The Diamond Legacy
With a successor announced we take a look back at the last eight years under Professor Sir Ian Diamond
by Susan Dunham
I began research for this piece back in August 2017 when Professor Sir Ian Diamond first announced his retirement as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, however, I soon decided to put the project on hold after some advice from a senior member of staff. They explained to me that inherent problems would arise with attempting to realise a ‘legacy’ before a successor had been selected. Often the process of appointing a new Principal is a lengthy one, which sees the former principal continuing to work far beyond the announcement of their retirement. A legacy is all about timing, and it doesn’t pay to fire prematurely. In quite simple terms - don’t write the obituary before the body has been buried.
Now, almost a year on, a successor had been selected and so we are given the opportunity to reflect of what were the Diamond years of our University; eight years of mild yet forgettable discontent. As a statistician, Diamond’s approach to University management has always seemed to follow one constant trend – the need for efficiency. As Chair of the Universities UK Group on Efficiency, Diamond has led on two efficiency reviews and has been a regular contributor to the Efficiency Exchange website, writing articles based on report findings that promote the ‘national success story’ of UUK. Far beyond being a buzzword, ‘efficiency’ appears to be Diamond’s mantra. In February 2015, Diamond authored the article, ‘Efficiency, effectiveness and value for money – a new agenda for higher education’ in which he identifies “that every pound invested in higher education is a sound investment”. He asserts that in order to maintain our international standing and stay financially sustainable amidst a growing competitive market, we must promote the efficient use of resources through austerity. Shrewd future investment is key if shareholders expect to see a fair return. Ultimately, according to the Diamond theory, a University must prioritise the aim to “[deliver] efficiency and value for money”.
The question remains, however – is this efficiency and value to the benefit of students and staff, or does it benefit shareholders, investors, and senior management figures? To understand this, we must separate Diamond as the theorist from the Principal in order to realise his legacy. Do his promises of total efficiency and value for money truly deliver when put into practice? When Diamond took the position in April 2010 Aberdeen was #149 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings whereas now, despite a significant climb of almost 20 places in the UK ranking system, we sit at #185 globally. If our international standing is so crucial to the future of our University, the numbers are not on our side. However, statistics can certainly be deceptive and there are undoubtedly countless factors which have weighed into how these tables are constructed.
When Diamond took the position in April 2010 Aberdeen was #149 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings whereas now, despite a significant climb of almost 20 places in the UK ranking system, we sit at #185 globally.
Upon the announcement of his retirement, the University provided their own legacy of the Diamond years, highlighting some of his most ‘transformational changes’. Roughly half of these changes are the opening of various buildings – the aquatics centre (2014), the Rocking Horse nursery (2016), the new Rowlett Institute research facilities (2017) and of course the Sir Duncan Rice library (2012). Besides these construction projects, most of the other details remain fairly vague, the likes of ‘improving performance’ and ‘celebrating the co-curriculum’. The only points which really stand out in this brief overview refer to the University’s internationalism agenda, something which Diamond has championed over the course of his written works and conference presentations.
While there is undoubtedly a need in higher education today to internationalise, it is difficult to say whether Diamond’s agenda was truly for the betterment of the University or rather acted as vanity projects. Just because we could establish new partnerships and construct new campuses, does that necessarily mean we were in the financial position to do so? Most notable is the debacle surrounding the proposed South Korean campus in Hadong, initially devised in 2013 to provide specialist courses in oil and gas. However, due to severely reduced demand, the University changed the focus to renewable energy engineering, causing major delays and provoking threats of legal action from local government officials hoping to recoup money already invested in the failing project. This does not fall in line with the austere approach to investment and financial sustainability that Diamond mentioned in his published work.
However, not all international exploits have fallen flat. Despite its controversial inception, the Qatar campus is now the first UK University to offer mainstream degrees in business management, accounting and finance in the state, with the intentions of widening to other disciplines as demand grows. The development of international projects and partnerships seems to have been crucial, not just for Diamond, but also to the University as a whole. In a meeting of the Court in December 2017, amidst discussing the appointment of a new principal, they highlighted the importance of “enhancing the University’s internationalisation agenda including international partnerships and the TNE”. The internationalisation agenda has been central to the last few years, and it is a similar story with many UK universities, as they build up their international reputations in a game of brinkmanship. However, while international reach is at the forefront, interest in the Aberdeen campus on a micro level seems to have a lesser priority.
However, while international reach is at the forefront, interest in the Aberdeen campus on a micro level seems to have a lesser priority.
Some minor controversy sparked last year when Diamond was revealed to be one of the highest earning Principal in the UK, and second in Scotland, gaining an increase of 11% to his income taking it up to £352,000, with accommodation provided by the University. In response to the media coverage of this revelation, a University spokeswoman said his salary “is determined by an annual appraisal of performance”. Appraisals, progress reports and austere investment appear to be defining features of the Diamond years. However, many staff and students at the University were outraged when comparing the annual income of the Principal to the average salary of staff, recent redundancies, the cost of accommodation prices and the lack of funding the University is putting into disused campus sites. Seemingly unfair or poorly judged practice again found itself justified by statistics.
Ultimately, Diamond’s obsession with statistics has created a profound disillusionment where abstract and occasionally arbitrary rates of ‘efficiency’ and ‘value for money’ have superseded the reality of running a successful University on the micro level. This, however, is inevitable. With Diamond’s heavy involvement at Efficiency conferences, writing up UUK progress reports and breaking down statistics, a gulf between statistics and on-campus realities will emerge. This distance justifies the decisions, for better or worse, which have been made during the last eight years. However, as a consequence of this, we are left now with a sense of uncertainty as to how far we have come, where we are and where we are going. While enormous international and business projects and partnerships are being planned many individuals find themselves alienated by the current management system. Ultimately, besides the reports and conference talks, Ian Diamond’s legacy will be a library that was named after his predecessor.