A busy week in Aberdeen
MY EDUCATION WEEK: FERDINAND VON PRONDZYNSKI,principal of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland.
The day begins at 7am, before breakfast, with a telephone call involving participants from Australia and California, to discuss an idea that might lead to an international conference. It’s 4pm in Australia, and 11pm on the previous day in California. The Australian is bright and breezy, the rest of us less so. Then off with the dog for a little walk, before arriving in the office at 8.15am. The week has begun.
Much of my Monday is spent planning for the rest of the week but this lunchtime I am doing a talk at RGU’s chaplaincy centre, on religion in a secular world.
In the afternoon I happen to look at my diary for this day in 2010, and notice that it was the last occasion on which, as president of DCU, I had a meeting with the HEA to discuss the university’s budget. Actually, in March or April, when in DCU, I’d be discussing the budget for the year more than half-way through. In Scotland, I already pretty much know my budget for the next two years, as the Scottish government has indicated its spending plans that far ahead.
Note to the Irish authorities: you cannot run a successful university if you are unable to do forward financial planning.
In the afternoon I meet my local counterpart, the principal of the University of Aberdeen. We are involved in discussions about establishing a partnership in a number of subject areas where we think we’ll be stronger together. We’re not looking at merger, but we believe that collaboration is the key to success.
In the evening I attend an exhibition of work by two local artists. Heather (my wife) accompanies me, and we agree that the abstract art by one of them in particular is rather attractive.
I’ve been in Scotland for a year, and bit by bit I am visiting and getting to know the other universities. Today I drive to Dundee, about 65 miles from Aberdeen, to visit the two local institutions. One is the University of Dundee, which used to be part of St Andrews University but has been independent since 1967. Its principal, Pete Downes, is about to be the convener of Universities Scotland – in other words, he will chair the body that represents the collective interests of the university sector.
I meet Pete in his office, and then visit some of the university’s academic units, including its arts school and life sciences research group. Then on to Abertay University, which has been going through some rough times recently and which was told by the government to consider merging with its neighbour. Neither university wanted that, so they’re still moving along separately.
Amazingly, I have the evening off – the only free evening in the space of two weeks. What do I do? Heather has flown off to Dublin to teach in Trinity College, so I cook myself a snack and settle down with my iPad to read a book.
Today is the first anniversary of my taking up the post of principal of RGU. Todays big event is an initial visit by the team who are conducting a quality review of RGU this year (under the aegis of the Quality Assurance Agency). This is a fact-finding visit that will allow them to plan the actual review visit more fully. This is the second time in three years I am experiencing this: during my last year as president of DCU we also had an institutional quality review. Are these processes useful? I feel that the most beneficial part, almost, is the drawing up of the self-assessment report, which if done honestly can be a great guide to planning and renewal. I am also still a director of the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB), and attended a board meeting in Dublin recently, and I am most sceptical about the planned merger of the IUQB into the not very memorably named Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland (QQAI). University quality assurance is a totally different activity from further education accreditation, and yet all these are now being lumped together. I wish them well of course, but . . .
Over lunch I meet the general manager for the UK and Ireland of a very major multinational company that is interested in a partnership with RGU, involving both teaching and research. It’s a really good conversation, and I am hopeful that well make this work.
And this evening’s event? Actually, this is fun: once a month I have an informal meeting with a small group of staff (all of whom volunteered) to kick around certain ideas for the university and to look at things that might be bothering people. It’s all off the record, but is a great way for me to hear about opportunities and threats and to tackle both.
My board of governors (the governing authority) meets, and this rather dominates the day. Some of the morning is spent reading through the papers for the meeting and getting a couple of briefings, but I find time to meet a team from Ghana television, who are doing a programme on RGU because a young woman from there has got a scholarship to study with us. The very charming and witty presenter of the programme invites me to “address the Ghanaian nation”. The board meeting itself is stimulating and wholly constructive. This is the second university in which I have worked closely with a very supportive but also gently challenging board.
As I leave the building I bump into a group of students who, coincidentally, are all Irish. Recognising the accent I stop and we chat briefly about Ireland’s chances for the European Cup. RGU has quite a few Irish students, and I am reaching out to these. I may try to organise some Irish events.
In the evening I have dinner with a colleague to discuss his vision for his area of the university. We have chosen an excellent Turkish bistro. Aberdeen is great for eating out.
This is my day for catching up with people and things. The day is full of short meetings with various individuals and groups who want to brief me about what they are doing and get my support, or from whom I want information of one kind or another. The usefulness of these encounters will depend on how good I am at writing notes on each of them, so that I dont forget the follow-up.
And in the evening there’s yet more art: I am opening an exhibition by a former RGU lecturer, the late artist Sylvia Wishart. Until recently I knew little about her, but I have been learning fast and have discovered that I really like her work, much of which was painted in Orkney. A series of paintings featuring a ship wreckage I find particularly striking.
So how would I describe my week overall? In my view, to be an effective university head you need to be a “people person”. The fuel of our institutions is ideas and creativity, but these are nurtured through contact, discussion and collaboration. I really cannot be successful in what I do unless I hear from staff and students (and external stakeholders) and understand their aspirations and fears. Thats what my week – every week – is about.
This week I was...
Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter: the subject of our next book group discussion.
I don’t have time for much television, but right now I am addicted to the US series Homeland.
Alternating this week between Mumford & Sons, and concertos by Shostakovich.