The lesson of hardship: focus on what matters - the people nearest

Crisis has taught one v-c to prize civic engagement above academic reputation, Hannah Fearn hears

May 12, 2011

In the wake of the recession and the Browne Review, there has been a chorus of concern about UK vice-chancellors' lack of experience of dealing with crisis.

Chris Brink, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, has highlighted the fact that many sector leaders have known only fair economic weather in their roles.

"The tables have turned fairly abruptly, but not many higher education leaders in this country have had personal experience of difficult economic times," he said.

As a veteran of South African higher education at a time of almost unprecedented upheaval, however, Professor Brink does not count himself among that crowd.

The big questions

"At the University of Cape Town in the 1990s, the financial pressures were enormous. It gives you a bit more perspective," he told Times Higher Education.

Professor Brink said the lessons he learned then were highly relevant to his current role in Newcastle, a city grappling with economic decline and rising unemployment.

"There are two fundamental questions about the university's work. The standard question is: 'Is it good?' There's a lot of time and effort spent chasing the answer to that - evaluating publications, citations and esteem indicators.

"The other question, which is only now beginning to take shape, is: 'What is it good for? What difference does it make?'"

Professor Brink argued that universities in the UK should be as strongly "integrated into civil society" as those in South Africa.

As a professor of mathematics at Cape Town, he experienced at first hand higher education's involvement in the creation of a post-apartheid nation.

"It always surprises people when I say this, but mathematics was a hugely political subject. In the decades of apartheid, the notion of Bantu education (for black children) was education for people who were not supposed to go into professional disciplines and leadership positions," he said.

"Mathematics has always been a gatekeeper for entry into engineering, accountancy, science and all sorts of things, so it was one of the key subjects for the change around 1994."

He contrasted this with the UK, where years of political stability and financial security had made universities lazy, succumbing to a "temptation not to bother" with civic engagement.

Also contributing to this failure to look outside the academy was a generation of leaders who believed that the pursuit of academic excellence was the be-all and end-all of a university, he added.

"There is a whole host of decision-makers in higher education who are my age and my profile. They are male professors who grew up as academics in the 1970s and 1980s ... when the focus was just on doing good work, never mind where it fitted in. As long as you met the criteria of doing high-quality work, your part of the deal was done, as an individual or as an institution.

"If that's the (attitude of the) leadership cadre of the universities, it will be reflected in the way universities are operating."

What Professor Brink hopes to do at Newcastle is to build an institution that is just as relevant to its home town as the University of Cape Town was to its local community.

He is also drawing on his experience of working at the University of Wollongong in southeastern Australia, which is situated at the heart of a former steel manufacturing town.

The 'taxi-driver' test

The best way to place a university at the centre of civic life, Professor Brink said, was to apply its expertise to local problems.

Newcastle, for example, has pockets of population with the lowest life expectancy in England, but the university boasts a world-class centre for the study of ageing and health.

Sustainability is also a focus. The university has drilled a borehole in the centre of the city in an attempt to tap into a source of geothermal heat that could provide cheaper utilities for Tynesiders.

"This is a very good example of looking at what you've got and making use of it. It turns out that Newcastle sits on top of the 90 Fathom Fault. We are drilling 2km into the ground to find geothermal energy. If we find it, then we will practise what we preach," Professor Brink said.

As for measuring success, Professor Brink said he preferred the "taxi-driver test" to league tables or bureaucratic benchmarks.

"If you get off at the airport and take a taxi into town, when you say you are going to Newcastle University, the taxi driver will know what it does because they will have seen some effect. They will say something like, 'Oh they do that borehole. They're going to find us hot water to heat the city'."

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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