Conduct: becoming

As a long career closes, Steven Schwartz is eager to discover what lies ahead

October 25, 2012

A few months ago, I decided to hang up my academic robes and retire. A few days later, a well-known professor rushed over to me as I was walking across campus.

“I just heard about your retirement,” she said. “This is terrible news; I’m so upset.”

I told her not to worry. “The university council will search far and wide, and I’m sure they will find a terrific person to be vice-chancellor.”

“Oh sure,” she replied, “that’s what they said last time.”

I wasn’t hurt. I am used to academic ways because I have spent my life in universities. I started my bachelor’s degree 49 years ago, when I was 16, and never left. Recently, however, I started hearing the celestial clockwork ticking in the background and my biblical allotment of three score and ten years began looming closer. I realised that if there is anything else I want to do in life, I had better start right away. As Seneca advised a close friend, procrastination is a “foolish forgetfulness of mortality”.

Wise mentors told me I needed a retirement plan, so I cribbed one from old King Lear, who just wanted to “pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh … and hear poor rogues talk of court news … who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out … “

As you know, this plan didn’t work out for Lear, and my mentors said it wouldn’t suit me either. They think I will “go crazy” without important work to do. So, instead of praying, singing and telling old tales, I am polishing up my CV using one of those automatic CV generators. All I have to do is fill in the blanks, and the software does the rest. Sounds easy, but I am stuck. I haven’t progressed past the first blank, which asks: “What is your career objective?” Given my stage of life, I think the best answer is “not applicable”.

As you get older, W.H. Auden said, you should “Let your last thinks all be thanks”. When it comes to universities, I agree. I was the first in my family to go to university, and every opportunity I ever had in life came from education. Universities exist to change lives; they certainly changed mine. So, whatever I wind up doing with the rest of my life, I hope it involves universities. I would sorely miss the institution that has been my home for so many years. Fortunately, I won’t be leaving universities just yet. I will spend next Hilary term at Oxford, where I have been given the opportunity to lecture in my area of expertise. Thank goodness I still a few months to figure out just what that might be.

My wife (a proud Highland lass) and I will be happy to be in the UK for longer than a brief family visit. It will give me a chance to learn how much the higher education landscape has changed in the 10 years since I became vice-chancellor of Brunel University. In those halcyon days, there were no top-up tuition fees, no Office for Fair Access, no Office of the Independent Adjudicator, no Leadership Foundation and no Times Higher Education World University Rankings. I will look forward to seeing the vital contribution each has doubtless made to the cause of higher education.

As everyone knows, technology has exploded in the past decade. In 2002, there were no Moocs, no Facebook, no iPhones or iPads. As The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman observed, 10 years ago Twitter was still a sound, the cloud was in the sky, 4G was a parking space, LinkedIn was a prison, applications were what you sent to university and Skype was a typo. I have no crystal ball, but one would have to be pretty complacent to ignore the potential for new technology to “disrupt” higher education. I will be eager to learn how UK universities are adapting to the massively connected, intricately wired world.

While I am peering into the future, I think I am on safe ground predicting that government planners will continue trying to force the world to conform to their wishes. The avalanche of unintended consequences set off by the tuition-fee fiasco of the past few years will not shake what Friedrich Hayek called the “fatal conceit” of government planners. So look out for continued tinkering.

It is also certain that short-term political advantage will continue to trump even deeply held ideology. In 2004, when Labour was trying to convince voters that university students should pay at least some of their own way, the Conservative Party abandoned every principle it held dear and offered students a free lunch. Further U-turns lie ahead.

Finally, I think we can be certain that English universities will continue to base their admissions offers on notoriously unreliable predictions of A-level performance rather than students’ final marks. Despite this year’s massive overestimate of A-level results, which forced even prestigious universities to scrounge around for students, no argument will overcome the reluctance of admissions staff to work in the summer.

Government tinkering, technological change, political perfidy, a silly admissions system - all these and more will keep the next generation of university managers on their toes. I wish them well. As for my work, I will let T.S. Eliot have the final word: “For what is done, not to be done again. May the judgement not be too heavy upon us.”

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