faculty remember), the noticeable, if mostly metaphorical, holes in the treasury are a matter of record. The once sumptuous halls were becoming noticeably shabbier, and even the faculty dinners were commonly found lacking (or sometimes not found at all). So, when the erstwhile Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully retired, many of the wizards agreed with the need for drastic change. A smart-dressed, though largely nondescript young-ish man, whose name no-one appeared to remember, has emerged as his somewhat unlikely successor, even if his dress (tidy!) and manner (punctual!) did not initially endear him to the wizards. Nor did his constant mentions of student experience.

However, he knew how to organize an impressive feast, so when he promised the faculty better days, the wizards believed him. A man who knew about the importance of Lancre wine (not the cheap Klatchian plonk that Ridcully increasingly used to insist on) and of the proper sausage shapes and sizes was exactly the man who knew how to make the University Unseen again! Or wasn’t he?

The first nasty surprise came when the new Archchancellor, Doctor Praeclarus Illustratus, known to his many friends simply as Preckie, ordered the Library to be closed. He insisted this was a necessary sacrifice allowing the sealing of treasury’s still seething, and still mostly metaphorical, holes. Prompt action seemed necessary – the treasury has passed the stage of merely being empty and reached the still unstable state of being “full of emptiness”.

Yet most wizards dreaded what next steps would follow. New money started flowing in, and treasury holes appeared plugged, but magic seemed to be flowing out. On the surface, the University boasted of its incredible progressive successes in all possible areas. New accreditations from the Tax Collectors’ Guild and the Society of Practical Magicians were prominently displayed on university gates. Proclamations of magical success replaced magical demonstrations, and were lauded as more efficient and certainly less disruptive. The institute of illusionism was replaced by the Centre for Façade Magic, headed by the Archchancellor himself. Student recruitment leaflets rained down on the city of Ankh-Morpork as student contracts replaced traditional entrance examinations. Satellite campuses in the Agatean Empire and distance courses for the overly busy (or overly unsavoury) students were prominently advertised. Oh, and the old custom of students paying for education was reinstated, though given the new name of self-investment. It was payable, strangely enough, to the new Bursar rather than to oneself.

Many of the older wizards left, some amicably, other after fiery (often literally) spats. Other wizards adapted. Many ceased growing beards and began growing façades. But the Librarian, one of the few senior wizards who remained after a wave of retirements was, as one can imagine, less than thrilled with the developments. He started following the Archchancellor around the city, and soon discovered some unsavoury secrets. It was… yes, quite illuminating. Rather enlightening, actually. He called on his old friend Mustrum, who, at that time, was spending most of his days in his shed, producing practical book shelves for books of magic. Mustrum rapidly arranged a top secret meeting in the top secret cellar of the neighbourhood pub (completely furnished with bookshelves). Around the large table (equipped with practical shelves underneath the tabletop) there sat three sad faced wizards, old friends and colleagues: Mustrum, the Librarian, and Ponder Stibbons, perhaps the most tired looking of the three.

“Ook”, said the librarian. The other two nodded.

“Well,” Ponder said, “true that… And they are selling it now, the library building will be a luxury hotel. In no time all the old buildings will be sold, too. Or rented to the new funky guilds.”

“Ook”, insisted the Librarian.

“Yes, I agree, without a library it kind of doesn’t matter anymore. The University is not a university when it cannot host a number of magical books”, Ridcully nodded seriously.

“And everything else, too, you know,” Ponder pointed out, “they are using our words in their way, so they lost all their meaning and magic evaporated from them. Take “wizard”. It does not mean anything of what it used to. There was this man, a particularly opportunistic sort, even though there are many of them, truth to be told. But this one is an exemplary specimen. He arrived as a lowly clerk on probation and in one year’s time he got himself promoted to wizard, without having performed any actual magic. He was just being particularly obedient and bullied his collaborators, and appropriated their work. Whereas this nice young Glimmer, a real talent, put all his heart into the magical work. When he applied for promotion, he was turned down. Just like that.”

“Ook.” Said the Librarian.

“And you know, colleague, what we dedicate all of our time to, nowadays”” Ponder gesticulated in Ridcully’s direction, “we do tableology. They make us sit in small rooms and do tableology all day. Inventing things to put into tables.  Except when we teach. Then we have to translate the teaching into tables after we are done.”

“Sit in small rooms?... They can’t make you! You know what happened when I tried to make the wizards come in time for the monthly meeting! And I used lots of cheese as a motivator.” Ridcully grumbled. 

