Category Archives: Higher Education

Excellence in HE Conference 2017

A little earlier this year something possessed me to think it might be a good idea to present something at the Excellence in HE conference that Leeds Beckett hosts annually. It’s run by the quality team so goodness knows what I was thinking. I either wasn’t or I was feeling disruptive and a bit naughty.

I have some poorly thought through thoughts on Excellence in HE and have spent some time doing a few bits of research that speak to the issue. I’ll come back to that in a moment. When the day came and I stood at Crossflatts station in the rain I was cursing myself. A day, a WHOLE DAY, away from writing my book and having to engage with people who can say ‘Excellence in HE’ with a straight face.

I actually had a great day. After the usual welcome we heard from Ant of WonkHE who told us all about TEF and how it tells us nothing about teaching (or excellence) and how the results are totally meaningless but there is some quite interesting data we should all go away and look at – because it tells us something – even if that something isn’t about teaching. I’m ok with that. The day had started with something that made sense. Then came the second keynote on the role of governing bodies in HE. I’m afraid I tuned out. I heard ‘accountant’, ‘leadership foundation’ and ‘committee of university chairs’ (or something) and saw white slides with lots of black text and I was gone – I spent a delightful 40 minutes in my own head – sorry. My bad, I’m sure.

Then we had coffee and split into groups. I’d really wanted to go to the session on Research Informed Teaching but I couldn’t – I had to be in the Learning from Research session to give my talk. The first presentation was great – about dissertation bootcamps and a field trip to Malham youth hostel to walk, think, write.  How awesome is that. Such a great opportunity to engage properly with students and treat them as humans rather than numbers. What a great way to foster individual excellence and to inspire and be inspired. Then I was up. Not using a powerpoint confused the organisers for a minute or two but then I was off. The paper after mine was also interesting – matrix learning and resilience in a number of disciplines. The last paper I didn’t really ‘get’ (and I heard it twice because it was repeated in the afternoon) – it was about Dance education and university students going into schools to teach dance (I think, but I sort of tuned out. I needed more coffee and was getting hungry).

After lunch the sessions were repeated so the Dance paper was first up and then it was me again and then my colleague Teresa told us about her work on transition from 6th form to university and how we can’t really expect students to be independent learners overnight. Then we had coffee and finished with a plenary summarising all sessions. It had been an unexpectedly good day.

So what were my thoughts on Excellence in HE. Well I’m interested in the rhetoric around excellence. And I think it’s all wrong. Excellence is a buzzword – it’ll fall out of favour soon enough and we’ll all be talking about something else. It’s hard to define and we all see it differently. But because it is hard to define we struggle to measure excellence so we measure a proxy or rather lots of proxies instead and pretend that they tell us something about excellence but usually they don’t – they tell us how many students got jobs or how much they earn or what grades they came and left with. Excellent teaching is measured in module evaluation scores covering all sorts of proxies. But when, through my research and informally, I talk to people about excellence it is rare for tangible things that can be ticked off lists to be mentioned – usually it is about the emotion of a situation or context, about how a teacher made us feel, how a research paper made us think, how a well timed and well constructed question by a teacher made us see something in a different light altogether. Excellence is not always (or even often) synonymous with a good student experience of being happy and getting what you want – students I spoke to often talked about excellent teaching making them deeply uncomfortable and being very challenging.

I’m also interested in how universities present ‘Excellence’ claims and mostly on the websites I studied they don’t unpick their assertions at all. Some (guess which ones) claim they are excellent teaching facilities and offer excellent student experience because they are highly ranked research institutions. Others claim to offer excellent teaching because their staff all (or mostly) hold teaching qualifications and others claim that excellence because their staff hold professional (industry) qualifications. None of those claims are justified or explored further. Anyway, I rambled on about all of this for a while but my thinking sort of got to this: We need to move away from thinking about excellence as something that can be achieved, measured or even really articulated and accept that it means different things to different people – as such we can all be excellent to some people (students, colleagues, managers, funders….) some of the time but we can never be excellent to everyone or even to some all of the time (and for me that means choosing who is my priority – some things that make it more likely that students get an excellent learning experience might be in conflict with what management expectations of my excellence are – guess who wins). Also, because excellence means different things we can and should take a more personal approach to excellence and remember that our students are not numbers, they are people, people who all have the potential to be excellent some of the time. I think, and this was prompted by one of the comments in the plenary, that we need to shift our focus away from what good or excellent teaching is because that isn’t getting us anywhere and instead think about what conditions we need to create to allow for excellent learning. I said in the first iteration of my paper that inspirational teaching might be excellent teaching and that was picked up in the plenary with a throwaway remark that I had possibly just come up with that on the day or ‘maybe she had thought about it before’. I wasn’t quite in punching distance to the bloke who said that (of course it was a bloke) but I thought that was a bit rude and I wondered whether he would have said it about a bloke. He also didn’t use my title when he referred to me but he did use the title when he referred to one of the blokes. Every day sexism for you but that’s not the point of this post…

I’ll keep thinking about this stuff. There’s something about the way we talk about excellence in HE that is fascinating.


