Universities have faced an onslaught of criticism this summer, from outrage over the “greed” of vice-chancellors to claims that tuition fees are “blighting young people’s futures”. The fallout saw Labour MP Darren Jones resign from an advisory board at the University of Bath over revelations about its vice-chancellor’s 11% pay rise. Last week, it culminated in a speech from Alistair Jarvis, the new chief executive of Universities UK, the representative body for vice-chancellors, in which he denounced critics of universities as people pushing “misinformation, muddled argument and even a little malicious intent”.
With a fresh academic year looming, we sought expert advice for university leaders preparing to tackle whatever the new term throws at them. From facing media scrutiny to ensuring your institution isn’t funding climate change, here’s what the professionals recommend.
How to deal with the press: ‘be ready for media scrutiny’
Media expert Sarah Dickinson, author and founder of media training consultancy Electric Airwaves
Vice-chancellors are really in the hot seat at the moment, mainly because there’s been controversy about what they earn, so all vice-chancellors need to be as ready as they can for what I believe to be legitimate media scrutiny.
When you come face-to-face with a journalist your brain forgets all the positive things you’ve been doing and the negative things come to the forefront. Always carry a mental suitcase of the positive things you have initiated at your university. For instance, it might be that through your work and that of your colleagues you have been able to establish a fund to build a new technology wing.
Have the confidence to use the personal pronoun. It has much more resonance if anyone in a position of authority can say: “If you want to know personally what I think…”. That way, your arguments will come across much more passionately.
Make sure you constantly update your views on current controversial issues, from why the finances of the Universities Superannuation Scheme have deteriorated, to historic statues such as Cecil Rhodes, to LGBT rights.
As long as you follow these very basic rules, you should always be able to treat interviews as an opportunity, not a threat.
How to dress well without costing the earth: ‘spend on bespoke’
Eco-fashion expert, journalist and TV presenter Lucy Siegle
When people become conscious of being singled out as over-paid, the danger is they virtue signal by wearing low-cost fast fashion. I see this a lot with celebrities trying to say “I’m one of you”. It succeeds only in bolstering the false idea that fast fashion is in someway democratic. It’s not. It’s a destroyer of the environment and creates obscene wealth in terms of fast fashion moguls.
The best thing well-remunerated people can do is spend outside of this system and make it count. I’m a big fan of bespoke garments, especially suiting in good fabrics – you can find out a lot about mills and production these days.
We have a really healthy sustainable fashion ecosystem in the UK right now. For occasion wear, I think Kitty Ferreira is unbeatable. We also have a mainstream ethical hit on our hand through longstanding eco-shoe brand Po-Zu. I think the People Tree ethical collection with the V&A is a winner for female vice-chancellors.
Not everyone will feel comfortable increasing their fashion budget, but there are brands that address part of the puzzle. Ex-teacher Sarah Jerath established her own brand, Two For Joy, where you can find out exactly where the cost of the clothes is being distributed. Increasingly we are seeing a lot of UK students doing practical fashion courses and learning to cut and sew. Wouldn’t it be great if vice-chancellors could wear students’ creations?
How to invest wisely: ‘use your power to avoid climate change’
Divestment expert Chris Saltmarsh, fossil free campaigns coordinator at People & Planet
Higher education institutions have committed to remove more than £80bn of investments out of oil, coal and gas companies globally. The UK higher education sector is leading the way, with institutions accounting for nearly half of over 100 universities worldwide that have made pledges. To date, a third of universities have made a fossil fuel divestment pledge of some kind.
As the academic year resumes and vice-chancellors mull over how they can use their significant power to contribute to the challenge of avoiding catastrophic climate change, they can draw inspiration from this ever-growing divestment movement.
For divestment to be effective, vice-chancellors must ensure three things. Firstly, their commitments must be made public to help build the movement against fossil fuel companies. Secondly, their commitments must be full – the divestment must encompass all fossil fuels and fossil fuel companies. Finally, their commitments must be time-bound so students and staff know when they plan to move their money by – usually within one to three years – and can hold them accountable.
If a university has already made a divestment commitment, there is still a lot to be done. People & Planet’s Divest Barclays campaign, for example, encourages universities to boycott Barclays until the bank stops financing fossil fuel projects, this could be by removing a Barclays branch from campus, switching the university’s bank account provider or excluding them from careers and recruitment fairs.
How to nurture innovative thinking: ‘involve everybody’
Tech and education expert Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE, CEO of Stemettes, a social enterprise working to inspire young women into Stem roles
Universities are typically set up along faculty or department lines. Students in those groups are kept within those groups. It’s important to create environments where people are able to talk across departments and disciplines in a way that leaves them rewarded for contributing to a higher-level discussion.
When I was at university there were physical spaces for people to come together to work, enabling that cross-pollination of ideas. Even if they’re not permanent spaces, the action of bringing people together to share thoughts and ideas can be invaluable. Innovation comes from environments where groupthink is not allowed to flourish.
Industry is a great driver for innovative thinking on campus. There’s talk among some of the university departments I’m involved with around tech hubs opening in or near universities, where you’re able to connect people – whether it’s PhD students or researchers – with industry, allowing those working at universities to experiment with their ideas.
It’s important to involve everybody. Innovative ideas and new perspectives can come from anywhere. Universities must not fall into old habits of following traditional academic hierarchies. Whether it’s new academic staff or new students coming in, getting them involved can be invaluable because there will be things they are able to look at with fresh eyes.
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