“Well, forget cheese. They gave us cheese in the beginning. Nowadays it’s just plastic triangles to chew on. They say it’s good for our teeth hygiene.”

“And you fell for that? I remember how “enthusiastic” everyone was when I suggested that the general idea of hygiene wasn’t, in fact, a treat to wizardly freedom… Just how did this all happen? How is it possible?...”

Both Ponder and the Librarian shook their heads sadly.

“Remember that meeting, when we collegiately cast out devilish devices ?” Ridcully broke the gloom with a sudden laugh. “When Mr A.E. Pessimal became Inspector of Universities and tried to make us report what we have been doing – and persuade us into publishing the results of our work? We did consider his suggestions, didn’t we?” he gave the memory a hearty laugh “Didn’t we, Ponder?”

“Yes, we did”, Ponder smiled, but the smile was thin and lacking real smilishness in it, “I told you it wasn’t a good idea to consider them “in depth” by the Committee of Deep Considerations. Vetinari did not want us harm. He really liked us, he wanted us to be, you know, a little bit more… responsive. Or even just responding.”

“Ha, ha, ha, responding, we were good at not!”, Ridcully’s mood seemed to have improved with the memories,  “res-pondering! Something you did rather well! Asking all these questions, trying to wake up the others! All the others just seemed to be, you know, oblivious.”

“Yeah… oblivious until everything died a slow death by organizational depression… even Vetinari’s ideas went that way… And the issue with women…” stammered Ponder, morosely fidgeting with his branded Unseen magical ball-pen.

“We should have done that,” Mustrum suddenly lost his good humour, “It’s my fault for not seeing that. Well, I did see it at a time but then things sort of returned to their usual oblivion and I unsaw it. We should have invited the women. And especially the witches. Too late now.”

At these words, the door opened and a lean but determined figure of Tiffany Aching entered the room.  Mustrum jumped up nervously.

“I invited her. Sorry, should have said earlier. I invited Tiff. She’s a wizard and Director of Discwide Collaboration”, explained Stibbons to the two other men. One of which was an orang-utan, but still, undoubtedly, a man. “The university is now employing women, you see.”

“Good afternoon to you, colleagues”, said Tiffany, “sorry for being late. As Ponder here said, I am the director of collaboration. Which means I have to move around furniture in rooms. I had some pretty heavy pieces of furniture to move around this morning and so I could not leave earlier. And then I had to put all that into tables. But here I am now.”

“Yes, you see? They fired Mrs Whitlow and all the kitchen staff, the vats people, the technicians… and then, they hired women as wizards and made them do all these jobs.”

The other men nodded guiltily. They greeted Tiffany and invited her to sit down at the table.

“Now, this one looks heavy!” she patted the table top appreciatively.

“Hmh,” Mustrum nodded, “I may have had a small contribution to this one. Anyway, colleagues, here we all are. The situation is as it is. They are telling me even the Octavo went flat. Not good. Not good at all. Bad, in fact. However, the Librarian has been exploring things. You know, following around the new Archchancellor. The man calling himself Preckie. And he discovered something… Will you tell us what you saw, colleague?”

The Librarian nodded seriously and said, looking earnestly into the faces assembled around the table:


“What???” exclaimed Tiffany. “Are you sure? Are you quite sure??”

The Librarian nodded.


“That’s positive”, said Ridcully. “So what do we do now?”

“Oh really, is there anything that can be done, under these circumstances? Ponder Stibbons smiled sadly “It’s all over. It’s done. It cannot be undone. Maybe the University is no more needed as it used to be. It is only to be accepted. Only old timers like ourselves… Nobody cares anymore… “ he sniffed.

“Ook” said the Librarian decisively. “Ook ook.”

Ridcully looked him in the eye. And shone up.

“You’re right, old chap!”

“Of course!” said Tiffany. “I said that a long time ago. Nobody listened.”

“We are sorry, colleague. We are not, you know, used to… listening to women. We hogged it all up gallantly, you can say”, Ridcully beat himself energetically in his still impressively athletic chest.

“We are so sorry,” said Ponder “we have been wrong. You have been right. We are idiots.”

“Ook!” said the Librarian.

“Okay, okay, some of us are idiots more than other idiots among us who are less idiotic idiots”, Ponder said, conciliatorily.

