Beyond the boundaries

Institutions will not get the best employees if limits regarding language or nationality are imposed, argues Ryszard Piotrowicz

February 10, 2011

Credit: Liam Derbyshire

Maurice Johnston played football in Glasgow for both Celtic and Rangers. April McMahon was, at the end of January, appointed the next vice-chancellor of Aberystwyth University. And the two have something in common - apart from being Scots - that is significant, primarily for Aberystwyth but also for higher education in the UK as a whole: what they are not. One was not a Protestant, the other is not a Welsh speaker.

When Mo Johnston joined Rangers, the move was reviled by Rangers fans and west-of-Scotland bigots not only because he had previously played for Celtic but because he was a Roman Catholic. In fact he was (erroneously) considered to be the first Catholic to have signed for Rangers, and the truth does not matter too much if it is going to get in the way of a bit of good old-fashioned bigotry. But it was seen as a bold, imaginative and even courageous signing by manager Graeme Souness.

That was 1989. In 2011, Aberystwyth University announced McMahon's appointment. It seems that the choice has been widely welcomed. It is bold, it is imaginative, but is it courageous? In a way it is.

McMahon is not a Welsh speaker. She appears to be the first non-Welsh-speaking chief executive at Aberystwyth ever, certainly in modern times. Until now it has been a criterion for appointment to the post that the successful candidate speak Welsh.

There have been some excellent vice-chancellors at Aberystwyth, but how can a university aiming to compete and thrive in the 21st century seriously achieve these objectives if it imposes a linguistic condition that excludes more than 99 per cent of potential candidates? When some mainland European universities offer entire degree courses in English, it is anachronistic, to say the least, to insist that the chief executive should come from a pool that is tiny. In the view of some, that policy pointed to real ambivalence about the institution's determination to develop.

Aberystwyth's previous policy of appointing only Welsh-speaking vice-chancellors has nothing to do with inherent prejudice; it was based on legitimate recognition of the place and role of the university in Wales and in the development of Welsh culture.

But times change: if the Roman Catholic Church could risk appointing a Polish chief executive in 1978, Rangers could sign a Catholic in 1989 and the US could manage to elect a black president in 2008 (and I appreciate that some of these events had greater international significance than others), surely Aberystwyth in 2011 could recognise that the institution might survive, and thrive, under a vice-chancellor from somewhere beyond Offa's Dyke?

But McMahon's appointment has much wider ramifications too. The main UK political parties all want to show how "tough" they are on immigration. The higher education sector stands to lose out greatly if caps on visas for non-European Union citizens are introduced as currently planned.

The UK government appears either to not understand, or at least to not care, about the importance of getting the best person for the job in higher education and research. People traditionally are appointed at UK universities because of their abilities, their knowledge and their skills; their passports cannot be the issue if the best are to be recruited. And with all those high fees, are students not entitled to demand the best possible - or instead will any old Brit do?

Aberystwyth has recognised that the institution is more likely to thrive if it has the best person to lead it, and that includes its role in the preservation and promotion of the Welsh language and culture.

At the national level, however, the government is threatening to regress - "British jobs for British workers", as Gordon Brown once said, blithely ignoring the fact that most of the foreign workers had the right to be here anyway.

In academia nothing could be worse than British jobs for British workers. We need foreign nurses and doctors because the health service cannot function without them. We need foreign academics because if we close our doors to them we risk seriously lowering standards.

In that sense, the appointment of McMahon, an outsider, is a move that should be recognised and followed by universities throughout the country, and they should be fighting the government's attempts to deny them that right.

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