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The assumption in the media that a small number of people need the ‘best’ education, in order to be lawyers and doctors and politicians is misguided.
Shân Wareing

Outrageous Ambition?

The Leadership Foundation’s Professor Bob Thackwray in conversation with Professor Shân Wareing, PVC learning and teaching at Buckinghamshire New University.

When talking to Professor Shân Wareing, one is struck by her enthusiasm for higher education per se, the position of women in higher education and Buckinghamshire New University and its future ambitions in particular.

Her journey to her current post is eclectic to say the least: ‘I have been in most of the corners of higher education’, beginning at Somerville College Oxford, studying English Literature, followed by a PhD in Linguistics at Strathclyde. She has worked in several countries including England, Scotland, Wales, the USA, Spain, Japan, Germany and the Republic of Georgia. This broad international experience is matched by her wide coverage of UK higher education: Roehampton, the Institute of Education, Kingston, Newport, Royal Holloway and the University of the Arts (UAL) before joining Buckinghamshire New University in November 2012. Interestingly, she singles out UAL as being ‘really different’, staffed mainly by creative practitioners who are ‘doing intelligent things in other modes of thinking and communicating, exploring ideas and seeing conventional objects and ideas in ways that are often challenging and exciting. If you have come out of a text-based tradition, like me, it can be quite disconcerting’. However, there is a much higher regard for visual literacy there, something Shân contends would benefit the rest of the sector, because of its universality, immediacy and visceral power.

At a ‘Through the Glass Ceiling’ conference in 1997, Shân recalls the Leadership Foundation’s Professor Robin Middlehurst recognising a factor in her career success as having changed jobs relatively frequently. Shân’s own career has included multiple changes of discipline, role and location, including some moves for family reasons. Not until quite recently was long-term career focus a significant motivator, although she can remember clearly thinking from the age of 30 that she aspired to a role in university senior management. She is particularly keen to stress the value and benefits experienced from ‘moving around a lot’, arguing that the real benefit of moving between disciplines and roles – and to working comfortably in them - is seeing things through different eyes, including those of an academic, an educational developer, a tutor in English as a foreign language and study skills, dyslexia support, and a staff member in a university library, all communities with really different cultures. So not having linear career direction has been an advantage, ‘and it helps if you like change and challenge’.

She recalls hearing Professor David Watson remark that complexity and dispute were defining attributes of university cultures, and that ‘a university that is easy to manage is not a university’. There’s a huge liberation in accepting that, and recognising that paradox is sometimes something to live with, not necessarily resolve.

Shân also observes that taking calculated risks is essential to getting anything of value done, and this takes a kind of confidence which she suggests comes from not caring too much about the salary, and knowing you can do another job if needs be.

‘Being able to judge and sift information rapidly is also essential. One of the advantages of working across many areas is that you become familiar with their different discourses. Being a leader at a senior level you need to be able to make judgements about the value of what you’re being told with speed. You often need to make quick – and good – decisions based on a fairly small amount of information. And don’t forget that universities are complex organisations and complex decisions need to be made, and gut instinct sometimes serves better than extended analytical processes that respect the details but lose sight of the most important things.’

Shân is passionate about the position of women in higher education. Her academic background includes gender studies, and her PhD was on gendered styles of communication. Although most of her advice is generic with reference to gender, there are some aspects that apply in particular to women. She suggests that women are still passed over for promotion and opportunities in situations where a man would not be, for all sorts of reasons. While the work context presents obstacles to women’s success, there are some changes which can be achieved by one’s own approach. One example is being aware of gendered communication patterns, and the way women’s statements can meet with a different interpretation from men’s, and being prepared to be versatile and try different ways of expressing yourself till you find a way which is comfortable, ‘sounds like you’ and also achieves the effect you want. Another is exploiting the opportunities universities can provide for flexible working to put in the hours the job requires, here, there and everywhere around the demands of family life. ‘I am very lucky in having a VC who knows I will put in the hours, but that flexibility allows me to combine a senior role with having three young children. I have always supported flexible working for all my teams (men as well as women), and have been rewarded for this with excellent, committed, hardworking colleagues’.

Shân has a clear view of her institution: ‘Buckinghamshire New University is great: friendly, dynamic and committed to improving the futures of our students and the professions our graduates enter’. So what is special or different about her role at Buckinghamshire New University? Shân says it provides an excellent chance to do things differently. The University is not held back by a weight of tradition that stops it thinking about how it wants to be in the future. She is keen to highlight a range of issues brought into focus by a recent Observer editorial about admissions policies that played less than fair to a significant part of the sector, including Bucks New. The media tends to express a ‘monolithic view’ about which are the ‘best universities’; and that view is matched by a narrow view of what constitutes intelligence, ignoring the roles of factors such as empathy and self-knowledge, resilience and hard work in success. League tables, she contends, are fundamentally biased; they allow key performance indicators to cluster so as to reinforce such elements as research income, a high student entry tariff and a high spend on resources. She argues that there are many aspects of what may come across as intelligence that are not fixed – confidence, skills, motivation can all be improved by education. It is important to have universities like Bucks New that are of and for their region and cater for people that do not want to leave their area, and may well be doing a degree alongside a job.

As a throwaway remark she suggests that universities like this won’t be replaced by MOOCs! ‘A student coming to Bucks benefits in multiple ways that MOOCs wouldn’t provide, from a friendly supportive community, an active and very highly regarded Students’ Union, a wide variety of links with local employers which are embedded in the curriculum and also accessed through volunteering opportunities, and hands-on practice developed alongside professionals which is so important for careers in areas such as nursing (a field in which Bucks is a recognised leader in London and South East). The assumption in the media that a small number of people need the ‘best’ education, in order to be lawyers and doctors and politicians is misguided. Society also needs well educated nurses, police officers, graphic designers, and computer technologists, graduates with the skills and attributes to take leadership roles in these professions in due course, and indeed, well-educated citizens’.

So what is the ‘outrageous ambition’ that Bucks New has? It plans to be identified as the provider of first choice in ‘every area we choose to specialise in, in the next ten years’. Outrageous? Definitely not.

Professor Bob Thackwray is the Leadership Foundation’s director of membership.

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