Letters – 27 June 2019

June 27, 2019

A complete waste of top talent

As a one-time executive dean of a large faculty at an Australian university I find myself in furious agreement with Andrew Oswald (“Managing out the geniuses will end in dismal mediocrity”, Opinion, 20 June).

I came to the job from outside the university world and spent three years getting a grip on how it worked. What at first seemed unmanageable slowly began to make sense. What I couldn’t understand is why the best academics were put into management roles where their talents were sidelined, rather than being supported to devote their energies to what they did best and being rewarded for it.

Although I may have been part of the trend, I’m convinced that the corporatisation of universities, like the corporatisation of so much else in modern societies, is a slow burning disaster.

Via timeshighereducation.com


Andrew Oswald’s article is rather predicated on the idea that there is a vanishingly small pool of top talent, or indeed that ground-breaking ideas are all down to some innate personal genius – rather than these issues plus a broader combination of factors, such as a supportive and collaborative ecosystem of talented colleagues.

I’d argue that his premises are on shaky ground. Not everyone has to be brilliant at everything, granted, but we all know there are more PhDs coming through the system than there are academic posts.

My advice? If you want to get on, accept that the modern idea of an academic has evolved, and work at your weak areas. The time of universities having to pick the brilliant-but-flawed misanthrope researcher over an exceptional and rounded academic are largely gone, at least for the truly world-class universities.

Via timeshighereducation.com

Climate is complex

Peter Harper’s proposal for a “climate emergency” university curriculum (“HE must embrace technical solutions to climate change”, Opinion, 13 June) is a backward step for how climate change should be taught.

By teaching the need for “technological, top-down solutions” to climate change, Harper propagates the discredited one-eyed view that environmental problems can be fixed through technical solutions. This is antithetical to what a university-level climate change course should be teaching. There are already many established and well-rounded undergraduate and postgraduate taught climate change programmes that help students understand the human, cultural and ethical dilemmas revealed by climate change, as well as the possibilities and limitations of technical innovations.

Harper’s reactionary proposal would be a retrograde step for universities to take.

Mike Hulme
Professor of human geography, University of Cambridge

None of our business

The article “Instilling the right work ethics” (Features, 20 June) highlights how universities are being told to act more like businesses.

But would any other business accept being held responsible for a complex outcome that they have no real control over and involves innumerable other actors? Would a restaurant accept being held responsible for the health and obesity of a customer five years after they last ate there? If someone sells you a suit, are they responsible for whether the interview goes well and you get the job?

In both cases, the business product or service may help or hinder the outcome, but it is far from being the only factor.

Via timeshighereducation.com

Community is key

Thank you for once again endorsing the civic role of universities in their places in your editorial “A sense of place” (Leader, 20 June).

Last week’s issue also refers to the possible impact of the Augar review on the social sciences and humanities, and has a special feature on branch campuses. I would like to point out that Augar, like so much of UK higher education and research policy, is “place blind”. If its recommendations are implemented it could damage the very subjects that play a key role in civic engagement and supporting local communities. Possible institutional failures in the ongoing marketisation of higher education could require takeovers or mergers and in the process turn place-based “anchor institutions” into eternally controlled “domestic” branch campuses disconnected from their places.

John Goddard
Newcastle University and vice-chair of the Civic University Commission

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