Brexit and Law Schools – my thoughts

I attended an event at Northumbria University today. It was titled Brexit and the Law School and I was asked to contribute some thoughts on ‘Learning, Teaching and the University: The Changing Shape of the University Community’. Below is a summary of my brief talk. I’ll try and summarise the rest of the day’s discussion in another post

  1. Law Schools are, in my view, distinct little communities within the wider university community, within the wider local, regional and national communities and, again in my view, communities are shaped by those who inhabit them. Therefore, to understand the impact of Brexit on Law Schools we need to understand how Brexit might change the make-up of the Law School and university communities and what that change might mean on the ground
  2. So how will the make-up of Law School and University inhabits change post Brexit? We don’t know!
  3. Here’s what we do know
  • UCAS figures show that applications from UK students for Law Courses for 2017 entry are up by 7% whereas applications from EU students are down 3%
  • UCAS figures also show that applications from UK students across the board for 2017 entry are down by 4%, whereas applications from EU students are down by 6%
  • The proportion of EU students studying law is relatively small when compared to the proportion of EU students studying some other subjects
  • The number and proportion of EU students varies quite dramatically between institutions
  • There is lots of anecdotal evidence that EU national academic staff are considering or actively looking to leave the UK and work elsewhere in Europe or the rest of the world
  • There is also anecdotal evidence of EU nationals discounting the UK as a possible destination for work
  • However there is also anecdotal evidence of EU national colleagues making plans to stay in the UK long term and also of some recruitment of EU national staff since the referendum
  • The UCU survey about academics’ views on Brexit suggests that 76% of non-UK national academics are considering leaving the UK. That’s pretty damning. However, I would urge caution over that figure because ‘considering’ is very different from ‘planning to’ and the considering may be the result of quite significant uncertainty. Thing may change as we get clarification on what rights exactly will be available to our EU colleagues

4. This leads me on to what these figures don’t tell us

  • Whether they are a trend or a blip. The applications for Law from EU nationals are still higher in number than for the 3 years running up to 2016 so was 2016 just a bumper year and we are returning to ‘normal’?
  • What will the figures be over the next 5-10 years? Only once we know that can the data really tell us something about whether Brexit had a significant impact on the number of EU national (law) students in the UK
  • If it is more than a blip, is it really Brexit or the uncertainty around Brexit that has caused the drop?

5. In short we don’t know how the make-up of Law School inhabitants might change. We really don’t. But let’s assume the worst – that we will loose the majority of our EU students and colleagues and that we will loose access to the Erasmus+ programme and research mobility/exchange programmes – what would the impact of that be? Well I think it would be devastating. I think we could see

  • a shift on who and what is valued in Law Schools
  • a more inward looking and insular approach to scholarship and teaching
  • less engagement with EU and international issues and in particular with non-common law issues and approaches
  • less well rounded curricula -explicit and hidden
  • a reduction in the opportunities to learn from each other and a loss of the sort of creativity that happens when you tackle a problem together with people who bring different ways of thinking and doing things to the table
  • less tolerance for different ideas and approaches and ways of thinking
  • less well rounded lawyers – whether academics, practitioners or ‘just’ citizens of (a possibly much more narrowly defined) world

So my question really is – how do we make sure that we don’t become insular and inward looking law schools that irrelevant to the rest of the world or possibly just irrelevant?

Week 1

Many of you will know that this week I started my new job as Senior Lecturer in Law at Leeds Beckett University. Monday seems like such a very very long time ago. It’s been a good week. I am shattered today but I wanted to offer some reflections on my first week – a week which has gone some way to confirming that academia may be where I belong after all.

I have had lovely messages of support by email, on twitter and Facebook but there are three people who have stood out. First there is Bex who looked after us so well the weekend before I started and just let me be, do nothing, relax and have fun. Going to see her the weekend before starting the new job was such a good decision and set the tone for this week. Second and third are two people who I actually don’t know that well but who have been amazing and who seemed to just ‘get’ what starting this new adventure meant to me. The first is the lovely Linda who also works at Leeds Beckett and who delivered a card to the Law School on Monday. It made me cry (of course it did – these things do). The card was full of great advice – like where to find things on the website and where to get good coffee. (Linda if you read this – I’ll be in touch to say thanks over coffee in person!)


