From 007 to Registrar

A distinctive new approach to the campus novel

Unlikely as it may seem this brief book offers the most exciting representation of a Registrar since Lucky Jim. Set in a real university (York) but with fictional (we hope) characters there is plenty to enjoy here:

The present and past lives of James Kerr, university senior manager and former intelligence officer, collide in this campus-based thriller. He is drawn inexorably into the world of international espionage and geo-politics while simultaneously trying to cope with a home-grown crisis. Set in Beirut, York, London and Brussels, the story draws on the spy-writing tradition of Ian Fleming, John le Carré and Charles Cumming.

It’s good fun, it’s short and dead cheap and the proceeds go to student causes (I am advised by the author) so why not give it a go? You can buy it via the Kindle Store.

I have to say I really did like it but then every Registrar likes to imagine themselves in this kind of role sometimes…

The best book ever written about university life?

Cornford’s Microcosmographia Academica

A reminder about or introduction to a brief and essential piece of reading for everyone working in higher education.


The almost timeless (well, apart from the fact it only features blokes and has an ever so slightly Oxbridge feel) Microcosmographia Academica is of course the essential text for all those with a keen interest in academic politics and university management.

Read it. Now. You know it makes sense.


The Great Brain Race by Ben Wildavsky


I read this some months ago but, inexplicably, failed to note the fact. Wildavsky is a clear, cogent and persuasive writer. He provides a good review of the global higher education picture and many of the key issues facing nations and universities.

There is, unsurprisingly, plenty of coverage of league table matters and he helpfully provides a handy, and surprisingly long, list of countries which have league tables. Noting the general biases in international tables he highlights a number of additional models – PISA, OECD, AHELO etc – as well as alternative subject-based approaches.

Further topicality comes from his damning indictment of visa restrictions and their consequences. Wildavsky mounts a welcome and powerful argument for free trade in ideas, scholars and HE and therefore against the constraint of movement of academic staff and students (as sadly we are experiencing in the UK at present). It’s a cogent and compelling line.

So, overall, a thoroughly readable and engaging text. My main criticism would be though that lots of this is rather US-oriented, and the NYU material and Sexton discussion is largely prospective. The author seems too willing to accept as yet unrealised institutional plans for international growth at face value rather than looking in detail at what some institutions, for example the University of Nottingham in China and Malaysia and other UK and Australian universities, have successfully achieved in Asia.

Scandals of Higher Education

Is this the future for UK HE?
Scandals of Higher Education – The New York Review of Books

A really interesting and hard-hitting review article from the New York Review of Books of a set of recent publications on US higher education. Two fundamental questions here: what is higher education actually for? And who is it for?

As Harvard’s former dean Harry Lewis sums up the matter:

Universities affect horror when students attend college in the hope of becoming financially successful, but they offer students neither a coherent view of the point of college education nor any guidance on how they might discover for themselves some larger purpose in life.

It is certainly a good thing that fresh attention is being paid in books such as Bowen’s, Golden’s, and Michaels’s to the question of whom education is for. But there remains the fundamental question of what it is for and what it should consist of. One way to bring these questions together would be to ask how well our colleges reflect our best democratic traditions, in which individuals are not assessed by any group affiliation but are treated, regardless of their origins, as independent beings capable of responsible freedom. Opening wider the admissions doors is a necessary step toward furthering that end, but it is by no means a sufficient one. Colleges will fulfill their responsibilities only when they confront the question of what students should learn—a question that most administrators, compilers of rank lists, and authors of books on higher education prefer to avoid.

Challenging stuff.

Faddish behaviour…

Management Fads in Higher Education: Where They Come From, What They Do, Why They Fail by Robert Birnbaum


This is just an outstanding book. Although the focus is on the USA, the messages are eminently translatable to the UK context. Birnbaum carefully analyses and deconstructs the big management fads to have hit US universities including:

    Management by objectives
    Zero-based budgeting
    Strategic planning
    Business process re-engineering.

The reasons behind the popularity of each and the vulnerability of institutions and managers to their charms are also explored at length.

Despite the fact that he demonstrates their failures in the USA on all terms, Birnbaum concludes, surprisingly perhaps, that their introduction in a controlled and measured way can have positive benefits in forcing managers to think differently about the way in which they tackle big challenges. The conclusion of the book includes a strong exhortation to a humane and pragmatic approach to management in universities. Such an approach he argues, whilst not easily seduced by fads such as these, is capable of positive adaptation to changing environments.