14 February 2013
are virtually overrun
Alasdair Gray. Drawing by Bob Smith
Alasdair Gray's essay (www.alasdairgray.blogspot.co.uk) on the subject of colonists and settlers led to much debate. Gray's focus concerned the arts in Scotland, but he alluded to other areas of Scottish life that are likewise influenced by the phenomenon he described, including the higher education sector. The latter is the focus here.
As with arts institutions, it is relatively straightforward to identify individuals coming from other nations and taking senior management positions within the higher education sphere in Scotland. Of the 15 universities in Scotland (yes, 15!), only four (i.e. 26%) currently have a Scots principal. At vice-principal level the outcome appears broadly similar. Scots therefore probably account for considerably less than half of all top leadership posts within Scotland's universities.
Gray stated that by the 1970s the long list of Scots doing well in the south was already over-balanced by English, the latter taking the highest positions in Scottish electricity, water supply, property development, universities, local civil services and art galleries. I don't know if he was right or wrong about that, for the 1970s, but certainly today the diminishing role of senior Scots academics within Scotland's universities is clearly evident.
Neal Ascherson, writing some 20 years ago, cautioned that the whole plethora of scientific and other bodies in Scotland are dominated to a 'phenomenal extent' by what he termed 'non-Scots'. Ascherson claimed this served to alienate many Scottish intellectuals. That may be so. However, I believe a more important outcome with respect to Scotland's universities is the potential constraints this places on the future development opportunities for Scots academics; the latter appear to be a rapidly diminishing species.
The fact that Scotland's university sector today is for the most part led by academics from outwith Scotland raises a number of questions, not least: why has it happened? What are the implications? And, does it matter? Why has it happened?
Senior positions within Scotland's universities are normally advertised in the Times Higher Education Supplement. This means that vacancies are brought to the attention of academics throughout the UK and indeed further afield. In the case of university principal/vice-principal positions, selection panels at Scottish universities tend to appoint someone who is already a principal or vice-principal of another university, and typically another UK institution. As there are over 100 universities in the rest of the UK, this means the potential market from which to choose university leaders is far greater in rest-UK than it is in Scotland. So, the likelihood of a Scottish university choosing a principal or vice-principal from outside Scotland is high.
There is in addition a kind of 'musical chairs' being played out in Scotland, with 'top academics' once they come here moving from one university to another with a high degree of regularity. In any event this perhaps gives a slightly contrasting explanation to Gray's suggestion that '…colonists were invited here and employed by Scots without confidence in their own land and people'.
However, with only around a quarter of Scotland's universities today led by Scots, what if that soon becomes none? If Scots did so much to invent this and that and the next thing, how come we are no longer rated competent enough to lead and manage our own nation’s universities? What does that say about the Scots? Many people, not least Scots themselves, indulge in proclaiming Scotland's universities to be 'world class', yet what if Scots are no longer running any of them?
Is such an outcome perhaps synonymous with the message of the Better Together campaign that, according to Jim Sillars, is busy 'trashing the ability of Scots, and sowing the myth of our inadequacy'? Or is it simply a fact Scots should accept – that academics coming from outside Scotland are somehow better suited to leading Scotland's universities? I think most Scots will agree that it would indeed be a sorry state of affairs if Scots were no longer leading any of Scotland's universities, yet this is not far from the reality today, and the trend is rapidly heading towards that outcome.
So why do Scots universities not select leaders from inside their own institutions, with the odd exception (eg Strathclyde)? Why are home-grown academics more often than not passed by when senior positions come up for grabs? One explanation for this may be that there are nowadays proportionately fewer home-grown Scots academics at senior level to choose from. Over the past few decades our universities have headhunted and recruited many academics from distant shores and this has obviously had an effect. Further down the scale, at dean and heads of department/research institute levels, a similar outcome prevails to that at the top level in that many of these management posts are likewise nowadays filled by academics coming from outside Scotland.
