You are an Emeritus Professor of International Education. What does that entail?
Emeritus means retired but still holding the title of Professor, as recognition of a successful career and still being associated with the University.
What is a 'typical day' like?
There is none! If I am overseas I will be doing research or consultancy work; at home it will be writing (books, articles, reports) or again doing research – currently on extremists and radicalisation, and interviewing former extremists in UK. I’m also a Director of a social enterprise called ConnectJustice, and we may be meeting about our research or training. I may have a Board meeting of charities or schools I’m involved with. Every day is different. Leisure too – playing tennis, singing in a choir, Skyping my daughter.
You’ve been advising foreign governments, for instance in Afghanistan and Bangladesh. How did you get into consultancy, and what does it entail?
Through many years working in international education as Director of the Centre for International Education and Research at Birmingham, and building up a profile of expertise in education in developing countries or fragile contexts. Consultancy involves different things – sometimes evaluating a programme, sometimes running workshops, sometimes advising on future projects, sometimes developing materials for educators and schools – sometimes all at the same time!
Last October, you were awarded the Sir Brian Urquhart award for Distinguished Service to the United Nations and its goals by a UK citizen. What was it for and what did it mean to you?
This was for my work around furthering the goals of the UN in terms of peace, democracy rights etc., and in conflict states. I had been involved in UN organisations such as UNESCO and UNICEF. This award was a complete surprise and meant a great deal to me: I felt very privileged and honoured, and my family were very proud. It made all the things I had done worthwhile and somehow brought these things together – otherwise it all seems a bit fragmented sometimes
Why did you choose to focus your career on international education?
It was a mixture of serendipity and interest – I had spent a couple of years teaching n Mauritius and then in Malaysia (following my husband) and got interested in the sociology of development. After my PhD I started doing some part-time teaching in this area at the University and gradually built up my knowledge. My Masters and PhD were on gender issues in education, and I got interested in women in educational management internationally (at that time there wasn’t much on this in developing countries). Then some bits of work in Kosovo and Bosnia developed into an interest in conflict and post-conflict states and I got opportunities to do some work in places like Angola and Sri Lanka. I have been very fortunate.
What is the place of education in foreign policy?
It would be promoting education as a key part of development and social cohesion, and therefore as a prime target of aid. There is a still a big debate on when to focus on education after a humanitarian or political crisis, but there is increasing agreement that it can never be too soon. My current work on extremism means advocacy of educational initiatives in counter-terror and the prevention of radicalisation.
What would you recommend to a woman who would like to follow a similar career?
Obviously get international experience – volunteer work, VSO has been the route for many, living overseas somehow. Then use this in academic work, capitalise on small bits of experience, build up a profile, apply for everything. I have learned that you have to put yourself about a bit – get on the books of international organisations. They won’t come to you until you get to my age!
There has been quite a bit of debate about the difficulties of academia for women. What is your take on it?
It’s certainly still an issue in terms of representation (in higher positions in academia). My own motivation to get a PhD all those years ago was because of having to compete with men who were getting the jobs. Now I think the playing field is more level lower down the food chain as it were, but the number of women professors is still low nationally and in some countries really difficult to attain. Having taught assertiveness in courses on professional development, I still think (some) men have greater self-belief or willingness to put themselves forward. The relative flexibility of academia means it ought to be easier to juggle family and work, and I think there is less obvious discrimination against female academics with families – but the experience is different for all women and I couldn’t generalise.
What was your first job and what did you learn doing it you still use nowadays?
My first job was working with Fisons International in some mindless office role – I learned to complain about being bored and asking for something more challenging, as well as investigating on my own the harmful effects of pesticides. I did not stay there long...
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career so far?
The most rewarding has been the overseas work, whether research or consultancy. I love researching and analysing, but trying to use practical experience for this, and obviously meeting a huge variety of people in different countries and learning from them. I still learn all the time. Teaching is also rewarding, particularly working with overseas students. Least rewarding has been all the stuff around teaching – the admin, the marking, the meetings, the course assessment etc. I don’t miss that at all. Also the least rewarding has been the pressure to get research money and spending time putting in bids for work when only a small fraction of one’s effort gets any reward.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
Probably I’m good at cross-cultural communication, which helps in research, interviewing, as well as meeting people in Ministries of Education. I’ve learned not to impose ‘Western’ ideas of education, or at least to suggest things very gently. Humility is a sort of skill here. Good analytic and writing skills help in my work – finding patterns, being able to write useful, readable reports. All skills that I have I have learned the hard way by making mistakes, being impatient.
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
That at whatever level you are, you have to deal with criticism – of your style, of your writing. There will be people who do not like what you have to say, or the way you say it. It doesn’t happen often, but I have had to learn to cope and to listen, and to find ways to compromise instead of sulking.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
Looking back, probably my biggest challenge was when I was Deputy Head of School and dealing with staff who were themselves going through difficult times in their careers. Having to push through policies, I initially made mistakes in not finding ways for people to retain their sense of autonomy... Management was my biggest challenge.
What achievements are you most proud of?
It has to be seeing advisory or training work enacted – the Peace and Social Cohesion policy in Sri Lanka for example, or school democracy in the Gambia. Then my writing – my book on Education and Conflict got the Education Studies award for the best book of 2004, which was great. And of course the UN award which is the best ever in terms of recognition.
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
Not really. I’ve had fantastic colleagues over the years, and I’ve probably taken bits from all of them in my own learning and work, but I can’t think of one person who would directly influence me. There are lots of women and men I admire of course, people who’ve shown courage in peace movements or social reform, but I’ve not had to face imprisonment or torture.
Professor Lynn Davies | Emeritus Professor of International Education | University of Birmingham
30 years' experience
CV in brief:
Studied: PhD in Pupil Deviance and Gender; MEd in Sociology, Psychology and Research Methods; BA (Hons) in German with French
Find her online
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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