Can women be trusted to govern higher education?

A battle is under way over who is to control Scotland’s universities. The Scottish Government is legislating on the future shape of the post-16 education system. The legislation is wide-ranging, but includes proposals for greater political involvement in the appointment of university governing bodies.  Mike Russell, for the government, is very keen on this idea; the universities are lobbying ferociously against it.

Enter the National Union of Students, who yesterday released a statement condemning the gender imbalance of existing university governing bodies. Based on 2011/12 figures, the NUS claimed that just 25% of board members are women. These figures were duly reported in the Herald on the day that Mike Russell was called to give evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s education committee, where he said agreed that the figures justified the powers that he has proposed for himself, and even floated the idea of a new amendment allowing him to intervene in order to secure a gender balance.

The first thing I want to say is that the NUS has every right to present these figures, however inconvenient they may be for the universities. University governing bodies are often seen as ceremonial bodies with little real power, but this is only partly right. Governing bodies (usually known as the ‘court’) are increasingly flexing their muscles over their formal role, which is to approve and review the institution’s strategic goals and direction; they can be key allies for particular groups of senior staff; and above all they appoint the principal and can hold him or her to account.

And it is the chairs of university courts who have been meeting Mike Russell, and reportedly annoying him not only by opposing his new Bill, but by the way in which they do it. If the governing bodies do matter, then so does their membership. I checked the NUS data, using more up-to-date membership lists where possible, excluding small specialist colleges, and disregarding university principals (most of whom are male, but that is another issue) who are present ex officio.

Women account for 28% of current members of university governing bodies (usually known as ‘the court’). Men are a majority of all university governing bodies, ranging from 55% at Dundee to an overwhelming 85% at University of the Highlands and Islands. All university governing bodies are chaired by men.  And this is in a system where the majority of students and of staff are female.

It isn’t difficult to see how this situation has come about. University courts are very different bodies, depending on the history of the institution, but all share some common features. They all include a group who are co-opted by existing governors; though some universities advertise such posts, more usually this is a closed process. I found that 74% of those listed in this category were men.

Co-opted representatives usually come from the world of business and public life. Most of the former group are men; one university has a number of co-opted male governors from the dominant (private) industry, and a smaller group of female co-optees who come mostly from quangos and the service sector.

The Herald quoted Alastair Sim of Universities Scotland as claiming that ‘many universities have an equal gender balance amongst their co-opted members’. On my figures, this is so in only one university – Strathclyde – out of fifteen. I have invited him to clarify or correct his claim. No university court has a majority of female co-optees.

Then there are those who sit on court by virtue of some office they hold. These include the main student association officers. They often include representatives of local councils, and in the ancient universities they include Kirk ministers, student-elected rectors, and a few other remainders from past times. The universities have no control over these groups, but they are relatively small in number.

And there are staff representatives: 60% of the governors elected by a predominantly female staff electorate are men. When I was a deputy principal, I well remember discussions in which the principal and chair of court (both then female) lamented the difficulty of getting women academics onto court. Was this because they were unwilling to stand for election (we thought so) – and if so, why?

It should go without saying that the current situation is unacceptable. I can understand some of the problems. Women are a minority in public life. Mike Russell knows this, not least from his experience in the Scottish Government: the First Minister is male, as are five out of seven Cabinet Secretaries and eight out of thirteen Ministers. Wherever we look in public life, we see stark and alarming examples of inequality.

But I expect better of university courts. They could have overcome this and other challenges if they had chosen to do so – and they did not. And if inequality is wrong in principle, it may also turn out to have been remarkably stupid. MSPs have already called governors ‘an old boys’ club’. This is a whiskery old cliché, of course, but the label is likely to stick. It won’t help the sector feel good about itself, and it damages our reputation in the wider world. And it has handed over a weapon to a Minister who has often been described as a ruthless centraliser.

Andrew Denholm’s article in today’s Herald is at:

Another dodgy publisher’s email

I have just received the following email. You may have seen somethiing similar – and it is possible that less experienced colleagues might think it is authentic.

