Alumni, not v-cs, ‘are best advocates for universities’

Higher education institutions urged to change tactics when lobbying for extra funding

September 10, 2019
Dawn Freshwater speaks at the THE World Academic Summit
Source: Andreas Eggenberger / ETH Zurich
Dawn Freshwater speaks at the THE World Academic Summit

University alumni are better placed than vice-chancellors to make the case for more spending on research and higher education, a sector leader has argued.

Speaking at Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit, Dawn Freshwater, vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia and chair of the Group of Eight, which represents research-intensive universities in Australia, said institutions should enlist graduates to champion their work to politicians and government ministers if they wanted to secure more funding.

Professor Freshwater told fellow leaders on a 13-strong panel representing some of the world’s top research-intensive universities and higher education alliances that vice-chancellors “are not the best people to tell [our] story, and should not be the only people telling [our] story”.

“We need other people to be our advocates and ambassadors for our work,” explained Professor Freshwater, who said that new voices were needed to communicate with “populist politicians [who] are listening to the heartbeat of public opinion, which is not always based on fact”.

University presidents were increasingly skilled in giving “eight-second elevator pitches” to politicians about their vital research role, but “we need other people to do that for us”, Professor Freshwater told the event, hosted by ETH Zurich.

Brian Schmidt, vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, agreed that universities should use graduates – described as “our greatest exports” – in their lobbying efforts because they can often “distil the complexity” of what universities do.

“So we need [students] to understand more what universities do as they will become our ambassadors,” said Professor Schmidt, a Nobel prizewinning astrophysicist, who added that that PhDs and postdocs “who have had nine years to deal with the complexity” of universities’ missions could be particularly effective advocates.

Gilles Patry, executive director of U15, which represents Canada’s research universities, said universities had sometimes fared badly when seeking more public funding because they conveyed a “sense of entitlement”.

“We do not have much problem convincing the minister of science, but when we go to the minister for finance, there is a long line of people coming before us,” Professor Patry said.

“We have to be more convincing and avoid a sense of entitlement which frustrates government.”

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, said a “change of strategy” was required when dealing with national governments, suggesting that an approach based on “return on investment and numbers of jobs created” would be more effective with finance ministers.

The failure to engage with finance ministers was illustrated by the fact that none of the 28 European Union states had put forward a candidate to lead the bloc’s research and innovation portfolio, which may have a budget of up to €130 billion (£116 billion) between 2021 and 2027, he said.

“Our primary target must be ministers of finance, and we should use the language they understand,” said Professor Deketelaere, who said it was vital to show that “research and innovation are the future of our continent”.

Sir Anton Muscatelli, vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow and chair of the Russell Group, said universities should not neglect the wider public communication of their work and, more specifically, should be clearer about how local communities benefit from their many roles as “anchor institutions”.

“Our universities are responsible for a large amount of healthcare advances…so if we [at Glasgow] have been at the forefront of cancer research, we should say how this has translated in our local areas,” Sir Anton said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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