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A conversation with Professor Cliff Allan

Andrea Collings

Andrea Collings

Sep 10, 2020


I had the pleasure of sitting down with Professor Cliff Allan, host of forthcoming webinar UK student help-seeking 2019 vs 2020: What will be COVID-19's impact upon study support this academic year and beyond? I wanted to find out more about what drew Cliff to specialising in higher education policy, the highlights of his career in academia and his thoughts on the role that universities and higher education institutions play in modern society.

Cliff_Allan_200x133Professor Cliff Allan was formerly Vice-Chancellor at Birmingham City University. He was a Board member of Universities UK and non-Executive Director of several regional and national bodies. Prior to BCU he held Deputy Vice-Chancellor positions at Sheffield Hallam and Teesside Universities respectively. Currently, Cliff pursues a range of advisory and consultancy interests in higher education in the UK and overseas.

To kick things off, I wanted to find out what initially drew Professor Allan to his field of specialism in education.
"Thinking back to what drew me to specialise in education policy, I started off with a focus on international relations and politics. That was my initial disciplinary area. It was driven at the time of increasing conflict in the world in the 1970s, and I was interested in what was behind some of the reasons for these conflicts. There were a lot of international organisations that were addressing some of that conflict, and that drove my interest in understanding how nations interacted with each other, what the international institutions were and how they tried to manage the international stability at the time. Subsequently, as I progressed through my early career in higher education, I became even more interested in the process of higher education policy."
The current discourse on the value delivered by higher education has revealed polarised views of the role of educational institutions today. What role should universities and higher education institutes play in modern society?

"I think universities have an incredibly important role to play because they're involved in helping shape people's lives. Many of those people graduating from universities will take on important, powerful and influential roles across society, so I think what they're doing is they're helping people to shape their futures. They're not directing people, they're just helping people to learn. I think the biggest influence universities can bring in is enabling people to continue with their learning, becoming lifelong learners who learn to adapt and change. We know that those who have had a higher education are likely to have better lifestyles in terms of their health, they're less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system, and they're much more likely to engage in society and play an important role." 

"We know that those who have had a higher education are likely to have better lifestyles in terms of their health, they're less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system, and they're much more likely to engage in society and play an important role".
I asked Professor Allan about his career in academia - has there been one highlight in particular?
"The best moment was when I became a deputy vice chancellor. I think the deputy vice chancellor role is particularly special because you work closely with a vice chancellor and also have a good portfolio of responsibilities as a deputy. You can make things happen and you're closer to the people who you work with. The danger of the vice chancellor role is it can make you slightly remote from some of the chalk face activity, but you are much closer to that as a deputy vice chancellor. I had many happy years operating as a deputy."
Outside of education, what other issues are you passionate about?
"I'm passionate about social justice and people having a degree of social mobility. Those are issues which I believe strongly in. And I have worked with various charities that are engaged in those issues."
Lastly, I wanted to know what advice Professor Allan would give to young people starting out in their academic careers today?
"My advice is to be resilient because it's a bumpy road, and there are lots of challenges working in the academic profession with a lot of changes going on. Be resilient to those changes, but also be open to learning to do new things in your profession - don't be too firmly fixed in an approach - be a lifelong learner. Just because you've completed a lot of your own studies doesn't necessarily mean that you stop learning."
Professor Allan recently hosted our UK Student helpseeking 2019 vs 2020 webinar, alongside Professor Liz Thomas who shared key highlights from her recent independent cross institutional study on student helpseeking outcomes. Professors Allan and Thomas were also joined by a special guest panel. Watch the full webinar video on our Vimeo channel. 

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