Higher education and academic migration

Professor Alfred Baird of Edinburgh Napier University is probably not a happy man. His university has just announced the appointment of Professor Andrea Nolan as its new Principal and Vice-Chancellor (and I wish her very well). Professor Nolan has been employed by the University of Glasgow since 1989, but before that she worked in England, Germany and Ireland. She is herself Irish, and she now becomes the second current Scottish Principal (along with me) who is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin. All very good, you will undoubtedly think. But Professor Baird will not, because he has been arguing that ‘Scottish higher education is dominated by university leaders who are not born here’. In an article he wrote on the topic he continued:

‘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? 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.’

He went on to suggest that more generally Scottish academics were being outnumbered in Scotland’s universities by academic immigrants, suggesting that these migrants were doing work not sufficiently relevant to the country.

Of course I must declare an interest, being myself a German-Irish immigrant leading one of Scotland’s universities. But is Professor Baird right? Is it legitimate for a country to expect, maybe insist, that its academic leadership is indigenous? This, it should be remembered, is a question being asked of a profession that has, in many countries, strongly internationalised. And the question can also be asked in a different way, picking up one of Professor Baird’s themes: should universities reflect the ethos and needs of their host country?

Actually, these two questions are different. Many universities see themselves as international institutions, but they also recognise the strong responsibility they have to their own country and its priorities, and indeed to their region. What this requires of a university leader is to respect the country’s needs, while also reaching out to the international community of learning. But doing that does not particularly require them to have been born there.

The world that universities need to address is a globalised one, and they need to be equipped to make that work for them. This does not require that they be led by expatriates, but equally it does not suggest that there should be an expectation that university heads be locally born and bred. As for me, I see myself as leading a Scottish university, rooted in its country, but reaching out to the world.

Back in Ireland in 1977, the then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) suggested in a famous political speech that some political commentators who had come from England were ‘blow-ins’ who could ‘blow up or blow out’. He lost the election later that year. In the end, a mature society in a country at ease with itself learns to respect the contributions of those who have come to make their home there.

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7 Comments on “Higher education and academic migration”

  1. V.H Says:

    In the main I agree. But I think there are two points that my tack is different. I don’t think it’s a university’s job to treat with a country’s priorities except in very narrow ways. Cultural ways. You need Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Breton and Galician statuary professors in literature, language and history. Other than those, the business of the university is to prepare for the future, every possible future, while preserving the knowledge that came down to us. To me that is antagonistic to the intent of the general politician who wants to provide for today’s needs or those contained in the very short term duration of one parliament.
    As to ’77, you don’t think there is a déjà vu feel. I really miss Frank Hall. But there is no way he could survive in RTE these days.

  2. no-name Says:

    One might argue that any university department that favors its own graduates as new academic hires is engaged nepotistic self-enfeeblement, and one might carry this argument to the top of the university as well, pointing out the benefits of international outlook to academic creation and curation of knowledge at both levels of university life. Preferring hires from the same nation is another flavor of preferring an institution’s own graduates. However, why stop there? Do not the same internationalizing arguments have compelling force with reference to running a government as they have in relation to governing a university?


  3. Professor Baird’s quote starts with “If Scots did so much to invent this and that and the next thing…” well, I’m sorry Professor Baird, but that is delivery. The cold hard fact is that sometimes those who are best at delivering or inventing can be the worst at management.

    There is a particular skills set that is needed to lead a university and it is naive at best for any academics to think their talent gives them that skills set. Furthermore, how many would aspire to lead a university if they fully understood the magnitude of the task at hand?

    Finally, there’s a strategic question which all recruiters of leaders will consider: if you have someone who creates considerable value, do you want him behind a desk managing his colleagues and stopping him from creating that value? Would the benefits outweigh the (financial and non-financial) costs?

  4. Al Says:

    It must border on greatness to see ones own struggles as part of greater events.
    I wish the learned professor well….

  5. Anna Notaro Says:

    *He went on to suggest that more generally Scottish academics were being outnumbered in Scotland’s universities by academic immigrants, suggesting that these migrants were doing work not sufficiently relevant to the country.*

    Yes, he suggested that, but it’s interesting to note that instead of ‘outnumbered’ what he said exactly is ‘Scotland’s universities have been virtually overrun, *swamped*’ by foreign academics. These are strong words that in the general public might cause some degree of ill conceived alarm, evoking the sort of anti-immigrant rhetoric that unfortunately is spreading like an infectious disease south of the border and across the rest of Europe as well – and for which no financial crisis can serve as a justification.
    Also, in Scotland there are other considerations at play which have to do with the independence referendum of 2014 and the question of a Scottish national identity now at the center of public debate. I trust that Scottish nationalism is more mature than the occasional tirade of one particular academic whose research interests, as it happens, are not exclusively confined to the Scottish context, if one considers his, I trust very interesting, publication: ‘Case Studies on Motorways of the Sea in Spain’ and who has been the successful recipient (together with a *foreign* colleague) of EU funding. (http://www.tri.napier.ac.uk/c/people/peopleid/171)

  6. Eddie Says:

    Professor Steven Schwartz and Brunel University where he was a VC for a short period of just over 3 years comes to mind. I would not even whisper his name in the premises of Brunel University even today. Well, VC’s like Professor Schwartz tend to cultivate friendship of politicians, in his case, Tony Blair. Such VCs are here today and gone tomorrow.


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