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.