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Academia: the beautiful game ?

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By Rob Cuthbert

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

(Bill Shankly, former manager of Liverpool Football Club)

The SRHE 2018 Research Conference in December was full of academics with a passion which Bill Shankly would have recognised. Perhaps not all the kind of people who would have taken their partner on a birthday outing to see Rochdale reserves on a rainy weekday evening, but certainly many of the kind of people who went home from the conference for a Christmas they would fill with reading, writing and reviewing. Academia and football are both common pursuits worldwide; can we make something of the parallels?

 SRHE Fellow Malcolm Tight (Lancaster) wrote ‘Do League Tables Contribute to the Development of a Quality Culture? Football and Higher Education Compared’, published in SRHE’s journal Higher Education Quarterly just after the 2002[1] SRHE Conference in Glasgow, a football-mad city. Newport, hosting the 2018 conference, was also about to become football-mad as lowly Newport County overcame recent Premier League champions Leicester City in the third round of the FA Cup [more on league tables from Ellen Hazelkorn at Conference 2018].

 Is academia a beautiful game?

  • Football has two separate competitions, league and cup[2], and suffers a supposed lack of respect for the cup, where the very best teams regularly field reserves and may suffer upsets, as at Newport. Higher education has two separate activities, teaching and research, and suffers a supposed lack of respect for teaching, where the very best universities regularly field graduate students and part-timers, and may suffer upsets in TEF [more on how research universities operate from Marek Kwiek at Conference 2018].
  • In football, the Premiership counts for most in reputation and earns the most money. Top teams are always looking for ways to increase their share of the money and fame even more. In higher education, research counts for most in reputation and earns the most money. Top universities are always looking for ways to increase their share of the money and fame even more [more on reputation from Vikki Boliver at Conference 2018].
  • Football struggles with the tension between achieving inclusive mass participation and elite excellence, ruthlessly exploits or discards most of its players to protect a pampered elite, and hires a high proportion of overseas players. Is higher education different? Discuss, bearing in mind the 2018 SRHE Conference theme: ‘Can excellence and inclusion cohabit?’.
  • Football in the UK has a well-publicised problem with progression for black and minority ethnic participants to senior roles, although BAME players are disproportionately represented and often well-rewarded. Higher education is quite different; it has a well-publicised problem with progression for BAME participants- students and staff – at every level after admission as students, not just for senior roles [more on racism, inclusion and white privilege from Kalwant Bhopal at Conference 2018].
  • Football managers have to face the press after every match, suffer endless public speculation about whether their jobs are safe, and get asked if they ‘have lost the dressing room’. They are well-paid, even if mostly they don’t earn as much as the top players. University managers don’t have to face the press after every decision, don’t suffer endless public speculation about whether their jobs are safe, and if they ‘lose the staffroom’ (metaphorically speaking – most universities abolished staffrooms years ago) they’re more likely to change the staff. They are well-paid, almost invariably earning more than the top players.
  • The best players don’t necessarily make the best football managers, but former average players asked to ‘show us your medals’ will have to work hard to overcome players’ scepticism. The best academics don’t necessarily make the best university leaders, but former average academics asked to ‘show us your publications’ will have to work hard to overcome the temptation to resort to staff disciplinary procedures [more on neoliberalism and performativity from Louise Morley at Conference 2018].

 It is often suggested that leadership and management development in HE would benefit from the insights of sports coaches and managers. Just before the 2018 Conference started, Matthew Syed in The Times (26 November 2018) wrote about the secret of Pep Guardiola’s success as manager of title-winning Manchester City FC: “Guardiola’s trick has been to measure his players not just on how well they perform, but also on how well they raise the performance of their team-mates.” That sounds like it would translate well, and David Dunbar (independent) asked ‘Can university senior managers take lessons from sports coaching?’ in Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education in November 2018, noting similarities starting with the observation that athletes and academics both exhibit an inner drive to excel. What works in sport:

  • encourage improvement on an individual basis, remark on successes and skills and embolden teamwork, thus making people ‘feel skilled and valued’
  • encourage effort and reward that effort by the coach
  • focus training on ‘factors that influence enjoyment levels’
  • give constructive and focused feedback
  • encourage teamwork and a good relationship between managers and players

What doesn’t work:

  • allow players to be perceived as or feel incompetent
  • encourage players to compete against each other
  • punish them for mistakes and reward for outperforming others in the same team
  • reinforcement and attention provided as a function of ability level
  • an ethos of ‘winning is everything’
  • excessive use by the coach ‘of personal authority and independence in decision-making’ and ‘overt control and criticism’

It looks as if there is room for improvement in how HE policies and some institutional managers treat their colleagues. A literature review of leadership development (LD) in HE (in Higher Education Quarterly, 6 December 2018), led by big hitters Sue Dopson (Oxford) and Ewan Ferlie (King’s College London), said: “Our results suggest the current literature is small‐scale, fragmented and often theoretically weak, with many different and coexisting models, approaches and methods, and little consensus on what may be suitable and effective in the Higher Education context. We reflect on this state of play and develop a novel theoretical approach for designing LD activity in Higher Education institutions.”

So more research is needed. And more teaching. And better policy, leadership and management. Then academia could be a beautiful game.

[1] HEQ says ‘first published 16 December 2002’ but also lists the article in Vol 54(1), 2000.

[2] Alright then, a proliferation of cups, partly to entertain lower league clubs, a bit like annual awards ceremonies in HE

SRHE News Editor:  Professor Rob Cuthbert  

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

One thought on “Academia: the beautiful game ?

  1. Reblogged this on Digital learning PD Dr Ann Lawless and commented:
    comparing the leagues – academia and football and team play as well!

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