In some departments/institutes within Scotland's universities today it can be a challenge to find any senior Scots academics. And with proportionately limited numbers of Scots undertaking doctoral research study relative to the large numbers of post-graduate students coming from other countries to study here, the future does not look bright for Scots academics. The latter issue is of particular importance because, if there are relatively few Scots undertaking doctoral work now, this in turn means that the number of Scots progressing through into senior academic positions will in future be even less than it is today.
What does seem apparent is that there are no controls (eg at the Scottish 'national'/Scottish Funding Council level) over these events and trends. University departments and research institutes are free to recruit staff from wherever they please, certainly within the EU, but also in many instances from further afield. As more senior academics are recruited from outwith Scotland, there is also a tendency for other academics further down the chain, such as former doctoral students of appointed senior academics, to follow the same path. And so the proportion of Scots academics inevitably becomes further reduced as the make-up of departments and research institutes alters over time.
What are the implications?
Many academics coming to Scotland become, to use Gray's term, settlers, and stay for a long time, often permanently. Others will perhaps be what he calls 'colonials', and move on after a number of years to further their career in their home country or elsewhere. Irrespective of this, what seems more important is the apparent trend towards fewer Scots academics being nurtured within Scotland's universities, with fewer Scots in senior positions, and a limited number of Scots academics coming through at post-doctoral and other levels relative to academics coming from outside Scotland. Scots academics are already (or are fast becoming) a minority in many teaching departments and research centres within Scotland's universities.
Given that government responsibilities, funding and related policies in areas such as transport, health, education, justice etc are devolved to Holyrood, bringing in substantial numbers of academic staff from outside Scotland to lead, manage and operate Scotland's universities could result in something of a mismatch.
Academics coming here may be well aware of how a university is run, and be expert in their particular field, but they will tend not be that aware of the people, institutions, priorities, policies and processes that need to be considered by a learning institution in Scotland. We might relate this to Gray's reference to the appointment of a director of Creative Scotland, who 'admitted to knowing nothing of Scottish culture, but said he was willing to learn'. In essence, the large numbers of academics coming to Scotland may be expert in their field, but they will often know relatively little about Scotland, its economy, society and people.
Yet the leaders and senior academics in our universities can be expected to heavily influence the strategies of Scotland's learning institutions, strategies which have major implications for Scotland and the people who live here. Today, for example, we see our universities setting up campuses and teaching programmes in numerous countries abroad. That 'internationalisation' seems to be flavour of the month for many UK universities as they seek to, wait for it, 'compete in global markets'. Attracting and educating ever increasing numbers of full fee-paying students from the rest of the UK and further afield seems to be another key objective of our universities.
But is this really what Scottish universities (which are, after all, registered charities, not businesses, and for the most part are publicly funded) should be about, more especially at a time when many Scots remain insufficiently educated, our society faces major challenges, and the Scottish economy has real long-term difficulties? While so much still remains to be done in Scotland, our universities are meantime awarding thousands of 'Scottish' degrees each year to people from other nations, either directly or via franchise and other agreements with institutions elsewhere.
To some extent Scottish universities nowadays resemble the English Premiership, full of expensive 'star players', many signed to boost university league ratings, and with other minor associated 'players' following in hot pursuit. Locals have limited opportunities to participate in this sort of 'market'.
With much of the research at Scotland's universities nowadays undertaken by academics coming from countries outside Scotland, they might be forgiven for not bringing with them a personal priority or interest to research matters that are of importance to Scotland. Hence, much of what passes for research in Scotland today is not always of relevance to Scotland or its people. In this strange environment suggestions like placing the word 'Scottish' in front of the name of a university research centre or institute, something Scotland's universities used to be proud to do, can be met with antipathy. I know, because I've tried it.
The current strategies of Scotland's universities are evidently not working for most of Scotland's people, for our society or economy. Scotland's present situation well illustrates this in terms of our sustained high unemployment (especially the 16-24 age group), underemployment, crumbling infrastructure, struggling public services, growing child poverty, fuel poverty for many, widening inequality, and an economy in considerable difficulty.
