'Followership' is the thing

August 19, 2010

Dai Hounsell (Letters, 12 August) is quite right to take Paul Ramsden to task for allowing readers to form the impression that he was solely responsible for discovering the student experience in the 1990s ("No thinkable alternative", 5 August). In fact, it was first detected by Marton and Saljo in Sweden during the 1970s, though its existence in British samples was confirmed during the 1990s. Certainly Ramsden, Hounsell et al were among the first to commercially and professionally exploit this discovery, but they are perhaps better compared with Rupert Murdoch than John Logie Baird.

Ramsden's current prescription for high-quality teaching (ibid) is "spirited leadership free from bossy interference", an idea he explored at greater length in his 1998 book, Learning to Lead in Higher Education. But leadership is only half the equation: how often are our leaders in higher education hamstrung by academic subordinates quite unable to control their propensity to cavil, carp and criticise whenever new initiatives are tabled?

The problem, surely, is that "followership" capabilities are so underdeveloped in the academic workforce. I wonder whether Ramsden and Hounsell ought to think about encouraging the addition of a module or two in followership (or, more formally, "policy-neutral commitment to superiors") to the staff-development courses they have done so much to promote? Only when academic leaders are supported by properly trained follower constituencies will we really see what our vice-chancellors and deans are capable of.

Roger Lindsay, Cognitive Evaluation Cumbria.

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