Celebrity snares

November 1, 2002

Do universities risk becoming caught up in society's growing obsession with personality as they strive to appeal to a greater number of potential students? Caroline Davis reports.

Oxford historian and journalist A. J. P. Taylor was one of the first academics to be dubbed a "media don". As early as 1957 he was giving television lectures live and unscripted. He wrote profusely in the national press and was well known for his very public disputes. But the one great regret of his life was that Oxford University did not appoint him regius professor. He blamed this on the jealousy of other academics, who criticised him for bringing academia into disrepute with his high-profile spats.

In today's celebrity-driven world, where being famous is many young people's ambition, attitudes to academics with a high media profile are different. Prominent scientists and historians front documentaries, arts dons discuss the latest film and television releases, bookshops are full of popular science books written by academics.

Far from being frowned on, many institutions encourage academics to court the media. Mathematician Ian Stewart, for example, has a contract with Warwick University that allows him to concentrate solely on research and writing his science books.

The pressures on universities from expansion, the widening-participation agenda and dwindling applications for subjects such as mathematics and sciences are forcing them to think of new ways to reach out to potential students.

But does the cult of celebrity help or hinder the academic process and is there likely to be more emphasis on it as universities open up to the market?

Buckingham, the UK's only private university, may be a harbinger of things to come. It has recently appointed a slew of high-profile staff to its new school of education, including former schools inspector Chris Woodhead and philosophers Roger Scruton and Antony O'Hear, to create a niche for itself in the education market.

The university's vice-chancellor, Terence O'Keeley, points out that none of them is a celebrity in the mould of TV historian Simon Schama. Rather, their high profile has been generated through public criticism of their political views. Even so, he believes it will serve to attract a certain kind of student. "Chris Woodhead was hired as part of a campaign to attract students. His celebrity is very important," says Keeley, but "celebrity cuts both ways."

Tony Gardiner, reader in mathematics and mathematics education at Birmingham University, agrees. "Celebrity is fine as long as it inspires people to work. The spirit of the age is the quick fix. It suggests you can get round the hard work. The culture of personality encourages people to think that success comes cheap - that it's genetic. But the greatest discoveries of science have often been driven by previous failure. Failure rankles and drives you on. But the culture of celebrity says, 'it's easy'."

It's not only TV dons who Gardiner believes are damaging student expectations of what university requires. Popular science books are also a danger. "Since 1994, there's been a plethora of interest in mathematics and science. The switch to easy, sexy, attractive science has gone hand-in-hand with the collapse in the physical sciences at university and A level. That can't be an accident."

However, Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Reading University, says it should be part of an academic's job to relate research to the public. He first came to public attention after his claims that robots would take over the world in 50 years' time. He went on to implant a microchip in his arm and hit the headlines after the murders of Soham schoolgirls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, when he suggested that children be similarly "tagged".

He has drawn criticism from colleagues who say he is a self-publicist and that what he presents to the public is not good science. But he says:

"Celebrity can give the impression that you are not at the cutting edge - you're on TV, not in the lab. But I probably work an 80-hour week to fit it all in."

He adds that he has "academic qualifications ad nauseam " and a strong publication record.

Despite the criticism, Warwick seems to be attracting students to Reading. Bucking the trend for most science departments, Warwick's department has increased its A-level offers but still applications are rising. "What I've done is put the name of the university in newspapers and on TV," he says.

The downside is that Warwick claims it has become harder for him to win peer-reviewed research funding. He blames this on professional jealousy. Despite this, he says that he has attracted £2 million in funding over the past two years.

John McGarvey, vice-president for communications at Reading student union, agrees that Warwick's celebrity has pulled in students. "It does reflect well on the university to have academics who are public figures - providing what they are saying is good. But it can reflect badly," he says, giving the tracking chips as a possible example. He adds: "I'd worry if students chose Reading on the strength of Kevin Warwick alone."

Geoffrey Beattie, Manchester University's head of psychology, is probably best known to his students as the Big Brother psychologist. Although he and co-psychologist Peter Collett of Oxford University were accused of professional misconduct for taking part in "a crass and exploitative gimmick" - the British Psychological Society did not uphold the complaint - Beattie says taking part in the programme has had many positive outcomes. It has contributed to his research - he has written 13 related papers and is working on an book based on it - and has led to the BPS considering a code of ethical conduct for members dealing with the media.

Beattie adds that applications for psychology at Manchester are up as a result and the university has encouraged his involvement for this reason. Beattie says that TV appearances by academics can be a powerful tool for widening participation. "I'm a working-class lad from Belfast," he says. "I use television to say to people, 'not all professors look the same'." Also, Big Brother did not interfere with his academic schedule since his work was done at weekends.

But Lord Winston, professor of fertility studies at Imperial College, London, and star of the Human Instinct series, says his TV work and his duties in the House of Lords dilute his time and that, although he has published 14 peer-reviewed papers over the past couple of years, his research has suffered. He gets about 20 calls a day from the press. "I have to be very careful about time management," he says. "My biggest problem is journalists. People come to me as a resource on reproductive medicine. But I suppose it is an important part of my role.

"I'm very careful what I do. I get offered a lot of television, for example, Celebrity Big Brother , but I think that's crossing the line. I've often been offered advertising, too. I'm interested in communicating science to non-scientists. People sometimes see me as a celebrity. But I think scientists have a duty (to cross over). We're living in a science and technology-driven society and it is important that members of the public don't feel alienated."

He doubts, though, that he has contributed to Imperial's undergraduate supply, suggesting: "I think people apply to Imperial because it is the best science university in the country."

Many science bodies would go along with Winston's views on communicating science. In this respect, courting celebrity has become an important tool. For the Royal Institution, "one of the aims of its Christmas lecture series is to increase the pool of celebrity scientists", according to Gail Cardew, head of programmes. RI president Baroness Greenfield, for example, was virtually unknown outside pharmacology before her 1994 lectures.

Pursuing the celebrity theme, the RI this year launched its equivalent of Popstars . Previously, institution officials would select the Christmas lecturers. This year, academics were invited to send in home videos. The RI and Channel 4 executives whittled down 25 shortlisted hopefuls to Tony Ryan, a chemist from Sheffield University.

But cultivating stars may have a downside for university finances. In the US, where differential pay is the norm, high-profile academics can earn big money on the academic transfer market. Although some UK universities already offer lucrative contracts to star academics in a bid to lure students, pay is generally constrained by national scales. This may change, however, as competition for big names increases.

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