Do v-cs have lifelong habit?

January 7, 2000

Christine King is vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University. When not engaged in the duties that entails, she writes about Elvis Presley and Nazi Germany, studies garden design and yearns to take a course in advanced motoring.

Professor King also spends much time talking up the importance of lifelong learning, but when it comes to actually pursuing such outside interests, is she in a minority?

"We all preach it, but how many of us practise it?" asks Roger Brown, director of Southampton Institute.

For heads of institutions, lifelong learning tends to take three forms. They need to keep up with developments in higher education, with new approaches to management, even accountancy. They need to keep up with their own academic fields. And they may choose to study something completely unrelated to their professional disciplines.

"Most of the lifelong learning I do in relation to higher education involves going to conferences and seminars," says Leeds Metropolitan University vice-chancellor Leslie Wagner, although he has also spent 20 years on the Council for Research into Higher Education. "Over that time I have developed the council and myself," he says.

"I still write, research and publish," says Professor King. "But since I have become a vice-chancellor, this has been more about communicating issues at a broader level."

Professor King has been involved in the establishment of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. "I have written a lot of material for them and have found the experience fascinating."

She has also extended her research from medieval English pilgrimages to modern-day secular saints such as Elvis and Princess Diana. "I write academic papers on Elvis Presley, but I also talk to the fans a lot. They know so much detail - such as when he lost a toe-nail."

Professor King is also keen to "go back to school and do all the things that I was never any good at". For this reason she has taken up painting. "I just splash paint around. It is more therapy than anything else," she says. She keeps up her German by reading women's magazines and plans to learn Italian and take a course in advanced motoring. "That is another challenge I am quite scared of," she says.

Alan Wilson, vice-chancellor of Leeds University, says his academic studies now have to be squeezed into train journeys and early-morning study sessions. Despite these restrictions, he has still managed to maintain his reputation as an academic geographer - his book Complex Spacial Systems: Modelling Foundations of Urban and Regional Analysis is published this month.

But he laments that the pressure of his job means that he has little time for more "exotic hobbies".

Professor Wagner studies the ancient Jewish texts of the Talmud, taking one formal class a week. His interest stems from the religious classes he attended growing up in Manchester.

His most recent discussions have focused on a text that advises those gathering eggs to send the mother bird away first. "We have discussed the ethical issues in such texts and the attitude to nature expressed," he says.

David Fussey, vice-chancellor of Greenwich University, says many of his private interests, such as architecture and IT, overlap with his professional ones. "One of the wonderful things about working in universities is that simply to have meaningful conversations with colleagues can be a form of lifelong learning," he says.

So do vice-chancellors practise what they preach? "I must go now, I need to order a CD for my Open University course on music theory," says a hurried Dr Brown. "It's a very basic course," he adds modestly.

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