Isn’t asking for alumni donations, well, just weird?

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A few months ago I had a phone call from a young medical student at the Oxbridge college I was affiliated to when I did my Master’s degree. We started having a nice chat, she asked me what I was up to now, and what kinds of things I’d been involved in through the college during my time there. Social events and casual football, in the main, I said, because I was mostly working myself ragged on my studies. And then came the shift, as she said, ‘well, I was wondering if you’d be in a position to make a donation, however small, to help the college support things like the sports teams and so on.’ That wasn’t verbatim, but you get the gist. She was clearly trained to look for a way in – it was very smooth. The short answer was no, I wasn’t in a position to donate, but the longer question was, well, why should I?

I’ll try and reason this through. If we pay for our degrees, the money we hand over is to cover the teaching, buildings, library facilities, and so on. If I study hard and then have a successful career, it may be partly due to what I learnt, but more due to further effort and experience gained beyond that degree. Why is the university due any additional payment? If I joined a gym, got ripped, and then found a partner on the basis of that (let’s ignore the shallowness in this instance, analogies are never perfect) would I go back to the gym and present them with a monetary token of my appreciation? I doubt it. So why are alumni donations somehow okay? Or are they not? One of the few places I’ve read about this is in a canonical book on higher education by the late American academic, Bill Readings. He argued that these donations are a mental sleight of hand, where you convince yourself that you’re donating to an entity that serves society, even though you’ve also had to pay for your degree.

I didn’t pay to do my undergrad degree, paid for my Master’s, and was then on a scholarship for my PhD. Am I duty-bound, in some way, to pay again? Who do I pay – is one level more deserving than the others? Where I was subsidised, it was taxpayer’s cash. I pay my taxes, and hopefully my degrees have made me a better teacher, a better researcher, a better citizen. Why should I pay more? I didn’t pay a bonus to the National Health Service when they wired my elbow back together last year, because it’s (still, just) a taxpayer supported system. We all pay, and the people who need help get it. Higher Education here used to be the same.

I’ve studied at three different universities – the first one wasn’t even a university yet. I wasn’t aware of any alumni donations in the mid 90s when I did that degree, and they’ve never contacted me to ask for anything. They never contact me at all, as it happens – perhaps because I was there before email really took off. I’ve just been browsing their website, though, and I can’t find anywhere to donate money. I then started my postgrad journey ten years later at somewhere that’s been a university for 800 years, and finished off at one that’s just over a century old. The ancient one is by far the worst offender in calling for cash. It started at graduation. Half of it was in Latin, surrounded by pomp and circumstance in ancient magnificence, with a plea at the end of the eminent speaker’s stirring words: ‘don’t forget us when you’re successful, remember to give back in return for what we’ve done for you’. It’s been relentless since them, particularly by email. ‘We just want to keep in touch, here’s what’s going on, network with other Oxbridgians in your area…and donate here.’ I’m sure they don’t really care how I am. I wish they’d leave out the warm, fuzzy subterfuge and cut to the chase.

There’s a (UK) history lesson in all of this. If we go back to universities before the Enlightenment, they were essentially training theologians, medics, and lawyers. They were extensions of the church, by and large, and churches have a long tradition of collecting funds to support their charitable work. (I’m not going to crack that topic open, it’s neither the time nor the place.) Back in the day, people would bequeath cash, trust funds, and land, to their alma mater. Some Oxbridge colleges are wealthier than others, largely depending on how old they are. I don’t know if this is an urban myth, but the story goes that you can walk from Oxford to Cambridge – about 90 miles – without stepping off land owned by the colleges of the two universities. Whether those alumni were buying absolution, avoiding inheritance tax, or if it was genuine philanthropy, I don’t know, but it was somehow in keeping with the spirit of the thing. Excuse the pun.

If we fast forward to the 20th Century, then there were no tuition fees and the state supported the whole kit and caboodle. UK universities had – and still have, bar two – charitable, non-profit status. The idea was that academics can research/study important things, while graduates prop up society/The Empire, run the law courts, heal people, turn the wheels of commerce, and so on. Post WW2, the numbers of people studying rose because more people were completing secondary education and there was a rising demand for degree holders. The state paid because education was seen as a public good, a social benefit, and that made sense (it still does). This argument held until the late 90s when fees began to be introduced. Student numbers around then skyrocketed – encouraged by governments who saw the mass production of graduates as a (false, as it happens) way of creating economic growth, and those governments are now less willing to pay for it. It’s an investment in your future, they say. But why should we pay something back, or is it their investment in us, that we paid for? I’m confused.

Is it perhaps a tradition that’s lasted from medieval times, or is it something else? Some of this is certainly about competition. Top universities nowadays are scrabbling to maintain their national and international status, and funding is hard to come by. Every penny counts, and the ones with the fattest wallets have the best facilities, do the most research, attract the best academics/students, create the most spin-off companies and patents, and thus stay ahead of the competition. Tapping up the alumni is a lucrative way of fuelling that engine. The oldest universities are already the wealthiest anyway, and they’re the ones whose graduates have a better chance of being successful – and are therefore more able to donate back. Some universities in the US allocate a portion of their annual intake to the children of alumni and/or donors, which is about as unmeritocratic as it gets, but it makes good business sense. There’s a distinction in here somewhere between philanthropy in donating to good causes like important research and asking alumni to dip into their pockets periodically.  Getting the new business school or a professorship named after you is a vanity project – something else entirely. The state should, I think, support universities to the point where they don’t need to look elsewhere. I just can’t get my head around the moral logic of the thing, whichever way you slice it – let’s face it, alumni donations are just weird.

Posted in Employability, Tuition Fees | 1 Comment

Are we guilty of confirmation bias in the ‘Student as Customer’ debate?


This topic has been hotly debated for some time here and elsewhere as tuition fees have been introduced and/or raised. Beyond the well-established point that high fees are both socially unjust and often economically unjustifiable on the level of individual returns, the chief concern seems to be that students are becoming ‘consumerist’ – increasingly instrumental and excessively demanding.

We should firstly acknowledge that students themselves are not really ‘to blame’ here but they are to some extent pawns in a wider political project. The current climate does frame students as customers and we are partly complicit in this. Fee regimes are imposed by the state, but universities now market themselves to students heavily. Once they have enrolled we ask them for constant feedback to improve provision (and try to maximise our student satisfaction scores). We also pay a great deal of attention to employability, to some extent in a self-serving way under duress from KIS data and rankings. As Stephen Jones has recently pointed out on WonkHE, such features in the sector are going to have some kind of effect on students. The problem is that there’s very little research on this topic so it’s difficult to chart what changes are actually taking place. Anecdotal evidence as featured in much of the discussions (including this recent Guardian story) is not necessarily a good marker of the real state of affairs as there is a real temptation to succumb to confirmation bias. ‘Everyone’s saying that students are like this, and here are some fruity examples where this is the case, so it must be true.’ We probably all have stories like this.

The academic literature has at times been guilty of the same problem. Some research has gone out to prove that students are lazy and instrumental, but even their results were mixed. Of course they were: students are not just self-serving and passive. Other studies have shown that students are somewhat instrumental but not entirely so. They can also be irrational, driven by the intrinsic value of studying, as well as altruistic. Firstly, some degree of instrumentalism is not necessarily a problem. People can’t be expected to go to university simply for the sheer intellectual beauty of it whether they are paying fees or not. Secondly, students do expect something from their university, but they also want to be challenged and they accept that they have to work hard to do well. The relationship between the university and the student is a complex one, and is perhaps unlike any other except perhaps the gym and gym member. Joining alone doesn’t get you fit, in the same way as paying your fees doesn’t get you a good degree. Students know this, and this can be seen in the research.

Perhaps because I’m aware of this issue through my research, I instigate discussions with my students about what they think a ‘good student’ looks like, and diligence and effort come high on the list of the characteristics they cite. They admit that they’d often like to do as little work as possible and for things to be easy, but by and large they want to develop and accept that the burden of effort is mostly on their shoulders. They also have expectations of me: that the material we teach is accessible in the first instance, that the way we teach is engaging where possible, that course delivery is varied and based on models of good pedagogy, and that our feedback makes sense so they can see where to improve. These are entirely reasonable, and I don’t imagine they wouldn’t have been considered as such ten or twenty years ago.

Maybe we should accept that students have always been customers – of a sort – whether they are paying directly for their studies or not, and that universities have always had a responsibility to support them. So what’s changed? There is certainly a greater urgency around employability, and this is in driven by the rhetoric that justifies fees, the economic climate, and the fact that there are more graduates than before and so competition for jobs is probably more intense. Fees are, of course, a game changer, but they won’t create the purely rational, demanding actor that only politicians and economists imagine exist. It is far more complex than this. What fees certainly do is make us more directly responsible to students and more culpable if we’re not fulfilling our side of the bargain.

What can make this issue easier to navigate is an early articulation to (or better, with) students of what is expected of them, and what they can realistically expect from us. In other words, a clarification of where the balance of responsibility lies. This balance will vary across subjects, departments and universities, as well as countries, ‘we’ and ‘they’ have an active role to play in the relationship. But it is a balance that can be identified early on and this can help students and staff understand what is expected of each other.

Posted in Tuition Fees | Leave a comment

The (longer than expected) road to publication


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I got an email on Christmas Eve last year which started out as follows:

Dear Dr Budd

We are pleased to inform you that your manuscript has been accepted for publication in Higher Education.

My first publication! Boom! This was followed by a note from the editor hoping that I would enjoy this Christmas present, and brief comments from the two reviewers who thanked me for addressing their comments and approving it for publication. It had taken me about a year to get to this point, and all, in, getting here has been an interesting experience. I thought a walk through the story might prove enlightening.

So, the paper I was writing was one of the main findings from my PhD, and I’ve done a blog on the topic here. In short, the paper addresses an issue on which there isn’t much research but a lot of discussion. My article refutes some of the assumptions in the preceding literature and adds a new dimension. This, of course, is what papers should do, as you don’t need to write stuff repeating exactly what someone else has said!

I already knew what the point of the paper was, but there was an enormous slimming down and focusing process in the writing of it. I first presented it as a ‘work in progress’ to my old research group. They told me that I’d fallen into a classic post-PhD trap of trying to replicate my thesis in one paper. Much of the background material was connected to the main points of the paper but not essential. I had to lose most of that ballast and highlight the two ‘new things’ that I’d found out. I was also advised to take out the theoretical side of things as it got in the way of the argument.

Armed with this advice, I sliced and diced, nipped and tucked, honed and distilled, and submitted a sleeker version of the paper to pretty much the biggest journal in my field. It has published a few things on the topic in question – which I was referencing – and I hear this is important. I wasn’t 100% happy with the submission, but you get to a stage where you have to submit something and the reviewers will hopefully have some advice on ways to improve the paper if they like it enough. It’s not just about the end result, but the dialogue with people who read and offer advice on your work.

So, off it went, and then it was a question of sitting back and waiting. I got feedback about four months later: revise and resubmit. This was good news – it meant that they liked it – but I still had to do some serious work in on it. The reviewers both said very similar things, and the editor therefore advised me to do as they’d asked and send it back in. In short, the advice was:

  • Be clearer in your methodology about who the participants were and how you conducted the data analysis;
  • To provide details of the theoretical framework. I’d been advised earlier to take this out, but never mind;
  • Include an area of literature which I’d brushed over but, it was felt, was essential to my argument;
  • Separate the findings and discussion into separate sections – I’d included them as one;
  • Focus more on what my original contributions were.

One of the reviewers also provided me with a way of explaining a distinction in the data that I’d been struggling with. Brilliant! By the time I was done, it amounted to a 60% re-write of the paper, partly because I needed to reword much of the already good stuff. It took me ages to get round to because we had a new baby, moved house, and I’d started a new job; you know, life. But I got my feedback in May and managed to find the time to work on it in and send it back in November. I didn’t feel it was quite there yet, but it was much closer.

I was pretty surprised, then, to get the acceptance email six weeks later. I was at least expecting some minor tweaks. Still, I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. The acceptance was not quite the end. I first had to sign (online) a copyright agreement, which brings you to the realisation that you’re signing the ownership of your words away in exchange. I had make some decisions on open access and hard copies (basically not wanting either because they cost money). I then got a proof to read online, with a number of questions (mostly about a few marginally incomplete references). This was another few hours or so of work, although knowing that these were the final yards gave me heaps of motivation. And then it was done. Well, it wasn’t done until three weeks later. From acceptance to officially online and citable was just over a month,

All in all, it took a year, pretty much to the day. The paper itself was probably a month of full time work, maybe a month and a half (and this is on top of the years that it took to plan, gather, and analyse my data). Of course the time lag between submissions and responses slows things down hugely. I’ll hopefully be quicker next time round as I get more practised at this. But still, it’s weeks and weeks of effort and it often has to be squeezed in between other jobs.

If you want to read the paper, by the way, it’s here.


Posted in Early Career Academia, PhDs/Doctorates | 5 Comments

Being the conference poster-boy/girl isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I submitted – admittedly, a bit last minute – what I thought was a pretty tasty conference submission earlier this year. It was 1000 words of international comparisons in higher education, heavy on social theory, and on a hot topic on which there really is no research. It should have been a winner, right? Wrong…I was mortified, for the first time in my career, to be given the opportunity to present it as a poster. Boo.

Why the long face? A conference poster is ranked below a conference presentation, and basically implies that you squeaked in by the skin of your teeth. Still, it’s better than an absolute rejection. I’ve never had one of those… I did a number of reviews for the same conference, and the range of quality, coherence and originality of the submissions I reviewed was varied, but I didn’t reject anything outright. Somehow, I’d come in below the main cut – but not amputated from the proceedings completely.

My initial indignation (yes, bruised ego) nudged me in the direction of turning the whole thing down. That would have been a simple case of throwing the toys out of the pram. Unofficial enquiries about submissions for the conference revealed that they had been massively oversubscribed this year, and the chances of acceptance were potentially linked to the popularity of the theme, or strand, you submitted to. Some were simply more competitive than others. At least it was better than an outright objection. I spoke to a few colleagues, and decided that this presented (excuse the pun) an opportunity for a learning experience – I’d never done a poster before – and I really wanted to attend the conference. It’s the first year I’ve had the budget to be able to go, and it is probably in the top two or three conferences in my area.

So, a poster. Surely this would be easier than delivering a paper as a presentation. Those only last about 15 minutes but somehow it still takes a day to put the wretched thing together. I already had 1,000 words. Distilling that down into a single page would be easy peasy. I had some ideas in my head about how to shape it, and I thought an afternoon would take care of it. Wrong…

There are some nice resources out there on how to do posters, and the two principles that stood out for me were that it had to be:

  1. Simple enough to scan in about a minute from a metre away, and;
  2. Not like most of the other examples online.

I think I hit the first one pretty well, the second perhaps less so…it was actually quite hard to put together. Take a Powerpoint slide, don’t let your fonts get anything below 24 points in size, and put together a logical argument that has both depth and simplicity. All in, I spent about three days on it.

Lying awake one night, long before sitting down to do it in earnest, I’d imagined what I’ll call the centrepiece – a way of presenting the findings in a way I thought was accessible and attractive. With this in my head, everything else had to fit in with/around it. Perhaps there was a better way, but this was the one that I got attached to and I then had to align the rest of it somehow. I agonised over a draft and posted it on Facebook, asking for academic and non-academic friends alike to tell me what they thought of it. I thought this was important as the non-academics might look at it from a more presentational, rather than content, perspective. I got loads of feedback, which, in short, went like this:

  • Reduce the text;
  • Simplify the argument;
  • Change the colours;
  • Make the flow between sections more logical;
  • Sort out your typos;

I took all of this on board, and the result is below. I think I could have done something more creative/picturesque, given more time, but I didn’t have any. I learnt a great deal in the process, as I’d hoped, and the conference was fantastic, very much worth attending. The poster sessions, though, were squeezed onto the end of the lunch breaks, and so I’m not sure if anyone looked at it. Doh!!


Posted in Early Career Academia | 1 Comment

Confessions of a new lecturer, Volume 1


Deadline day yesterday, working at home on research today – and 39 emails clamouring for attention.

There is both a strong correlation and causal relationship between the reduced frequency of my blogging and having become a new lecturer. The first month or so was a bit like any new job, trying to work out what’s what, who’s who, and how all of the online stuff works. Now I’m nearly three months in and finally starting to feel like I have my feet under the table. It’s still all a bit manic, but I no longer feeling like I’m swimming against the tide. Well, not all the time, anyway.

I have a bit less teaching than the other new staff but it’s not like I’ve had the ‘soft landing’ that you get with some lecturing jobs; I also have a ‘good range’ of other responsibilities. On the teaching side of things I have three hours of small group tutorials every Monday morning and so far I’m delivering about nine lectures or other teaching sessions over the year. I’m also supervising about 30 undergrad and two Master’s dissertations. I think that’s where most of my ‘teaching’ hours come in – when deadlines come around, my inbox floods its banks overnight. I have ‘office hours’ twice a week, two-hour blocks where my supervisees/tutees can book slots to come and see me, and these are nearly always full. I’m loving being able to develop a relationship with my students, rather than being parachuted in for a few one-off appearances, which is what most of my previous university teaching was like.

Something that’s surprised me, and which presents an interesting challenge, is the new students’ dependence on heavily structured lessons. I’ve discussed this with them, and we’re working towards me doing less – and them doing more. I don’t want to talk at them for 50 minutes in tutorials, it’s boring for all concerned. It seems to be largely what they’ve come from, though, a mixture of that and doing exercises where every step is laid out for them. You can really see that the move from school into higher education is, for many of them, a huge cultural shift in terms of teaching and learning practice. It was very different with postgrads where you can give out a more loosely defined task and watch them think it through, develop, and run with it. That doesn’t work for the first year students, they need to be coached towards it.

Doing large lectures is a mixture of petrification, performance, exhilaration and exhaustion. I’ve done a couple now, and I wonder if my students can tell that my heart’s pounding as soon as I walk into the room and start setting up. I enjoy overcoming that fear and trying to keep the students engaged. Who’d have thought lecturing would be an adrenalin sport?! I find myself virtually catatonic for about half an hour afterwards, though, I don’t know why. Maybe that’ll fade away with time. A friend of mine taught me a fantastic tip getting the attention of a full lecture theatre: when you’re ready to start, just stand at the front, quietly looking round the room. A hundred people or more, brought to silence without lifting a finger – it works a treat!

I was warned about this before starting, but one of the hardest things is knowing when to say no to stuff. So far I haven’t turned anything down, and it’s not as bad as this (yet?). Being new means that you want to help people out and you probably feel more obliged to do stuff. So far I’ve been co-opted onto a committee for doctoral training and a group on research methods for Master’s students. I’m an departmental ethics lead, there’s some Master’s and doctoral teaching in the pipeline after Christmas, and then I’m half of a team responsible for revamping and coordinating our departmental research centre. Oh, and I’m the Departmental Twit (-terer). A one-off session on education in the UK to international students? Okey-doke. Can you help us to try and raise the number of students who spend time at universities overseas? Sure, that’s right up my alley. Then there was that journal review last month, the ongoing meetings and spreadsheets to fill in on student attainment and an endless range of other things that need tracking, along with chasing up those students who can’t be bothered to come to many (or any) of the taught classes.

There is a bit of space for research. I’ve just resubmitted a paper to a journal, having spent six months not being able to get anywhere near it. A new baby, leaving two jobs, moving house and starting a new job does that. I’m half way through finishing a poster for a big conference in just over two weeks, too. Then some colleagues and I have also just drafted an internal grant application. As early career researchers it’s very difficult to get external funding – most of it goes in the form of large grants to experienced names, and my current university doesn’t have them and just isn’t in that kind of league for the time being. But they do have internal funding to get project ideas (and careers) off the ground. This is a bit of a strategic move. I’ve still got enough material from previous research to submit to journals over the next two years or so, and also a book chapter and a practitioner-focused article on widening participation that are due in the coming months. Once that runs out, though, I’ll need to have something else in the pipeline. It’s a medium-term investment.

The elephant in the room at the moment is the postgrad certificate in teaching and learning. I need to do it as part of my first year probation, and passing it will get me the all-important fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. I want to do it, too, as it’ll help me develop my teaching. At the moment, though, I have no idea how I’ll fit it in – and there’s an essay due in January. It’s funny how you get cross with students for doing things last minute, not reading around the subject area, working out what the minimum is that they can get away with. As soon as I was enrolled on the course I found myself slipping straight back into that mode again, it’s frightening.

I think the best bit about the job is that everything I do is now part of one role. Before I got here I was working part-time on a research project and had occasional bits of teaching and supervision thrown in. That was alongside a non-academic role running a few staff development projects. Working on my own publications was what the evenings were for – when I wasn’t applying for jobs. It’s not that I have less work now or less variety in what I’m doing – far from it – but it all sits under one roof rather than three. I’m a bit punch drunk, but mostly happily so.

Posted in Early Career Academia | 3 Comments

How not to fail your viva: a few tips on sidestepping a resubmission.

Thought you were close to getting one of these? Think again...

Thought you were close to getting one of these? Think again…

Failing your viva is every doctoral student’s worst nightmare, and for a small minority it’s a reality: major revisions, a resubmission, another viva, and a year to do it all. The finish line was right in front of you, you’re at the end of your reserves of energy, and the light at the end of the tunnel has suddenly gone very dark again. Bloody hell. Major revisions are pretty rare, but how can it come to this? My most visited blog is about passing the viva, and I thought the flipside would be an interesting and salutary thing to write about. I’ve done a bit of research around doctorates, supervision, and the viva, and also (obviously) know quite a few people who’ve done a doctorate, and have heard a range of interesting, funny – and extremely unfunny – stories.

One of the reasons why falling flat on your face at the viva is rare is because of the supporting supervision system. You have at least one experienced academic who guides you through the process, and they should have a good sense when you’ve gone far enough. At least you’d hope so. Even seasoned veterans who’ve supervised scores of students can still get it wrong. Your supervisor can’t definitively know what other academics will want to discuss or pick on. There are the more or less expected questions, but your supervisor is very close to your project and may not have seen certain things that a fresh pair of eyes might. This happened to me at two (non-critical, thankfully) points in my doctorate. The issues weren’t catastrophes by any stretch of the imagination, either, but they were things that we hadn’t thought of. You also get some students who think they know better; you’re entitled to disagree with your supervisors and this isn’t a bad thing in itself if you can justify your perspective. Sometimes, though, a student reaches the end of their time allowance and they’re not engaging with the advice they’ve been given. The only remaining option can be to let them attend and fail their their viva, and then they have to incorporate those things as part of their corrections. This assumes that the examiners flag the things that the supervisor was worried about: the student could still pass with flying colours – you never know!

At many universities you have two supervisors. This gives an extra perspective on your project and they hopefully each bring something different and complementary to the table. Mine, for example, worked well together, being similar in some ways – and liking each other – but one leant more towards methodological concerns and the other had a heavier theoretical interest. But what happens if your supervisors don’t fit together academically and/or personally? It could turn into a battle between them – through you – and this can be particularly damaging early in your doctorate, at what is often a period of real intellectual vulnerability. Such a ‘supervisor-off’ should never happen, and your department should try to pair people up appropriately. It may not be easy, though, if there aren’t enough people who know about your topic, or if potentially suitable people simply don’t have the capacity. You can change supervisors, but this isn’t always simple, for capacity or less palatable reasons. University departments are political spaces and dropping one senior academic for another can ruffle feathers. But if you leave a bad situation for too long, you might be the one who loses out the most; it could have set your PhD back at least a couple of months – or perhaps even killed it altogether.

Let’s say, and this is probably the most common occurrence, that your supervision has been positive and functioned well, and you’ve wrestled and shaped  your good thesis through to submission. You hand the thing in and rope in two academics to grill you on it, usually one internal member of staff and one external. Picking suitable ones is crucial, both for your viva and potentially post-viva. You want someone who you know is going to give you a bit of a hard time but be simultaneously constructive – it would be an anti-climax if it was too easy, right?! You don’t want to be pulverised, but at least reasonably roughed up! You have to remember that academic fields are diverse places, and you need to find people who work and apply concepts in similar enough ways to you. If you disagree on something major, unless you can argue your point well and they’re ‘adult enough’ to agree to disagree, you’re in trouble. So don’t go for someone whose work you might be panning, or pick a fight with one of your examiners, for heaven’s sake! Who examines you can go on your CV, and if they’re big names, this can reflect well on you – but don’t just pick them because they’re famous, they have to fit. Also, very few people will ever read and consider your thesis in its entirety (sorry to disappoint you), and it can be a bit of a strategic move to try and get examiners who might be useful contacts in the future. Ah-ha…that familiar and slightly unpleasant whiff of instrumentalism.

Underlying your doctorate is a sense of shared responsibility, but at the end of it all, it is your project and what’s in it is 99% down to you. This is not to say that the university and its staff don’t have a duty to support you, they certainly do. It’s a supervised independent project, after all. Your supervisors are there to help, advise, cajole and push you, and stick you back together when you lose the threads or sometimes even the whole plot. Having good supervision can be the difference between hard-but-fun and painful-and-ultimately-impossible. But they’re not the ones sitting in the hot seat when the Academic Inquisition comes calling at viva time. So pick your supervisors well, listen to them, and take care when looking for examiners.


It’s probably worth mentioning that the doctoral completion process is very different around the world. In Australia, for example, you hand in your thesis and it gets marked by a handful of academics who then pass it and/or suggest changes. In the Netherlands you have to publish papers from your doctorate before it can be awarded, and in many countries the defence is open to the public. You’ll already have passed, there’s no such thing as corrections (it goes through an academic panel first) and the public show is more a celebration of your work than a trial by ordeal. It’s a pretty varied landscape out there.

Posted in PhDs/Doctorates | 4 Comments

Happy Blogoversary! Looking back at the first year of Stuff At Unis

I’ve been blogging for exactly a year now, and it’s been an interesting and useful experience. I mainly started doing this for public engagement, to share the hot topics in and around higher education in a way that anyone can read. I’ve certainly made some progress there, with something approaching a thousand hits a month, on average. More on that in a minute. I’ve made all sorts of connections and found some really good blogs with great people behind them. I have regular exchanges with some of them on Twitter, some I’ve met at events, and I’ve also been approached about a journal article on the basis of some of my work on here.


One today!

One of the keys to blogging is supposed to be keeping it going – blog regularly. My wife has been writing on some Japanese sites since 2009, and now gets hundreds of hits every day. My ‘best day’ ever – 350 views – was a flash in the pan: I usually get less than 200 a week! When I first started out, I had a handful of topics that I really wanted to talk about, mostly around tuition fees, widening participation, and things like rankings. I’ve added more on the PhD/Early Career Researcher experience as opportunities have arisen. That one’s a very hot topic at the moment, as there are all sorts of problems with the way doctorates are funded and what the post-doc employment situation looks like. There will no doubt be more coming on this as my career unfolds. I’m not running out of things to say any time soon!

Nearly 12,000 hits… As with all reported numbers, it’s worth looking behind them, and in my own stats I can see that my very first blog has been the most popular. This is perhaps not surprising because it’s been up there longer than the others, and also transfers well to all subject areas, rather than being more specific to the social sciences/education. But that blog has provided nearly three quarters of nearly all of the traffic…and I’ve written just under thirty of them! I got lucky not long after I wrote it because The Guardian was asking for advice for PhD vivas on Twitter and I posted the URL in response. They got in touch with me a few days later and interviewed me for an article that also featured a link to my blog entry. Having that kind of coverage also means that other pages have linked to it, and it snowballed from there. That taught me a useful lesson about strategic placement. Don’t be afraid to splash your work around a bit; I’ve noticed that the online newspapers I follow post their articles several times a day for a few days. Nothing else has taken off like my first one, but every little helps.

What else have I learnt? The thing that stands out is that writing for blogs for me is a refreshing, loose way of putting words down. It’s very different from any of the other writing I do, which is either for academic articles or internal reports.

In a way with blogs you can just string thoughts together off the cuff, although you still have to have something to say and a structure to stick it together with. Most of what I’ve written has been drawn from a lot prior reading and then distilled down. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve interacted with people and I’m slowly finding other work out there. There’s some really good stuff about. Three of my favourites are this one, this one, and this one – the first two for content, the last one for both content and appearance – it looks fantastic. Finally, my mum is the best editor – nearly every time I publish, I get an email from her pointing out where the typos are. Aren’t Mums brilliant?!

So, we’re a year in, and it’s all motoring along nicely. Watch this space…

Posted in Access to Uni, PhDs/Doctorates, Rankings, Tuition Fees | Leave a comment

What takes the joy out of academic networking?

Conferences and seminars are part and parcel of the way that universities work. We get to present and discuss our work with (primarily academic) audiences from all over the country/world. This means that we can improve our own stuff and get little ‘tasters’ of a huge range of different research projects and other scholarly work. It would take much longer to do the same thing on paper. You also get to spend time away from the office and this gives you a bit more space to stand back and think about stuff. This all tends to happen in nice locations, too: I’m blogging this at the end of a conference in Budapest, where I’ll have seen over 30 presentations in a few days. My head’s fizzing with all sorts of ideas, and the city is fantastic. It’s a win-win!

Me in my shop window…

There is an expectation that conferences are a good place to ‘network’, and I’ve even attended days when the gaps between organised sessions as labelled as networking. At one level this is simply about discussing your own and other people’s work, over coffee, possibly drinks or dinner, and so on. This is great, in that catching up with people you don’t see often and meeting new people is fun. It’s intellectually useful, too, in that you can learn a great deal about other research that’s out there, and develop new ideas and insights. This is how higher education functions, as a community that produces and improves what we know and think about the world. You might end up collaborating with some of the people you meet, and you’re more likely to do so with people you’ve met than those you haven’t. And this is where the tension – at least for me – comes in.

The bit where it starts to become polluted somehow is that meeting people can be useful. In an intrinsic sense, this is fine if it happens in an organic, happenstance kind of way. You make connections with people and sometimes this leads somewhere. This is the nature of life, it happens all the time in that you make friends as you go along and some people stick around in your life for a long time. It’s in the other sense, the strategic instrumental one, where I begin to feel uncomfortable. This relates to the expectation that you can/should actively further your career by attracting the attention of more senior people in your field, which in turn could lead to research projects and publications. You showcase your work and ideas more than who you are, at least that’s how I feel. It’s not about scattering our business cards and impressing the ‘big names‘ with praise and questions in their presentations and/or engineering conversations with them to get noticed. At one end of the spectrum there are conferences where more junior researchers impose and ingratiate themselves on well-known academics, accosting them at any available opportunity – even in the queue for the loo!


Networking-chatting or networking-plotting?

This is obviously extreme (isn’t it?!), and I can’t imagine that those ‘cling-ons’ do that end up doing research with the people they pester. If anything it probably reduces their chances of establishing a meaningful working relationship, unless it’s standard practice. I’ve not really seen this ‘remora activity’ in the conferences I’ve attended. But it all connects with the idea that we work in a competitive funding and employment environment, one that is so competitive that we need to use every available opportunity to keep up/get ahead. But what this means for me is that when I meet people, talk to them, and discuss ideas, I feel the light presence of instrumentality on my shoulder and I don’t like it because it takes some of the joy out of it. I try to ignore it, and I hope that the people I’m talking to see me in the way that I intend.

Perhaps I’m navel-gazing too much, and really this edge of instrumentalism is more appropriate than I think it is, as long as it’s not the main/only reason you talk to people. Right, enough of this; I’m off for dinner with some of the senior academics in my field. You never know where it’s going to lead… Urgh.

This post led to the creation of a ‘partner’ blog by Liz Morrish, here. It seems that I’m not alone in my views, but we may may be more alone than we fear.

Posted in Employability, PhDs/Doctorates | 3 Comments

Splitting heads – or switching hats – a not uncommon post-doc experience?

So, how do we stick these two together?

So how do we stick these two together?

This story actually starts before I finished my PhD, but is part and parcel of what working life in the post-doc phase can look like. I defended my thesis in late August last year, but had already been working full-time for eight months by the time my viva came around. Finishing the doctorate and working full-time is not something I’d recommend if you can avoid it, but not everyone has the luxury of sidestepping that bullet, for time and/or financial reasons. What made life – unexpectedly – even trickier was that the full-time hours were in the same university, but split 50:50 between two very different kinds of work.

One of my jobs has been as a research assistant on a project looking at widening participation, something I was already thinking about, working on, and have done a number of blogs around. This was mostly familiar ground in terms of the topic and was also in the same school/department where I did my doctorate. In many ways it was largely a continuation of my academic ways of thinking and being. I was reviewing and summarising literature, negotiating ethical approval, collecting and analysing different kinds of quantitative and qualitative data, drafting papers, discussing conceptual frameworks with colleagues, doing presentations, and even teaching a little and supervising a Master’s dissertation. No change there. More variety than during the doctorate alone, but all part of the same sphere somehow.

The other job was coordinating academic staff development projects across four universities as part of an emerging cross-university alliance. One of the most obvious differences from the beginning was in the language that some people used. There was a lot more ‘management speak’, such as ‘optimising resource’, needing to ‘square the circle’, or people finishing sentences with ‘going forward’. This was a world I’d not inhabited for about ten years, and it was initially unfamiliar, occasionally baffling, and sometimes amusing. Some of this work was very new, like negotiating working groups, steering groups, and summarising complex projects into a page (perhaps two) of bullet points for meetings. Much of the early work was fact-finding, speaking to senior academics and non-academics about issues around staff development, funding mechanisms, doctoral training, and research collaboration. In many ways, as a higher educationalist, this was grist to my mill, giving me fascinating insights into topics and subject areas that I wouldn’t usually come across, like diamond technology, cell biology, law, and medieval history. It also gave me a sense of how senior leadership in universities functions, of high level, strategic decision-making and a real hands-on understanding of how universities function and interact in practice.

Both were interesting jobs, and both had their pros and cons, although I was more comfortable – at least more of the time – in the research role. The greatest challenge was in combining them. Even after a period of acclimatising to the non-academic job, I found moving between them very difficult. I initially did two and a half days of each, switching mid-way through, but I’d often run into problems at that mid-point. I’d sometimes sit there at my desk trying to work out who I was and what I was doing! I also found that working on my PhD or publications in the evenings was much harder after the non-academic days, that switching back into academic mode. After a while I realised that I would have to try and arrange things so they didn’t cross over on the same day. I was lucky that I could do this, with both bosses being understanding, and both jobs being in the same university.

I’ll have done this for over a year and a half by the time I move into my lecturing job in September, and have learnt to shift between the two fairly easily. I’m not sure when it became natural to do so, but it certainly took a while. Both will have been useful to me in complementary ways, giving me experience that a junior research role alone may not have done. Of course being involved with seasoned academics on a collaborative research project (with publications!!) is something that will always stand me in good stead. But the other work has enabled me to develop some things that I’d be more likely to see a little later in my career, such as experience of budgets, project management, line management – those kinds of practical skills. I’ve also had a brilliant schooling in how universities function through having to liaise with and between academics across the disciplinary spectrum and non-academic staff who keep the whole thing running. There are some interesting tensions there, and I’ve had some experiences, revelations – and made some mistakes – that I’ll long remember with a wry smile. It’s not how I imagined the immediate post-PhD patch to look, but it’s paid the bills, presented some interesting challenges, and I’ve met nice people along the way.

Posted in Early Career Academia, PhDs/Doctorates | Leave a comment

The hot topics in research on higher education: an aperitif, in a nutshell.

How often can you get an overview of the field in which you work in just over an afternoon, and finish it off drinking bubbles on the balcony at the House of Lords? Every 50 years?! I was lucky enough to snaffle a ticket to the 50th anniversary of the main academic society I’m a member of. Attending was interesting and useful for me but not directly relevant to the current project I’m on. Thankfully my current boss is enlightened enough to still let work cover the train fare.

Not a bad place to have a drink and rub shoulders with (some of) the great and the good in your field.

Not a bad place to have a drink and rub shoulders with (some of) the great and the good in your field.

So, my field is higher education. Can I summarise the main themes that researchers, policy makers and practitioners think about and struggle with? Let’s see…this is clearly not going to be a definitive guide – and it’s a bit UK-centric – but consider it a bit of an aperitif.

Social setting: universities are a relatively small cog in a much larger engine, and it’s important to understand what that engine looks like. While they can contribute to some of the problems that exist, they in themselves can’t take all of the blame or be seen as the sole solution. For example, after World War II, there were greater opportunities to get a better job than your parents had through attending university. This is part of where the idea that universities can create social mobility comes from. But if the wider political/economic situation means that if those opportunities shrink, it’s not entirely universities’ fault that people from certain backgrounds have better career chances than others.

Teaching and learning: as the numbers of students have increased, this means that volume of people being taught, the diversity in the student body, and the range of subjects being taught, have all changed massively. There is also a wide range of research on, and theories in, teaching, and this can on the one hand be confusing to people learning how to teach, but also interesting because it means that there are many different approaches to learn from. There are also changes in the technology we can apply in teaching, although the extent to which these are used (or over-used) varies.

Academic practice and careers: the situation around university work is changing. As recently as 40 years ago, academics in the UK were predominantly focused on teaching. Research was part of the role, but it has become increasingly dominant in many parts of higher education. The nature of jobs in academia are also different, in that they are often – particularly at the early career stage – casual in that they’re short term, and are more often divided into research- and teaching-focused, rather than being a combination.

Student experience: who studies and where they study is very different from what higher education looked like 50 years ago. There are more students, and more universities, and – as mentioned earlier – the student body is more diverse across genders, ethnicities, class and so on. As numbers have gone up, so the means of funding those numbers have changed, and now students have to pay (often through an income-contingent loans system) for their studies. There is a huge amount of discussion around the equity and effect of this.

Transnational Perspectives: universities offering courses overseas can be a solution to local under-provision but there is also a danger that these either outcompete domestic universities and/or teach material that is western-centric. Also, the global competition for status is dominated by a few countries/universities, and this can come at the expense of poorer nations. Universities have the potential to be a force for social progress but also a means of reinforcing inequalities, and understanding this involves thinking about how they fit within wider social/political contexts, as well as within countries and groups of countries.

Higher Education Policy: as more and more people go to university, and universities are increasingly seen as central pillars in the economy, policy is becoming an ever hotter topic. One big theme at the moment is who contributes to the agenda (as well as what they contribute), as we can see organisations such as the World Bank and OECD or EU strongly influencing what national or regional policies look like. This – like much of education – is a diverse area, with economists, anthropologists, political scientists and so on bringing their disciplinary views to the mix.

Globalisation: international students are very much on the rise, and this changes the composition of the student body and the attention paid to comparative tools such as rankings or other ‘objective’ measures such as expenditure, graduate salaries, gender compositions, and so on. Rankings, for one, have come to – misleadingly – dictate how quality is judged, and the implication is that those with high status have better degrees and more capable students, while this is not necessarily the case. We need to be very careful of the ways in which comparisons are made and what sort of models of education are being given higher status.

Access to university: this again refers to the increasing size and composition of the student body comes under inspection. There have been major – and successful – attempts to make the student body more representative of wider society, but there is still some distance to go. Where there is less work is around how different groups can engage with, enjoy, and benefit from higher education. Someone whose family and friends all study/studied, has no financial worries while at university, and then has access through social connections to companies for internships and so on, the main difficulty at university will be in the learning. But for people who know little to nothing before coming, have to work a lot to support themselves, are a minority in their university, and don’t have access to meaningful work experience, it will present a much broader set of challenges.

So, there you have it, a whistle-stop tour of research into higher education: globalisation and geopolitics, growth and diversity in the student population, precarious career pathways, fees and loans, rankings, and social equality. There’s something for all the family!

Posted in Globalisation, International Students, Rankings, Student Loans, Tuition Fees | Leave a comment