Then there was Elaine who is as brilliant as she is lovely and she sent me  this card, which I love because it makes me laugh and these utterly awesome coloured pencils:


I’m not quite sure when they arrived because I didn’t quite register that I had a little pigeon hole! Anyway, they are amazing and even though I didn’t know I needed them, I clearly do need them and have no idea how I functioned before I had them. They have brightened up my notes and make me smile every time I look at them.

So the week has been a bit of a blur really. I have met new people, learned about new systems and software packages, learned how to use the phone system and then had the phone taken away and Skype for business installed. I’ve booked myself on inductions, got lost in buildings, found the library, got lost a bit more, set up calendars, email and folder structures, met more people, talked about teaching, timetables and Foucault… It’s all good.

I am in a big open plan office which will take some getting used to – for a start I may have to dial down the swearing at technology a little. I quite like the noise around me – it helps me focus (Am I weird?) but I don’t know how that will work out in the long run – will people interrupt my by coming over? We’ll see. I am glad I am at the back of the office rather than in the middle where people walk past all the time. I will also have to do much of my writing work at home because there’s not enough space for me to spread out all my crap around me.

The week finished with an Away Day today. A number of things struck me about that. First, it was actually sort of away… Well, it felt like it was away to me – it was at Headingly stadium in the Carnegie Pavilion overlooking the cricket ground. It is a Leeds Beckett building so it wasn’t really away but it felt like it, particularly because there was a match on.

It also struck me that there is a huge amount to celebrate at the Law School and that people are doing a huge amount of really good work which is of real value to students and yet my colleagues seemed to lack a bit of confidence in themselves (I mean collectively, as a School not individually) and the really good work they are doing. We talk about raising the aspirations of our students – maybe we should also raise our own. I also noticed that for a group of academics we were pretty quiet. I think people did engage with all the activities and presentations but I wondered whether people were holding back, whether people were a little cynical about the away day and the issues being raised. Don’t get me wrong, I am cynical about everything and I am the first to roll my eyes at away day type activities, I hate ice breakers and if there is role play to be done I will be an awkward sod BUT this wasn’t like that. It seemed to me to genuinely be about celebrating success and thinking about how to build on that and I was a little puzzled by the lack of ambition and the extent to which we got bogged down in operational detail. However, maybe it isn’t surprising because we are at the time of the academic year when operational detail hits us square in the face. LPC teaching has started and we’re not far off undergraduate inductions etc. Maybe it is obvious that we will all be more concerned with getting ourselves in front of the students rather than with strategic thinking about where we want to be. There may of course also be an institutional history and legacy that I’m not part of which colours people’s perception of away days and shapes behaviour.

Anyway, I feel like I have a better sense of the place, a better idea of how it functions, what people are concerned about and what should be celebrated more. Clearly I have landed in a Law School that has much to be proud of but hasn’t been told that enough. Importantly, none of it feels alien. I don’t feel out of place. Even on day two, walking to my desk felt ‘right’, like I’m supposed to be there, belong.

I am sure there is lots more but I now have ‘Friday Brain’ and can’t really process anything.  I think the important thing I wanted to share (because of course you’ve been waiting impatiently for me to update you) is that it has been a good week. It’s been full of support and what has certainly felt like genuine collegiality. I have enjoyed going to work, I have been pretty efficient, I have worked sensible hours and I am looking forward to next week.


I’m packed, sorted and ready

I wrote about the excitement of choosing my notebook in the last post. Well I have chosen. In fact I have picked more than just the notebook- I have picked all the things I will take to my first day at work on Monday. I have put them in in bag and put the bag back in the study – all ready to go.

I have also put to one side the things I think I want to wear on Monday – although I may change my mind about that. I know, I know it is only Friday but we’re away this weekend and I do not want to have to think or worry about a thing while we’re away. This way, I don’t have to do anything when we get back. I can get up on Monday morning, open my wardrobe, pull out the clothes I’ve put to one side and put them on, pick up the bag in the study and go. I don’t feel anxious or stressed or anything other than excited and I’d like to keep it that way.

