Interview with Louise Richardson

by reestheskin on 17/01/2016

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Interview with Louise Richardson, in the Guardian. She says some interesting things.

“I think the vice-chancellor or president of any university learns very quickly that if you say ‘March!’ people ask ‘Why?’ and I think that’s part of why it makes them wonderful places to be, full of dynamic, critical people,” 

Richardson, who is Irish, took her first degree at Trinity in Dublin, but has spent most of her career in the US in first rate institutions, institutions which function very differently from most UK research intensive universities. Her quote does not reflect the direction of travel for most UK universities, and it will be interesting to examine how such factors will act over time as a magnet for the best staff. Reminds me of Larry Lessig’s comments:

The best example of this, I am sure many of you know are familiar with this, is the tyranny of counting in the British educational system for academics, where everything is a function of how many pages you produce that get published by journals. So your whole scholarship is around this metric which is about counting something which is relatively easy to count. All of us have the sense that this can’t be right. That can’t be the way to think about what is contributing to good scholarship.

I would like to be more optimistic or confident on this point, but people considering an academic career in the UK need to understand that corporatism has come at the expense of any community of scholars — and that many of these scholars have students’ interests at heart more than their corporate bosses. I hope we see some genuine competition between institutions in this respect. (Some similar words come from the Nobel Laureate, Brian Schmidt, who has taken over at the ANU, in Canberra). One of the biggest losers in this creeping pseudo-corporatism, have been undergraduate students.

Richardson, also makes some points about how — in comparison with Harvard at least — little attention it paid to selecting students via the the Ucas system.

“Harvard has a very sophisticated admissions process for identifying talent. Under the Ucas system students write 500 words describing themselves. In the American system they write essay after essay about themselves, and there are whole ranges of things they can submit. The process is very different. “I accept all the advantages of the Ucas system, the ease of going through it, reducing the real disincentives in applying to a university that requires half a dozen essays and so on. But we don’t get enough information to make the kind of sophisticated decisions one would like.

I have little first hand experience of medical student selection, but I wonder if there are parallels with the dismal methods used in postgraduate medicine, whereby any sense of judgment is drowned by pseudoscience HR considerations; and a lack of insight, because all information is being compressed to comply with tick boxes. For medical school, we need to think ‘ecology’ and take risks: we are not producing widgets. If you are serious about broadening access — in a meaningful way — you will need to invest more.

And, not surprisingly:

And, strangely, the fact there are no fees in Scotland has not meant that there’s a higher proportion of deprived kids attending university than in England,” she says.

There is a phrase (or a mixture of phrases) that I think Jacob Browowski used. Twentieth century physics was one of the crowning cultural achievements of humanity and much of it was made by the sons of illiterate cobblers. Great strides in the ascent of man are often made by ‘outliers’, and such people do not tend to cluster in any particular social strata. If universities exist to nurture talent rather than act as a system to rank people or as certification factories, they have to find it as well.