Interview with Shamit Saggar

The new chair of the Campaign for Social Science on ethnic minorities, the similarity between law and academia and universities swallowing the management textbook

October 5, 2017
Shamit Saggar

Shamit Saggar is associate pro vice-chancellor for research and professor of political science and public policy at the University of Essex. Between 2001 and 2003, he was senior adviser within the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit established by Tony Blair. He was appointed CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in June and became the new chair of the Campaign for Social Science on 1 October, 30 years to the day after he began his first job in academia as a lecturer at the University of Liverpool.

Where and when were you born?
Nairobi, Kenya, in 1963. Our family came to the UK five years later as part of the great exodus of Kenyan Asians.

How has this shaped you?
The immigrant experience really shaped me. We had to make it here as there was no going back and sliding down the ladder was unacceptable. So we strived and played by the rules that we thought underscored this country. The tragedy of losing our mother when I was just 10 taught me to be self-reliant at an early age, and not take things for granted. My father, who passed away last year, showed me that you can face your problems.

What will be your main priorities as the new chair of the Campaign for Social Science?
The campaign is an outstanding spin-off from the Academy of Social Sciences, and it has filled an important space in just six years. My priorities are threefold. First, I want to create and embed real champions for the social sciences among research users and practitioners: government, non-profits, commerce, the professions and cultural media are key sectors that I have my eye on. Second, we need to bring social leaders - deans, research directors, large grant-holders, research centre directors - into a close and sophisticated dialogue with research funders. Our new Strategic Leadership Forum is being launched this month and I am confident that it will attract influential figures to this dialogue. Third, I want the campaign to become a trusted voice addressing the really big problems. Our recent, well-received reports on Brexit, plus our work on the role of social sciences in tackling grand challenges, are good illustrations.

You have written about the glass ceiling for ethnic minorities in business and politics. What are your thoughts on the opportunities for ethnic minorities in higher education?
Minorities in higher education experience many of the same ethnic penalties that affect minorities in the professions and other sectors. The data show that they are under-promoted, politely standing behind a lot of mediocre individuals in top jobs. The scarcity of vice-chancellors of colour is a huge reputational dent on higher education. That said, we are headed for a tipping point before too long: many talented minorities are going to break through. Many are already succeeding and they will not be quiet if they are held back. Universities should try to get ahead of that curve because they will be caught flat-footed if they do not.

Your 2011 book Pariah Politics focuses on understanding and addressing religious extremism. What is the main takeaway message?
Western Muslim communities are facing a colossal reputational challenge, akin to the plight of Jews 100 years ago and Catholics centuries before. This is ill-deserved but it is also self-inflicted. The book is aimed mainly at Whitehall: the government’s approach should be to improve material opportunities so that today’s excluded groups become disproportionate winners. Muslims should take ownership of their reputational future, however difficult this may seem to some.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Big names in academia and public life can be intimidating. Don’t sweat, because you might know more than they do. Read widely as a way of getting ahead – and not only in your own area of expertise because, as I’ve learned, the best ideas cross over the narrow margins of our disciplines.

If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing?
I wanted to be a lawyer, although who knows if I would have cut it. Interestingly, academia and the law require somewhat similar forensic skills and the ability to reason things out. Years later, I got involved in legal regulation. The legal profession is made up of many, many very skilled and dedicated people, just like the academy. It works best when its members enjoy maximum autonomy, just like the academy. And, to be frank, it has to do more to balance that autonomy with accountability, just like the academy.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
Best: getting behind new ideas as a worker in the intellectual inquiry business. For example, what lies behind political socialisation and behaviour is a fast-moving question that I love to keep up with. Worst: processes and practices that echo from the most mind-numbing chapters of modern management. Quite a lot of universities have swallowed the management textbook whole, and are experiencing indigestion. They should be selecting the best bits that taste great because they are suited to what higher education is about.

If you were universities minister for a day, what policy would you introduce?
I would mandate all universities to introduce a first-year core course across all degree programmes. This would be whatever they felt was most relevant and appealing to young minds in the main fields of inquiry. And then I would encourage (perhaps even richly incentivise) them to teach and borrow across institutional lines so that students would see their course delivered through real collaboration. And to cap this already over-elaborate policy, I would hand out prizes (public citations should do) to the best.

Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
Ideas and practical action matters; carrying people with you matters more.

What would you like to be remembered for?
First, for pushing away at the frontiers of knowledge and coming up with one or two things that were not known previously. Second, for being good to my dog, Tedvinder.


Noel Wilkin has been named the new provost and executive vice-chancellor at the University of Mississippi. He has been interim provost since January 2017. Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said that Professor Wilkin would “continue the University of Mississippi’s outstanding history of strong and effective leadership”. “In his 20-plus years with ‘Ole Miss’, Noel has built a tremendous track record of success, excellence, collaboration and fostering energetic and innovative approaches,” said Professor Vitter. Educated at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Professor Wilkin has won more than $4 million (£3 million) in research funding and contributed to nearly 60 peer-reviewed papers or book chapters since he joined Mississippi’s pharmacy faculty in 1996. Talking about his new role, Professor Wilkin said that he felt “honoured” to have the opportunity to work with “well-qualified students and outstanding faculty and staff…[at] an amazing university”.

Chris Pyke is to lead Lancashire School of Business and Enterprise at the University of Central Lancashire. As dean of school – which follows the merging of Uclan’s schools of management and business – Professor Pyke will head an organisation with more than 100 academics, which performed strongly in the National Student Survey 2017. “I want to create a new school that is innovative and entrepreneurial, that delivers excellent business education programmes and supports local businesses,” said Professor Pyke, who has held senior roles at Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Chester and Liverpool John Moores University. 

Julie Lydon, vice-chancellor of the University of South Wales, has started her term as chair of Universities Wales. John Hughes, the vice-chancellor of Bangor University, is the new vice-chair.

Geoff Thompson, the former world heavyweight karate champion, is the new chair of governors at the University of East London.

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