So, what do you take to work on your first day? Beats me! It’s been 9 years since I had to think about that and last time I’d seen my office space before and actually last time I didn’t really have any stuff! So here’s what I’ve gone for. This is my 1st day kit:

  1. My folder with information of how to find the Law School (that would be a good start), my certificates and other bits and pieces for HR  and my contractual docs etc. Then the two notebooks I have chosen. One is my general one – you’re not likely to see me without it much. I’ve tried notepads and folders and bits of paper etc – I can never find anything ever again – so everything goes in the book – from research ideas to people’s contact details, to meeting notes, everything. However, I then worry about missing something so I also have a to-do-list book. That’s the second smaller notebook. I can see you rolling your eyes. Roll away, for a control freak like me it works. I have a little to do book on the go from Bradford. I’ve only used the first 3 pages so I was just going to go with that but as I picked it up to pack it my heart rate shot up. I didn’t want to open it and look – so I didn’t. I put it back in one of the yet untouched boxes from my previous working life and picked up the little green one instead. IMG_1268I also of course need my magic pen. I like the look and feel and weighting of my Disney pen. I’ve hardly used it – it sat on my study desk at home gathering dust – well that’s about the change. As I said in the last post, I am hanging on to the magic and excitement of September and the pen will help!
  2. Next we have the obligatory sticky note kit with some clips – I know I am not likely to need paperclips on my first day or perhaps ever but they’re cat paperclips! And anyway, you just never know! IMG_1269
  3. My magic pen might not be enough. I know better than to go anywhere with just one pen. That pretty much guarantees that the pen will disappear or worse, run out. So I have a collection of pens, blue, black and green as well as a highlighter and some more sticky notes which all nicely sit in a gorgeous little mug that my lovely friend, colleague and co-author of my next book Sanna bought me to cheer me up after my first stretch of sick leave. It’s a reminder that academia is about collegiality and therefore it is absolutely coming with me on day 1.IMG_1271
  4. Finally, my coffee mug which reads ‘Today is the Day Everything Goes According to Plan’ and my Herdy coaster as well as a selection of teabags and coffee. I went for all non-caffeine first and then thought ‘who am I kidding’ and headed back into the kitchen to hunt for sachets of the proper stuff. Finding good coffee is pretty high on my list of priorities for Monday!IMG_1270

I am still debating electronic devices. I am getting a work laptop and I will enjoy setting up folder structures and email folders etc so I think I’ll be going without my Mac and iPad. All I really need now is a book for the commute!

To New Beginnings

1st September always seems to signal the start of a new academic year. Attention turns to teaching which starts in just a few short weeks, the research done and not done over the summer, the sort of inevitableness of the academic cycle and the fact that once teaching hits it won’t be long until Christmas – but it will feel long because there’s no half term or break to let you draw breath. I remember the last couple of early Septembers as being times to grit my teeth and tackle everything with a ‘right, here we go again then’ attitude. However, I also remember early Septembers which were full of the ‘back to school’ excitement – the same excitement I used to feel as a child shopping for new notebooks and pens and folders. You know what I’m talking about, right? That promise that a new academic year holds, things to learn, to discover, to talk about, to read, to find out…

Today I realised that I am recapturing some of that magic of the childhood back to school wonder. I start new job on Monday and the closer it gets the more excited I am. I am no longer anxious or worried about it, I am just excited. Excited to get back into the classroom, excited to see what a new academic year in a new institution holds, excited to push my research forward, excited about the conversations I’ll have and also quite excited to head upstairs to my study at some point today and choose a new notebook from the collection of notebooks I seem to have amassed over the last couple of years. I’ve stuck to boring, ruled, institution supplied ones for the last year at least. Now I feel it is time to choose something else. A new notebook for a new chapter of my academic career.

So on Monday I start as a Senior Lecturer in Law at Leeds Beckett University. Once I decided I was leaving Bradford, I knew that if I was going to go for another job in academia it would have to be something that allowed me to get back to teaching and to my research and to make a real contribution. I have been told again and again that I did a good job in management, and maybe I did, but I don’t get excited about it. In just 2 years it managed to extinguish the September magic. Now that September magic is back and I intend to hang onto it with both hands – sod that, I’ll sit on it if I have to.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suddenly cured of the crap of the previous job. I can’t read my previous blog post without crying or without feeling slightly sick. I am cautious, very cautious, all institutions are mad and the sector is in a right mess. I know all this and I am not going into my new role with rose tinted glasses. I still wonder if I am good enough sometimes; I will, I’m sure, get frustrated at the idiocy of things but that’s not what this is about. It’s about new beginnings, it’s about the promise of those new beginnings, about the excitement and wonder and about hanging onto that promise and the excitement for as long as possible into the academic year – and then finding ways to renew them.

Thank you for all the lovely, kind and inspiring messages of support. Please join me as I step onto the next rollercoaster in my journey through this academic theme park.