The UK’s higher education system is highly regarded around the world and contributes more than £3bn annually to the economy. But could it do better? Do we reward the ‘best’ academics with the most lucrative positions at the top of the academic pile or are we still stuck in an outdated mindset of what success looks like?

There is a real danger that numbers – rankings, amount of research papers published, total value of research grants – of dubious validity could be used to form judgments, simply because they provide a measure that can be quantified. More than 50 academics from the University of Cambridge believe this happens and to this end published a letter in the Times Higher Education on February 20th calling for a debate within the sector about what success is and should look like. As a community we need to do more than merely rely on the number of papers an individual has published in the so-called ‘glamour’ journals such as Nature or Science, or simply add up the value of an individual’s research grants and see who is earning the most, regardless of what they are doing with it.

Living in a culture where size matters so strongly is dangerous, particularly if it excludes or disadvantages the many – men and particularly women – who do not want to live by the ‘mine’s bigger’ mantra.

As a recent Parliamentary Science and Technology Select Committee report made clear, leadership skills are not always valued in our universities. Indeed team building, although crucial to delivering key results in many parts of science, is rarely mentioned as a virtue. Nevertheless, so much of science (more than in the arts and humanities) relies on large teams, be it seeking out the Higgs Boson or sequencing genes in multiple organisms. Those who take pleasure in nurturing teams as well as doing excellent science may lose out in the promotion stakes to those whose pursuit of excellence comes regardless of the cost to others. There is a danger that selfishness is too well rewarded in our universities rather than excellence regarded in the round.

The need to rethink what the academic sector values and to broaden its ideas of what is best for the academic ecosystem without sacrificing excellence has been highlighted by a series of interviews recently conducted with many women – not only academics – from the University of Cambridge. Summarised in a book ‘The Meaning of Success’ by Jo Bostock, published to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8th, these commentaries highlight how women value far more than the mere conventional trappings of success. Many stated how retaining a sense of their own integrity was more important to them than simply climbing the ladder. But these two aspects should not and need not be mutually exclusive. If they are, then something is awry.

Overall women comprise less than a quarter of all the professors in the UK, although with notable differences between the disciplines. The numbers have been creeping up, but only at a snail’s pace. If women are leaving academia, or settling for sitting on the lower rungs of the ladder because they feel their integrity would be lost if they had to go in for a gamesmanship they do not value, then there is scope to improve the situation without sacrificing the delivery of world-class research. Worse, if (as so often appears to be the case) women – and some men – have all the undervalued but crucial tasks of pastoral duties or heavy teaching loads dumped on them because they are good at it and want to see it done well, the time available to them for the better-rewarded aspects of the job (research) is inevitably significantly reduced.

Those ‘selfish’ individuals, on the other hand, who cultivate deliberate ineptitude when it comes to those things they regard as chores because they do not immediately lead to advancement, will escape to spend more time pulling in the research cash with its consequent rewards in promotion and salary. It benefits them but at a cost to those around them. Everyone in academia knows at least one individual like this, yet such individuals appear to get away scot-free.

It would be wrong to imply that it is only women who behave one way and men behave another, but the nurturing aspect society too readily associates with women means that women bear the brunt of undervalued tasks such as pastoral care or teaching administration far more often.

Losing talent by not valuing the full range of skills in the sector and instead rewarding a narrowly defined set of characteristics, thereby reducing the diversity among professors, is unlikely to be healthy or lead to optimal results. In the board room there is already strong evidence for the value of diversity in the team when it comes to decision-making and innovation. Why should universities be any different?

As a sector we need to do better in promoting this diversity, rewarding appropriately those hard-to-measure qualities which contribute to the success of the research, the team and the university as a whole, but which currently are under valued.

Dame Athene Donald is professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge and the university’s gender equality champion.

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