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Inspiring peopleSimon McGrath

Voices from a changing world
Lead of Sustainable Development
Simon McGrath, Professor of International Education and Development, Faculty of Social Sciences
How would you explain your research?

It’s about exploring the tension between two powerful forces - on the one hand individuals who are transforming their lives and building wellbeing through what they learn and what they do; on the other hand many are constrained by poverty, inequality, injustice and threatened by conflict and by climate change. I’m interested in the tension between those and how education, skills and work can promote development that enhances lives and is also sustainable.

There is an excitement in engaging with the real world
What inspired you to pursue this area?

Growing up in a working class Irish migrant community in Birkenhead, my grandmother used to raise money for the Catholic missions overseas and I had a sense of the international from early on. At Oxford, I was aware I was lucky and asked myself - how would I do something useful? So I trained as a teacher and went to Zimbabwe for three years, ending up a deputy head.  

Coming back, I took a Master’s because it gave me the space to reflect on the issues I’d experienced – how the power of education was apparent in people’s lives, yet structural factors limited how much they could take advantage of it. It was more complex than the basic story of education leading to development.

I also went back to work at my old primary school in Birkenhead - the contrast was spectacular. Some kids had decided that education was not for them, whereas in Zimbabwe most kids saw education as a way out of poverty – even though for most this wouldn’t be the case. 

How will your research affect the average person?

We’re looking at the educational and work experiences of ordinary people internationally, focusing on people who haven’t had an elite education, those who have experienced poverty: the experience of migrants coming to this country, youth struggling to make their way in Palestine under the Israeli apartheid or in a still unequal South Africa. We’re focused on making such voices more prominent in policy and planning debate.

I work a lot in the policy space. This includes for UNESCO - we’ve  got a UNESCO vocational research centre for the UK here -  and I  work for DFID (Department  for International Development) , the Commonwealth, German and Norwegian governments. Currently, I am advising on an Anglo-German £30m intervention in East Africa on skills. There is an excitement in engaging with the real world but there’s also that challenge of higher stakes than in writing academic papers.

With UNESCO we’re in the early stages of making a difference. You can talk about policy impact at the moment but the impact on practice is very early.

What’s been the greatest moment of your career so far?

The answer I’m going to give you is probably fairly shallow! Recently, we won an Atlas award for research impact from the academic publishers Elsivier for an article on higher education and innovation in South Africa, the first education paper to win. Seeing my words in ministers’ speeches or UNESCO documents is quite nice too.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

On the one hand be flexible – a grand plan is very unlikely to get you far because circumstances will change – on the other, try to keep theory, policy and practice together and try to not get sucked into only one of those. Don’t just go for high status publications but also publish in the local journals of the countries you are working in, publish where practitioners are likely to read it, and write briefing papers that ministers and civil servants are likely to read. Engaging with multiple audiences matters.

What’s the biggest challenge in your field?

At the bigger level, what we’re doing is not sustainable:  socially, politically, environmentally, economically, we’re on a path that doesn’t make sense but has powerful logics that prevent people from breaking out.

At the local level here we have RPAs set up to work in an interdisciplinary way but people have learned in disciplines, so we can get pulled into old ways of working.  The challenge of the RPA in part is to get people out of their boxes so as to work in really transformative ways.

With UNESCO we’re in the early stages of making a difference
Which person in your field do you wish you could meet?

One name that did cross my mind was Amartya Sen, the economist and philosopher and Nobel laureate.  As an undergraduate I went to one of his lectures but it was heavy duty, mathematical economics and I couldn’t make much sense of it. Coming back to his work as it evolved, 10 or 15 years later, it would be really good to have that opportunity to engage with him. 

What advice would you give your younger self?

I’m not sure I would. Not having a grand plan wasn’t a disadvantage – it probably made me more rounded and have a better set of tools by not following a particularly straight path.

If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?

Earlier in my career I might have stayed in teaching or later moved into youth development. It’s difficult to think beyond this broad area. If anything, I’d be working in international education but not in academia.

If you could go back in time where would you go and why?

I’d say around times that were historically interesting, the Renaissance or the Reformation, in the early 15th century through to mid-17th century, which were intellectually very important.

What research other than your own really excites you right now?

It’s a privilege to do sometimes do something which isn’t primarily what we’re working on. So recently being in Ningbo in a multidisciplinary workshop – about human security in Asia, which is not my area at all – was quite fun. There is really interesting work around food and water, sustainability and community.  It is central to life in so many ways.

You’re thrown 100 years into the future – what’s the first thing you’d look up?

I might link back to that previous point – have we made that change from industrial agriculture to more sustainable ways of producing and consuming food?

Global Research Theme
Sustainable Societies

Research Priority Area
Sustainable Development

View Simon's full profile

Simon McGrath is Professor of International Education and Development in the School of Education.

World-class research at the University of Nottingham

University Park
+44 (0) 115 951 5151

Athena Swan Silver Award