Thursday, 17 November 2011

An Absence of Professors

A few years ago, when drafting one of her early children's books (and one that is not yet published, unlike her first two books in the Dragonsdome Chronicles series), my wife, Lucinda Hare, came up with what I thought was the perfect collective noun for professors, namely an absence.

An absence of professors has a nice ring to it, and it actually  fits quite well some of the noticeable characteristics of professors. Many professors, like myself, choose to work at home a good deal, partly because it's a pleasant place to be, partly because it's very productive for writing as there are rarely any interruptions. In addition, we often travel a lot to conferences, workshops; also for examining, other professional meetings and the like; besides travelling to various places to interview people and collect data to support our research. For all these diverse reasons, we are indeed absent a good deal, and some people would say far too much!

Indeed my wife has sometimes argued that I travel too much, and that some business could be conducted using Skype and other modern electronic media, and she is not convinced when I talk about networking and the importance of personal contacts; she probably thinks I just travel around for the novel food and drink - Surely not.......

Given my wife's claim to fame in regard to coining this collective noun - an absence - imagine my surprise when I looked through the latest Times Higher Education. For it contains a lead article by Ann Mroz about the role of professors, in which this very collective noun is proposed. So now it's finally in the public domain.

On the role of professors per se, the article is quite critical, highlighting the common conflicts that arise between the pressures to deliver high quality research and teaching, and the pressures - both from institutional managers and from junior colleagues - to provide good academic leadership, guidance and support. These days, when we all have performance targets to meet (except that, being retired, I avoid all this managerial nonsense), the tendency is to work hard to fulfill the measurable, and hence measured goals, and to be correspondingly less diligent in regard to the more intangible goals. In the latter category, I suspect, would fall such things as 'support for colleagues', a hugely valuable part of departmental life but almost impossible to measure.

Personally, I do think professors have a role, and a responsibility, to provide academic leadership, but there are lots of different ways in which this can be done. Some do it by being Head of Department, others by working with colleagues on research or by reading draft papers to give feedback to colleagues, yet others by supporting teaching initiatives - either new courses or new teaching methods. A few professors probably do none of these things, merely getting on with their research and teaching in the hope that their institutions and colleagues appreciate what they do. It's hard to pin this down with much precision, since the professor's job is so ill defined. We all think we would know it when we saw it, but there is little in the way of formal, written job descriptions - and when my own university tried to write a job description for staff at professorial level, I'm afraid I thought it was rubbish, basically because it included just about everything that anyone had ever seen a professor do!

Last, I'm aware that I've been away a lot over the years, or working at home, but when I am in the office I do always try to make up for this by operating an 'open door' policy, so anyone - staff or student - wanting to discuss something with me can be assured of my immediate attention.

That said, I suspect the phrase, an absence of professors, is one that could well catch on.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Academic strategy - Going international

When you think of the good products that Britain produces and exports, it's natural to start with food and drink, products like Scotch whisky, for instance. From other sectors, vehicles, especially cars, also come to mind. Such products serve both the domestic market, and also perform well in diverse export markets. This country also has a strong tradition of exporting some very high value-added services such as banking, insurance, and other financial services. Often forgotten in such a list, but hugely important nowadays, is higher education.

We don't usually think of higher education as something that is internationally traded, but of course it is. It takes places in three ways: (1) the overseas students come to study at the UK university; (2) students study at a UK university via distance learning (sometimes with some local support for their studies, sometimes not); and (3) the UK university sets up a branch campus at a carefully selected overseas location, and actually delivers the education there, mostly using local staff. The latter model normally awards degrees of the 'home' institution, so an important aspect of making the model work successfully has to do with the monitoring and control of the quality of education provided at the overseas campus.

My own university, Heriot-Watt (based on the edge of Edinburgh) does all three of these things, and takes great pride in its strong international profile. Developing this profile is a deliberate part of the institution's academic strategy, and rightly so given all the pressures and constraints that nowadays face higher education institutions operating in the home market. Building a presence in other markets, provided it is done well, helps to make an institution more robust - financially and academically - in the face of these pressures.

However, expanding overseas also poses some challenges. For instance, to build teaching capacity in an overseas campus we need to employ good teachers, and are likely to expect them to carry quite heavy teaching loads. At the same time, while the teaching function is not to be neglected on the 'home' campus, there will typically be more pressure there for academic staff to be research active (for REF reasons, among others). So there can easily be some conflict between what we expect of academics at home, and what we expect of our academic staff working on an overseas campus. At times this can prove a difficult balance to get right.

For some years now, my university has had a small campus out in Dubai, part of DIAC - Dubai International Academic City, where we have delivered a variety of courses to over 1500 students. This week, though, First Minister Alex Salmond was out in Dubai with our Principal to open our new expanded facility out there, a £35 million development that will enable us to handle up to 4500 students on an expanded range of degree programmes. All the signs are that demand for places is already very buoyant, so if all goes well we should build up to full capacity operation in just two to three years, making us a key player in the United Arab Emirates. For the University, this is a really exciting development, building on years of solid experience in the region. As the Principal, Professor Steve Chapman, said at the launch:

“As Scotland’s international university, the official opening of our new state-of-the-art, eco-friendly Campus, built in partnership with Eikon International and offering world class facilities, demonstrates our ambition and continued vision for providing high quality and relevant Scottish Higher education in the region.”

What more can I say, except to wish this new development every success!