“Let us not waste any more time!” Ridcully sprung up, looking all alert and actually quite young again. “Let’s go!” And off they went. Even Ponder had a spring in his step that he had been lacking for quite some time.

History – that is Mustrum Ridcully, who dedicated his newly discovered literary talents to the writing down of these accounts – is quiet about what happened next. Maybe because history was by then quite busy writing other things, such as manifestos, counter-manifestos and menus (some counter-menus as well). Anyway, there is one further event that has been oft depicted in books and in folksongs alike. It is the sudden arrival at the University of a magnificent looking older woman, supporting her gloriously rotund body on a cane, accompanied by a feral cat. Well, here the accounts differ: half mention feral, while the other err somewhere on the side of human looking. She shook the cane disdainfully in front of the University’s newly installed magical security gates which opened and broke down permanently, probably out of sheer shame. The door of the Uncommon Room burst open in a thunder reminding the older observers of the good old days at the Post Office. She entered the big room, now remade as conference room, where the Board of Trustees held their meeting. They were all sitting around the old table that used to host so many wizardly meetings, now washed of all cheese remnants and carefully re-varnished: the new Archchancellor – the man calling himself Preckie, the fashionable new Lord Patrician of Ankh Morpork, all the modern Chief Executive Heads of the city’s Guilds, and the strange new Chairman of the Royal Bank of Ankh Morpork.  According to some tales, the room shook as the big table jumped up several times into the air, but maybe that was due to the cat placing his not too modest weight on it. Gytha Ogg, for it was indeed she herself who had entered the room in all her witch’s formidable splendour, raised her arm with the cane and called out: “Oh here you all are, you little hog’s…” – here follows a litany, rendered somewhat differently in the many accounts, but abounding with various activities and predilections of a particularly salacious breed of hog. On second thought, that variety of hog would perhaps not be engaging in the most commendable kind of breeding. Then, even more terrifyingly, she smiled and spoke to them in a quiet and almost cordial voice: “I know who you are.”

Well, after that, things were said. Steps were taken, some really rapidly and out of the room. Out of the city, in fact. There were many small bangs heard at the edges of the city. Not really bangs, in fact, but rather fart-like little snaps. Like an evening of fireworks but in reverse. And on the next day the city outskirts were littered with powder and dust from a large number of crumbled façades. And then… But you already know what happened then, don’t you? Or, you would not be here, pointy-hat ladies and gentlemen. And cats. Sorry, of course, cats, too.


In Liquid Modernity (2000), Zygmunt Bauman depicted the state of society in increasingly high uncertainty, constant, ever accelerating change, and a dissipation of stable structures, which make relationships fluid, unstable and insecure. Instead of being based on commitment, they are now defined by economic measures, as are most of society’s actions and aims. Institutions and structures become eroded and economic growth takes precedence over all else. Fifteen years later, in his last book, Retrotopia (2017), Bauman discussed the allure of nostalgic visions of the past as a reaction to the deficiencies and problems of the liquid modern world, and as a barrier to finding more successful solutions.

In this text, we use characters and images from Terry Pratchett’s fantasy novel series, Discworld, to examine issues accruing around the liquefaction and liquidation of the university. Building on numerous studies of the contradictions and inadequacies of the currently dominant university institutions (Collini, 2012; Izak, Kostera and Zawadzki, 2017), we use narrative, thematic, and stylistic tools of a fantasy story to explore the current state, and the possible narrative futures of a liquid, and possibly unseen, university.



Bauman, Zygmunt (2000) Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity.

Bauman, Zygmunt (2017) Retrotopia. Cambridge: Polity.

Collini, Stefan (2012) What are Universities for? London: Penguin.

Izak, Michał, Monika Kostera and Michał Zawadzki (eds, 2017) The Future of University Education. Cham: Palgrave.

Pratchett, Terry (1987) Equal Rites. London: Victor Gollancz.

Pratchett, Terry (1988) Sourcery. London: Victor Gollancz.

Pratchett, Terry (1990) Moving Pictures. London: Victor Gollancz.

Pratchett, Terry (2009) Unseen Academicals. New York: Doubleday.

Pratchett, Terry (2013) “A collegiate casting-out of devilish devices” in: Terry Prachett, A blink of the screen: Collected shorter stories. London: Corgi.


Pratchett (2013)

Equal Rites (Pratchett, 1987), Sourcery (1988), Moving Pictures (1990) and Unseen Academicals (2009) are among the most pertinent.



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