After serving 14 years as president of the Republic of Ireland, one could be excused for wishing to take a step back from public life.
However, just a year after stepping down as head of state, Mary McAleese has returned to public service as the chair of a new European Commission inquiry into higher education.
Over the next three years, the 61-year-old - who has been a law professor and a journalist as well as Ireland’s president - will, as part of the High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education, examine three areas of the academy.
First, the group will explore how to improve university teaching. Next it will study digital learning, and in the third year it is likely to look at lifelong learning, creativity in universities or student entrepreneurialism.
Ms McAleese will convene forums in Brussels and in Rome, where she is now based, to hear evidence of good practice in universities that could be adopted at higher education institutions across Europe.
Having served as pro vice-chancellor with responsibility for teaching and quality assurance at Queen’s University Belfast, Ms McAleese will understand exactly how difficult it is to tell academics to change their teaching methods - let alone entire universities or national higher education systems.
Nonetheless, she believes that her inquiry role, which is unpaid, can make a difference by championing the innovative and exciting teaching methods that are found across the European Union’s member states.
“It is not about scolding each other or saying, ‘You aren’t doing things right’,” Ms McAleese told Times Higher Education. “Neither is it about producing a prescriptive set of ordinances or commands …
“What we hope is to present a story about the importance of good teaching practices that is so compelling that universities will not be able to ignore it.”
At heart, she said, the inquiry wanted to discover how to make all the EU’s universities “passionate” about teaching. “Of course, many universities already are, but there is a lot more to be done at many institutions. We are hoping to push teaching and learning higher up the policy agenda. It is disappointing that - at a national level - there are no big policies to improve (them).”
Incentives for new ways
Ms McAleese is also keen to see how the EU’s own education spending - which could be about £1.8 billion a year from 2014 depending on the outcome of budget talks under way now - could encourage teaching innovation.
“We will be looking at where money is currently spent and how it could be used to incentivise good teaching,” she said.
“But we also want to be in a position to say, ‘These are the … things to invest in that could really galvanise a culture that encourages good learning opportunities.’”
Underlining the importance of such efforts, she noted that tertiary education would be one of the “main engines” driving Europe’s future. “Europe is going through a crisis, but I believe that the infrastructure at (the EU’s) heart is very robust. Its fundamental treaties are showing themselves to be capable of surviving the toughest of tests.”
Ms McAleese said that the Erasmus student exchange programme, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, showed the EU at its best.
“I wish it [had been] around when I was a student,” she said. “I have met the most fabulous students who have taken part in Erasmus. It has given them the opportunity to learn languages, experience new cultures and make new friends, as well as look at their own country differently.”
After almost 15 years away from university life, it is obvious that Ms McAleese is relishing her return to the sector - although she is quick to point out she has never really left higher education.
She is currently pursuing a licentiate degree in canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and Ms McAleese said that she has remained a student in some form throughout most of her professional career.
“I’ve always had something else on the go that puts me under a bit of pressure,” she said.
“At Trinity College Dublin (where she was a professor of criminal law), I got very into my Irish-language studies. At Queen’s it was Spanish. And, during the presidency, I did some research into canon law.
“Higher education provides so many opportunities for professional growth, but also for a life lived at a more full and active level.”