There’s song in the musical ‘Chicago’ in which a bashful  character describes himself as Mister Cellophane –  because he feels people see right through him, and never notice he’s there.  I’ve sometimes felt that the built environment professions are, collectively, the Mister Cellophane of public policy – hardly noticed and very unassuming.

The thought returned to my mind with the publication (in the current issue of ‘Times Higher Education’) of background information on university vice chancellors in the UK.  From what I’m able to discern, it seems that of the 157 institutions covered in the survey, perhaps three have chief executives with some sort of built environment background.  Even if there are another two or three with BE credentials I’ve managed to miss, our representation is pretty lamentable.  GIven that the BE world includes a couple of long-established professional disciplines (architecture and civil engineering) and a number of newer disciplines that are well represented in the HE world (including construction management, planning and the various branches of surveying), and that the sector has a collective presence in strong BE faculties, the relative invisibility of BE at the highest levels of HE governance may seem odd.  The reasons are, perhaps, for speculation on another day.

Does our relative absence at that level limit our effectiveness?  At one of the CIOB education workshops I’ve been mentioning, a senior academic said that, in his experience, VCs saw BE courses as  ’useful cash-cows but not sexy’.  If I take ‘sexy’, in this context, to mean intellectually challenging and highly relevant to current areas of social concern, then they are clearly wrong if they do hold that view.  Perhaps they mean ‘not viewed as sexy by would-be entrants to HE’ – and they (the VCs not the school-leavers) may be right about that.  This is all about presence  - in at least two meanings of that word.


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  1. Re:Mr Cellophane – The term “sexy” can be taken is a few senses. One view point is from that of the prospective applicant. Does the subject area include coverage critical issues, the green agenda and provide a rewarding career ? We know this, but can our prospective candidates in 2012 translate for example “Quantity Surveying” to mean these things ? Certainly creating the interest and satisfaction factor, whilst deemed of low value by many is now of huge importance, either arising from applicant days or in the many student satisfaction surveys, which now have equal importance to many of our other indicators.

    Likewise at the senior management levels, which subjects provide “value” and “status” to the University wishing to promote its new fees policy and attract external interest from sponsors ? Can the study and research of building provide value and profile to the higher education sector ? We know the discipline can change cities and townscapes and the developers will make their fortunes by speculating on land prices and sales. But can this translate to profile and importance in the University sector ? I am not sure. In the UK we did appear to be making huge progress in the past decade with the rebuilding of our towns and communities. However, many of these projects have been branded as inefficient and consigned to the national archives. This contrasts with the developing profile we have evidenced in China and the Pacific Rim. I wonder when the sector had the opportunity to benefit and advance the cause, if the full opportunity was utilised ? Importantly, what we can do in the brave new world of austerity ?

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