We are contacting you because you are the corresponding author on a paper that was published in 2009. We are conducting a survey about the perceptions scientists have of information providers in scientific, technical and medical research fields.  As only a carefully selected sample of scientists and practitioners have been chosen for the study, your feedback is very valuable to us.
The survey is being conducted by a scientific, technical and medical publisher who will be revealed at the end of the survey. Under the terms of the Market Research Society Code of Conduct, it will not lead to any sales follow up and no individual (or organization) will be identified. Your results will be kept confidential and used only for research purposes.
The email was unsigned but came from the following address: It isn’t the first time that this bunch asked me to take part in their surveys. Last time, I asked the British Market Research Society whether they knew anything about them, and they said that they did not. I’ve heard rumours that Elsevier are behind this initiative, which might not be surprising given the publisher’s reputation among researchers, but if so it seems a clumsy way of responding.
The email closes with the saccharine line:

Thank you very much for your time, we really value your input.
Sincere or what?

Daft things that happen in higher education – 2

I have just just learned from Rosemary Deem that if she and her colleagues use Royal Holloway, University of London as their institution when writing papers, citation indexes credit it to the University of London – and not Royal Holloway. If they leave out the comma, though, the index credits the citation to Holloway. Rosemary assumes, probably rightly, that this must apply to some other University of London colleges too – including Birkbeck, to which I am affiliated. There must be a lot of unclaimed citations out there. Isn’t this comma a strange thing for us to have to think about?

Daft things that happen in higher education – Number 1

We’ve just had to cancel a doctoral viva, and start again on the laborious process of finding a time that suits the student, external examiner and internal examiner. Nothing to do with the student or the examiners. But I work for an employer who insists that all staff must show a passport to prove that they are eligible to work in the UK.

We even have to present our passport if we have worked for the university for over a decade (as I had when the university told me to prove that I was who I said I was). Or, in the case of an external examiner, if you come from another UK university to do us a big favour. And my university isn’t unique.

I do not believe the official line about this being a Border Agency requirement. Even the battiest UKIP hardliner doesn’t believe that illegal immigrants will swarm into Britain to conduct doctoral examinations.

I have recently examined doctorates in two other universities, both large and distinguished, who did not ask to see my passport. They simply sent a letter of guidance on external examining, which included a sentence explaining that if I was not entitled to work in the UK, then I should let them know.

Don’t get me wrong. I love being an academic, and I don’t buy into the nonsense about administrators who contribute nothing but extra trouble. But this is a daft practice, and it is unnecessary. It makes us look silly and it wastes time. It’s not the only mildly irritating or baffling thing to go on in our much-loved sector, so expect another blog on this topic very shortly.

Why getting that first job is becoming harder

Are universities raising the bar for new academic staff? I had coffee with a friend, who said she thought the expectations for first positions had become higher over the last five or so years. After thinking about this, I reckon that this change has been going on incrementally for a lot longer than that.

In any department that has research ambitions, appointment panels expect new lecturers to have not only a doctorate, but also publications. The panel will measure those publications against the national quality assessment criteria, and in most cases they will want to appoint only people whose publications are good enough to enter in the assessment. The panel will also want some evidence that the new lecturer can write grant applications – and ideally has already written at least one successful bid.

Is this new? Well, when I got my first university position in the 1980s, Warwick already expected new lecturers to have these things. But Warwick was then thought rather a vulgar, jumped-up place, which had barely survived a closure threat in 1981. Back when I submitted my own PhD in 1979 (also at Warwick), my supervisor still hadn’t finished his own doctorate, and neither, for that matter, had his supervisor.

Anyone working in the sector will point to assessments of research quality as the most obvious and significant factor. The very language reflects this: appointment panels almost invariably ask ‘Is Dr X reffable?’ – a neologism that may mean little to people outside UK universities, but is critical within them. So the quality assessments, still carried out in the UK by peer review, have helped raise the entry threshold.

But the REF is hardly the only factor. Another one is the improved standard of doctoral training, at least at the upper end of the system. In the UK, this change has been largely thanks to the research councils, who have set out much more explicit standards for doctoral programmes, which are designed to produce more rounded and skilled researchers. It has also been promoted by increased international contact, which in my experience has encouraged academics to think more about how they prepare their own doctoral students, and has also help students learn from experience in other countries.

As universities across the world have started to raise their eyes beyond national horizons, so they have started to compare themselves with each other. World league tables emphasise global research achievement, whether measured through the number of Nobel prizes or average citations per publication per professor. Every university in the global top 200 has a vice chancellor who wants them to aim for the top 100, and those in the top 50 want to get into the top 10. And they hire faculty who will help them rise.

