'All should be welcome' on higher rungs of the ladder

Procedures must change to improve women’s options, says Brunel’s new head. Jack Grove writes

November 1, 2012

The few: Julia Buckingham is one of only 17 women leading UK universities

Universities should change their promotion procedures to ensure that more women are considered for the sector’s top jobs, the new vice-chancellor of Brunel University has argued.

Julia Buckingham, who has taken over from Chris Jenks to lead the university in Uxbridge, west London, said the lack of female vice-chancellors and professors was partly because they were less likely than men to apply for senior positions.

Professor Buckingham is one of only 17 female leaders at the UK’s 115 universities, according to Universities UK. And only 20 per cent of professors are women, according to figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency in January.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Professor Buckingham said that universities should re-examine their selection rules to make sure they did not overlook outstanding female candidates within their own institutions.

“There should be a process where all CVs are looked at,” she said. “Once women put themselves forward, they tend to compare very favourably.”

Professor Buckingham, a former professor of pharmacology at Imperial College London and latterly pro-rector for education and academic affairs at the institution, also called for more support for women trying to balance a research career and family life.

She said that women often found it hard to resume research after a break from academia. “It is much easier to put teaching on hold,” she argued.

“We need to look at flexible working and allowing women to come back part-time.

“Often, the most difficult times are school holidays when childcare is more difficult, so we need to look at creative ways to support people.”

However, she believes the gender imbalance at the top of the sector is already starting to shift as more women are attending university than when she was an undergraduate at the University of Sheffield in the 1970s.

“If you look at the demographics, there were relatively few women at university when I was a student,” she said. “In my class of 30, only five or six students were female. We also had a women’s tutor, and mine was one of the first mixed halls of residence. Mixed halls are fairly normal now.”

It was, in fact, a young female scientist who inspired Professor Buckingham to choose a career in science, studying zoology at Sheffield before taking a PhD in pharmacology at the University of London.

“I was thinking about studying music, but I was taught by a young graduate from the University of Exeter,” she said. “She was absolutely switched on to her research, and that enthusiasm pushed me towards science.”

Ever since, Professor Buckingham has been a champion of research-led education.

Despite Brunel’s relatively small life sciences department, she is keen to expand the university’s research portfolio, including its partnerships with overseas institutions.

She is also intent on developing students’ presentation and communication skills in their first years of study, in preparation for the graduate job market.

She talks passionately about the Imperial Horizons scheme at her former university, which offers an optional two hours of activities a week to broaden students’ learning and improve graduate skills. She hopes to introduce something similar at Brunel.

“The £9,000 fees have really focused the minds of students and parents about where their degrees will take them,” she said.


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