Representatives of a long-past era?

For those readers not already familiar with him, let me introduce Professor Trevor McMillan. Professor McMillan is the Vice-Chancellor of Keele University, which he has led since 2015. But my interest in him here is prompted by his role as ‘framework champion’ of the soon-to-be introduced Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) and as chair of the Framework Steering Group.

The Knowledge Exchange Framework is the latest UK government initiative to assess quality in core university activities, following the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). KEF will attempt to measure the performance of universities in their technology transfer activities.

As KEF is about the relationship between higher education and industry, it is important to have a sense of how the KEF champion sees university performance in this field. He is, one might say, not wholly complimentary about the sector, of which he is himself an important leader. So, he recently made the following comment at a conference:

‘Fundamentally we have a medieval structure that sits within most of our universities based on disciplines that are quite frankly irrelevant to the vast majority of organisations that want to work with us.’

He subsequently suggested that this irrelevance applied to university structures rather than disciplines, which doesn’t really follow from the syntax of the comment. But that aside, is Professor McMillan right to suggest that universities look irrelevant to partner organisations? Or perhaps more significantly, should he, as champion of KEF, be suggesting to the stakeholders of the higher education sector that its institutions cannot relate to them?

There is, as I have suggested frequently in this blog, a need to promote differentiation and diversity within higher education, and it may well be that some universities are better than others at interacting with industry and other sectors. It may also be true that knowledge exchange has not yet reached optimum levels in the UK. It is possible that KEF will throw all this into relief. However, it would be preferable for Professor McMillan to act as cheerleader for the sector in public, while helping to correct what it is not doing well in private.

In fact many universities have excellent knowledge exchange records. Their successes should be used to prompt and encourage others. I am not however persuaded that suggesting to businesses that universities are no good at interacting with them will support continuing improvement in this important higher education activity..

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3 Comments on “Representatives of a long-past era?”

  1. iainmacl Says:

    It’s depressing to see this obsession with measurement extending into every aspect of university work. Not because there’s anything wrong with accountability, but because it leads to distortions of effort and indeed huge costs in terms of time, effort, and resources simply to be able to meet reporting requirements. At the level of the individual academic, it also adds to pressures to perform, and personal stress levels that really isn’t sustainable.

    Of course, the irony is- and I’m aware of how this argument has been used somewhat arrogantly by institutions in the past – that you’d think the private sector would want to learn the secrets of corporate longevity from institutions that are ‘medieval’. 😉 But then, business in the UK is often focused on short-term returns, perhaps.

    • Vince Says:

      Why they survived is simple enough. They drew their income primarily from land that they couldn’t sell. So if they had one group of idiots admining the place, or even 200 years worth of fools the place would still run.

  2. Vince Says:

    Me, I think the university is being asked to do things that are largely contradictory by narrow focussed indentured servants.
    There is no real living on a lower wage. Most city lecturers are living in tiny shoe boxes on the far outskirts or in mulit-living accommodation akin to first year undergrads, albeit with a few less to a bedroom and possibly less muck. They are expected to deliver the admin and teaching for most if not all undergrad contact while living under a publish or die from their departments.
    They aren’t really in the uni, and aren’t treated as being out either.

    Then you have the general treatment of the undergrad cohort, or perhaps nowadays better to say the students not in research. These people are processed like herring then packed in a barrel and sent to some company that their degree was cookie-cut to fulfil their needs without one ounce of thought how they were going to survive when that industry falls by the weg.

    On the whole I think he’s asking the wrong questions. He needs to look at places that are really working and analyse why. Places like Harvard work, but they can be said to work only because there are many hundreds to take the less then the top .5%. Ditto Oxbridge.
    The governance should be held to a charter and then left the hell alone. The pensions should be removed from the control of the civil service. And politicians with agendas, looking for cheap labour, or generally tinkering should be told to -well you get the phrase-. But every 20 years the admin should be examined on their track record.
    If they are going to be aping a church structure then the ad limina seems a great notion.


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