Internationalisation has also widened the pool of talent. When UK universities advertise a position, they expect to attract candidates from overseas. Local knowledge can be an advantage in some disciplines (teacher education, social work training, Scottish law) but in most disciplines it is pretty much irrelevant. In my first post, I had competed against 200 other people – every one of them from Britain or Ireland. Someone applying today faces talented competitors from Beijing, Brazil or Belgium, whose training and assumptions will be different from those whose horizons are limited to the local setting.

Is this a bad thing? Cultural nationalists may think so, as they would prefer to have – say – Quebec universities staffed mainly by people from Quebec. More significant, from my view, there is a high risk of cream-skimming, with universities plucking talented people from around the world – and inevitably rich universities in rich countries take talent away from poorer nations.

On the whole, though, I see academic mobility as a healthy development. Personally, I rather enjoy working alongside people who do not share my immediate sense of priorities and assumptions, but who instead challenge them and make me feel intellectually uncomfortable. I also think that research quality assessment, like internationalisation, has helped to raise the overall standard of academic research (though we may now be witnessing diminishing returns).

So I don’t mind too much that things have got tougher. I’m not worried that universities are chasing the next generation of highly creative and skilled researchers – the problem is that many of them simply cannot get jobs at the moment. So the challenge for more senior academics is to pay more attention to helping new scholars achieve the standards required for that first post – which may, by the way, be in a university outside their own country.

Alfred Russel Wallace, socialist and land grabber

Alfred Russel Wallace is being celebrated as Britain’s forgotten evolutionary scientist, the man who co-discovered the process of evolution through natural selection. The Natural History Museum is currently marking the centenary of his death with a series of events, exhibitions and conferences, while a project supported by David Attenborough has digitised much of his voluminous archive.

Historians of science admire Wallace as a naturalist, anthropologist, geographer and explorer. They have rather less to say about his political ideas. Wallace described himself as a socialist, and was a high profile campaigner for public ownership of the land. He was also, for at least two decades, a vocal supporter of the land colony as a solution to unemployment.

Wallace had a long standing interest in Robert Owen, the leading co-operative thinker and founder of the pioneering industrial settlement at New Lanark. By 1889, he was enthusing over the writings of Herbert Vincent Mills, Unitarian Minister and social reformer, who had written Poverty and the State, which Wallace praised as ‘one of the most remarkable and valuable little books of the day’.

In his presidential address for 1889, Wallace told the Land National Society that Mills’ proposals for settling industrial workers on communal village colonies would ‘prove that poverty and want of work are wholly landlord-created, and that, whether as individual independent workers or in co-operative association, our labouring classes, if permitted, can support themselves upon the land’.

In 1892, Mills led a small group of like minded friends onto a farm at Starnthwaite, near Kendal.  Here they settled down to a life of farming, weaving, tailoring, shoe-making, fruit-bottling, jam-making, and smithing. By autumn 1893, eleven men, five women and six children were living in the colony. Perhaps inevitably, Mills had clashed with secular socialists (or, as he saw it, the more idle settlers). The colony survived until 1900, when Mills handed it over to the English Land Colonisation Society.

Wallace continued to champion Mills’ ideas throughout and beyond the Starnthwaite experience. In 1893, he outlined detailed plans for a series of co-operative land colonies across Britain, each with a population of around 800 families, so that ‘there would thus gradually be trained up a body of men and women fit to carry out successfully a truly co-operative life’.  In 1897 he restated his proposals in a contribution to a collection edited by Edward Carpenter, republishing the chapter as part of Studies, Social and Scientific in 1900.

In 1908, by which time there were several Tolstoyan land colonies, Wallace wrote two articles for Socialist Review, which he later republished as a Clarion pamphlet, praising Mills’ idea of the land colony as a solution to unemployment. So neither Wallace’s political beliefs, nor his interest in labour colonies, were a passing whim. This can be rather embarrassing for historians of science, who prefer to focus on his contribution to natural science.

Wallace’s ideas, though, can be equally distasteful for some labour and socialist historians, who have scant sympathy for talk of industrial workers settling land, and recoil from Wallace’s interest in spiritualism, as well as his ideas on the workshy (he and Mills thought tramps and loafers should be required to attend a labour colony until they acquired the taste for work that was needed for life in a communal colony).

As we mark Wallace100 then, we can reflect that resistance to modern capitalism has taken many forms. Social democracy and state welfare are one of these, though some might argue that they have also developed their own inefficiencies and injustices. The more communitarian tradition of critique and action has often been marginalised, but it produced some fascinating experiments in communal ways of living, and has influenced modern environmental thinking. We should not dismiss it lightly.

For further information on Wallace100, see: