These pieces first appeared in the blog pages.
1 News From Bickering
I mentioned that august institution the University of Bickering the other day. It seems that some of you have not come across it before. Thats a tad surprising since it has represented the essence of modern higher educational life for since its foundation as a full university almost a hundred years ago. Up the M1 and left a bit, as a waggish southerner described it. Or down the A1 and right a bit, och aye, as a more northerly Briton said.
Anyway, my long-suffering friend at Bickeringham brought me up to date with their latest expression of academic altruism. It seems that their Head of Commerce, Jonathan Golightly, has set out the Bickering position on Intellectual Property Rights. Anything written in the Universitys time (an interesting concept in education at any level) by one of its staff, especially academics, belongs to the University. And any photographs, artwork, maps and plans, creative writing and artefacts, anything at all, really, also belongs to them. If an academic writes a book or research paper the content belongeth to Bickering (whatever the publisher might think, silly people). If the book, paper etc is modified for a future edition the University must grant its permission by approving what is included. Oh, and by the way, said academics ought to send me the draft material of any new book so I can approve it on behalf of the University. All intellectual property rights therefore belong to Bickering Uni which will therefore be able to benefit from any commercial opportunities which might accrue.
Its an interesting set of ideas raising all kinds of issues, not least the staggeringly innovative belief that academics actually get time between 9 and 5 to write anything beyond new module schemes of work, course approval applications, funding applications, meeting minutes, assignment feedback, 84 email replies to students have all asked the same question about what will be in the next exam; references for ex-students who left five years ago, rough analyses of how they spent their time last semester, and so on and so on. Since academic writing usually has to be done at home the 9 to 5 concept deserves further examination if it is to be used as the basis for a legal statement of rights.
All of which makes me sorry for my distant friend and grateful that more sensible, respected institutions dont take these lines. And that unlike the University of Bickering, incidentally, they dont try to move sideways or even make redundant those people who express dissenting views.
2 The Fastest Chair In The West
No, nothing to do with aircraft ejector seats or space shuttles. Let me explain.
Mention of the University of Bickering reminded me of a university I dont really want to think about except with the kind of despair reserved for those retiring from the rat race. I would rather spend time contemplating the achievements of some other good friends at a different institution the University of Careswell. It isnt a million miles from the Bickeringham sausage factory. (Funny, that: Bickeringham owes its origins to Edwardian Englands favourite meat products
but that is another story).
Careswell is one of those which was founded in the 1920s but which, with new steel and glass modernist towers, was enlarged in the early 1960s. Yet it isnt a brutalist concrete-render place looking like Hitlers Atlantic Wall. It happens to have plenty of brick in its towers and no dirty pebbledash anywhere. Steel columns and pale grey or blue panels are plentiful, but theyre kept clean. There are also rules against sticking posters or paper sheets of any sort on the windows. That upsets the Arts and Culture people who feel they have a right to express themselves in whatever way they think right, but tough, the University community feels that the outside view of its buildings is in the ownership of everyone, including passers-by, and art-room collages are out.
But back to the high speed chair. Its a woman. She is a academic who manages many people and programmes and no-one would call her a piece of furniture of any description. Not that anyone would think of her as anything like a feminist in the sense of being a staffroom politician or activist. She couldnt be she actually achieves things. You might not think she looks or sounds like an academic, even. More than one admirer of her style has identified correctly that she has a background in a non-academic organisation where management was a professional occupation with proper training and procedures. I was told that it was not a commercial operation either, but a branch of the Civil Service.
This ladys name is Joanne Lake. She is an Associate Dean in the Faculty of Community Development. This Faculty comprises a number of Schools including a group which come under Jos control including the School of Visitor Service Management and the School of Educational Tourism. Which is, of course, why I find the Careswell set up appealing. It has a firm foundation in existing industries and activities but it has a vision of a future which is quite inspiring.
The Careswell Faculty wasnt created by Joanne Lake but by others higher up the hierarchy or long gone from academia. Some of those people knew how much successful educational development relies on competent managers who can deliver results while themselves sharing the same future vision. Which means serving the needs of the key people who produce the results the teachers and students who work in the classroom, in the library and at the screenface. So Jo has always made it one of her principal tasks to avoid gaudy projects which turn out to be full of nothing like a cheap Easter egg wrapped up in shiny metal foil. Once opened there is nothing of value inside.
And thats why she was described by a colleague as The fastest chair in the west. When she was appointed there were few others with her style of running meetings. Agendas were fixed. There was seldom Any Other Business allowed everything had to be on the agenda so people had time to consider their positions. The agenda showed the timings allocated to each discussion, with a clear finishing time for the meeting also announced in advance. Her leadership was clear and decisive, yet it was the rest of the group round the table who were really reaching the decisions with Joanne Lake making sure people had their say without going on too long and that everything was in line with policies agreed higher up the chain. At first some staff had disliked the self-indulgent talking shops being abolished. They each wanted their say on every issue so they could feel they were justifying their existence. It was Jo Lake who made sure meetings met their intended purpose, and that was one of the things that marked out the successful way that her teams achieved great results for the benefit of the educational experience of everyone.
3 Bickering Preserves Its Reputation
News arrives that changes have been made to the way dissertations are being supervised at Bickering University. The tutors are widely recognised for being good at Bickering, but the management needs to see better outcomes and has therefore set new targets. At the end of the current academic year ten per cent of undergraduates should achieve first class awards. Since dissertations form the core of each course and the jewel in each students academic crown and Bickering is lagging in university league tables the supervision and marking systems have been changed. The dissertations manager, Bernie Pollard, has reshaped the two-tutor marking system so that a quick chat over the phone or in passing in the corridor will decide results. Criteria-based marking sheets can then be completed to deliver the desired result rather than help decide it. Marking pairs will be chosen by letting tutors who share rooms decide between themselves. Tutors not sharing rooms will mark with someone who is most likely to agree with them and not cause problems. In future any tutor failing to mark generously and sympathetically will be assigned other duties. Pollard, known to some of his critics as Pollyanna for his over-optimistic and badly thought out educational projects, most of which fail to deliver, said of the new arrangements that he was sure they were innovative examples of the creative thinking called for by the management. All pious hopes and Pollyanna was the view of others.
What a pity that, as usual, the nearby Careswell University, which was, like Bickering, a product of the conversions from Polytechnic status in 1993, continues to get both high levels of academic results through good teaching by experienced tutors but is ignored by its Bickering neighbour. Bickering managers look for quantity, not quality. They see education as a numbers game firmly in the hands of the bean-counters. At Careswell, James Barley, an IT wizard popular for his friendly,'older brother' kind of personality, takes a long term view when introducing new ideas. "They need thorough discussion with colleagues first" says James. "Pushing half-thought-out projects in order to gain brownie points with management is not on. Nor is damaging another colleague's quietly successful efforts just to let you indulge your own interests".
4 Bickering Sets Up Its Academic Papers Production Line
The dissertations manager of the er - well-known Bickering University, Bernie Pollard, has been having a quiet word with his colleagues. His line manager, Derek Carver, had an even quieter word with him about the need for the institution to rack up its number of academic staff research papers published in refereed journals. Their personal status as well as that of the university and of the course depends partly on successful publishing. Some of the overworked tutors at Bickering have long complained that teaching, administration and pastoral care of students means they have little time for research. So Bernie, whose reputation has been, according to one critic, all pious hopes and Pollyanna has taken a slightly more aggressive role. One tutor has already described it as unscrupulous. Another said So what? Its a dog-eat-dog world.
Pollard is allocating students interested in particular topics to tutors who want to publish research in those areas but have little time to do the research. His verbal and dont quote me suggestion is that the student be guided indeed, led by the tutor towards a high quality piece of work by feeding in suggestions and approaches, supplying the books and papers that the student needs to use, and even dictating the research methods to be employed. At the end of the academic year the student will gain a 2:1 or first class award and the tutor will co-author a paper based on the dissertation and submit it for publication in a learned journal. Pollyanna sorry, Pollard says it is a system used in other universities and one for which course managers give tacit approval. Roberta Pryor, Bickerings Manager for Academic Standards, is reported to have asked if it was really a fair system but has been told to concentrate on proof-reading course planning documents rather than raising unnecessary issues.
Over at nearby Careswell University James Barley, Pollards opposite number, heard about the scheme, turned white, swore quietly and wondered whether he should take holy orders.
5 Travelling to Understand?
We have been receiving further news from those two entirely imaginary universities, Bickering and Careswell (see previous postings). Each has a firm policy of taking students off-campus to discover for themselves what the world is like. Their strategies, however, are based on quite different principles and between them illustrate well the kind of forces driving higher education.
Careswell is running two residential visits as well as a number of one-day trips and all are tailored to the modules being taught. The first is an off-the-peg, four-day expedition to an eastern European capital put together by one of the many companies offering student visits. It is advertised at just under £400. The second is tailor-made by Careswells own tutors working in conjunction with community workers in a west African country and is listed at just over £550, though vaccinations may be required, adding to the cost. Bickering is running a winter sports trip when its students can learn to ski and snow board. Some lectures are built in (these are integral parts of Careswells offerings) though its the sport that occupies the daytimes and attracts the students. The cost is higher than Careswells trips at approaching £700.
Careswells teachers make the core of their trips the full academic activity that is needed to support their modules. They know that if they dangled the carrot of a skiing trip (or skiing holiday in the eyes of most of their students) it would, in marketing terms, undercut the take-up of places on their academic visits. Yet even they have compromised. At one time Careswell used to operate a full residential and a part residential, low-cost alternative with the rule that every student had to attend either one or the other. The low-cost version stayed in the UK, an advantage for the students probably few in number, but still to be looked after who did not like flying. The need for prestigious trips in a market-economy educational context has meant that more glamorous products have to be offered. But Careswell is reviewing this policy.
Bickering also used to run residential courses that all students used to attend one or other of a high and a low cost alternative. Their problem was that some staff pushed for trips that they wanted for their own interests sake. Management failed to ensure that it was educational needs that drove the choice and there was a lack of leadership in setting, and keeping to, the fulfilment of those needs. What had been considered one of the strongest features of the Bickering courses disappeared, but nobody seemed to care.
What should be the principles of good field trip planning? Integration with the course in terms of content, focus and assessments; the main focus to be studying the subject rather than relegating that to an incidental activity; a content balancing teaching (didactics) and discovery (heuristics); a blend of visits, talks, workshops and individual projects; an entertaining approach to activities that draws students in, and allows the development of social skills, but not a placing of entertainment uppermost; input from local people as well as course tutors; a choice between high cost and low cost options and between near-to-home and more distant options; an avoidance of situations where only a minority take part with nothing for the majority; and a requirement that some form of meaningful assessment be built in so that both the students and the educational value of the visits are being assessed.
That will do for starters.
6 Gloss Finishes
I was looking at Bickering Universitys web site yesterday. It reinforced the notion that public relations work is everything. The superficial presentation of every university has been effectively forced by government policies for the last two decades at least. Marketing counts far higher in higher education than academic standards, often to the extent that the gloss finish painted over every web site covers up the real quality of the institutions. The pretence that everything is exciting and challenging and fun and innovative and the very best in the best of all teaching worlds is immensely damaging. After a while those who experience the reality the staff, students, and professionals who deal with these places begin to realise the gap between the pretence and the true position. I had been reading a personality piece about a senior figure written by some paid hack. The subject of it was presented as some paragon of educational virtue full of energetic visions for the future. Most of this persons colleagues would consider what achievements had been made were obtained despite this senior manager.
As usual, Careswell University shows far better. Good, solid achievements are to be found there. The staff arent all geniuses plucking glittering prizes from the tree of knowledge. Theyre human, hard working, caring for their work and their students. There are plenty of successful initiatives. Students of all shapes and sizes, backgrounds and abilities benefit from their teaching. Those students cherish their time on the courses and afterwards look back with a proper appreciation of what their university did for them, never perfect but always as best it could.
Im not sure which is the more damaging: the politicians who mean well but fail to provide good strategies, or the post-holders who take advantage of the new situations for their own benefit.
7 Taking Care
I suspect that all universities take more care of their students today than they did when I was an undergrad. Thats not to say that in the sixties tutors didnt care. They did, but contact was more formal and distant than today. There wasnt the same kind of personal tutor system. Theres wasnt the same culture of popping your head round a friendly tutors door for a quick word. We said good morning to them and they called us Mister or Miss and married students were rare.
Careswell has personal tutors chosen for being approachable and understanding. There are student support staff that are known for their skills and experience, although they are often overworked by the large numbers of students attending the university. Tutors often meet student groups for coffee. Socials are organised in a bar or cafe area (bars can automatically mean Muslim and sometimes other students do not wish to take part). The best occasions for getting to know each other are the socials that are part of residential visits, away from the time constraints of the working environment. Its another reason why Careswell makes sure that all students take part in residential rather than just a few on elite visits. Many students say that they only really got to know their fellow students and their tutors on residential weeks in their second or even third year. Thankfully Careswell takes the trouble to plan strategically there are such social occasions organised by people who know how to set them up and relate well to their students.
Bickering makes all the obvious mistakes. Socials largely disappeared years ago when staff were asked to run them who had no knowledge of how to do it. The result was a couple of sad evenings in a bar with half a dozen students outnumbered by tutors. They gave up and blamed the students for apathy. After a year or two with no socials at all it was decided to run one for final-year people who were complaining most about stress and poor management. As Bickering rules meant that course budgets could not be used to buy anything alcoholic the staff had a whip-round to lay on wine and beer. But worse has been the move to make all students book appointments to see any tutor. Knocking on a teachers door is banned. Having a quick chat in the corridor is the only way of getting a speedy, informal result. Its another damaging result of high student numbers against insufficient teaching staff. Tutors are told to refer anything other than a simple academic problem to the already overworked support advisers trying to deal with the whole university intake. The tutor-advantage of knowing the students and being able to link problem diagnosis to academic outcomes is lost. Already, Bickering has lost a complete specialist teaching and research unit to Careswell: the staff involved would not put up with such bureaucratic decisions.
8 Bickering and Careswell: Inevitable Results?
It was only on the first of this month that I reported plans by my two favourite universities for residential visits this academic year. Yes, theyre actually fictitious but with a lot to teach us.
Careswell is running a residential in West Africa. Its properly planned, full of visits and course teaching, and having been run well before it has a reputation building. So even though it costs over £500 it has attracted the biggest number of students yet. On the other hand, Bickering announced a four-day trip to an Eastern European capital at around £400 and another to learn skiing at well over £600. Neither has attracted enough students and they are being quietly dropped. Sadly, it doesnt look good for Bickering as these were organised by the marketing people who managed to get the pricing wrong, the content wrong and to undercut themselves by offering alternatives in mutually competitive products. No wonder Bickerings reputation is sinking fast. Its a pity they and Careswell cant work together.