Existing research and teaching at Scotland's universities may very well be described as 'world class', but it is clearly not providing the solutions needed to help overcome Scotland's continuing, deep-rooted problems. As a lad from the schemes given a second chance at education, albeit after first being rebuffed by one of our ancient universities, and having since worked in the sector for the last two decades, I know our universities can and should be doing much more. But their current strategies and focus are wrong.
Does it matter?
Scottish universities form part of a UK league table in the Guardian, giving the (false) impression of a single market for students, staff and others. Academic staff may shift easily from one UK university to another without much regard for national differences in what seems to some to be a homogenous university sector. Scotland's differentiation of course, aside from geographic location and a four-year degree, lies in egalitarian policies like free education for Scots, and ultimate control of much of the purse strings and education policy held at Holyrood. Scots might therefore reasonably expect Scotland's universities to have a focus and priority towards delivering real benefits primarily for Scotland, its people and economy.
But, in light of Scotland's worsening social and economic conditions, the strategies of Scotland's universities have to be questioned. Scots need to seriously consider the role our universities play in today's society, and in the future. That role should primarily be to educate the people living in Scotland, to help develop and grow Scotland's economy, and to better Scotland's society. Our universities need first and foremost therefore to have a 'Scotland agenda', and strategies to reflect that. The present state of Scotland's economy and the diminishing prospects of many Scots demonstrate that our universities are not contributing as they should be. Scotland’s universities need to be 'enlightened' as to their real purpose.
With senior Scots academics increasingly a minority within Scotland's universities, this leads to a loss of distinctiveness as well as the likelihood that a primary focus on Scotland is not being prioritised. This kind of outcome simply does not happen at universities in most other countries where, more often than not, the principal of a university will be someone who has come up through the ranks of that very same institution, whether at Gothenburg, Barcelona, or Genoa. Universities in other nations do of course recruit talented academics from elsewhere, but not to anything like the extent Scotland has done. Scotland's universities have been virtually overrun, swamped by comparison. Consequently the very notion of a 'Scottish education' has become confused.
This is not to say 'they'll all have to be Scots' as Gordon Strachan recently proclaimed in reference to his new backroom staff appointments when accepting the Scotland football manager's job. As Harry McGrath rightly says, nobody would deny people from outside Scotland the right to take up influential positions in Scotland when they are offered them. But if this is done most or all of the time, as appears to be the case at Scotland's universities, the end result will inevitably be what we see today – a diminishing number of Scots academics at senior level, and also at other levels in Scotland's universities, as well as strategies that do not place Scotland's economy, society and its people (the latter being our biggest asset, according to Ian Hamilton) as a central priority.
Kenneth Roy argued that: 'If the native-born Scots believe that such matters are anyone's fault but our own, we delude ourselves'. To a large extent he is right. However, this assumes that Scots are responsible for making appointments at Scotland's universities, which is no longer the case; with fewer Scots academics now filling senior roles, it follows that many of those doing the appointing at Scotland's universities will invariably not be Scots.
It is therefore difficult not to agree with Alasdair Gray (and Neil Ascherson before him) when the evidence is so glaring: to a significant extent Scotland and the Scots have lost control of their own universities. The Education (Scotland) Bill currently going through Holyrood addresses some key issues, such as governance and widening access, and this may serve to better hold our universities to account. But the strategies of Scotland's universities can and should be questioned, with more robust analysis needed to consider how our universities can really work to the advantage of Scotland's people, society and economy.
While we're at it, Scots might also ask why Scotland needs so many universities, with all the added management costs and extra bureaucracy that entails. Our universities may be 'world class' and provide an open, delightful, lucrative posting for senior academics from elsewhere, but they are not necessarily working in Scotland's best interests and that needs to be remedied.
Perhaps Scots, as Harry McGrath suggests, may be 'finally noticing the fine line between altruism and being mugs'? We shall see.
Alf Baird is professor of maritime business at Edinburgh Napier University