Tag Archives: 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.


Performance related pay? Really?

I got a bit cross about an article in the Times Higher about paying academics bonuses to boost our productivity. You can read the article here. The article reports on a study carried out in Germany which suggests that paying bonuses (it seems some fairly substantial bonuses) to academics means that productive academics cluster together and that the practice got rid of lower performing candidates. The bonuses are paybale for research outputs /attracting funding and taking on management duties. Universities have discretion as to how they pay bonuses with some dividing up the pot at the end of the year based on relative performance of its academics. I feel slightly sick thinking about this. I am probably in danger of just ranting. I haven’t thought this through fully and I haven’t looked at any research on this but my initial reaction to and gut feeling about performance related by for academics is that it is just wrong. It is wrong on a number of levels and for a number of reasons. I’ll try and articulate them here.

  1. Performance related pay by definition introduces competition  – particularly where a finite pot is divvied up amongst staff based on performance. Academia should not be competitive, it should be collegiate. We should be working together to think about complex and interesting problems. We should not be guarding our knowledge, we shouldn’t be afraid to share it. We shouldn’t be encouraged to take all the credit for work we had help with. Competition for research grants etc is one thing but asking us to compete for a big chunk of our livelyhoods is not going to help research or our students
  2. That brings me nicely to students – where are they in all this. I don’t see mention of rewarding good teaching here. Are we saying that good performance in relation to teaching doesn’t matter? It’s not worth rewarding? Well that’s just great isn’t it.
  3. How do we measure performance? If performance related pay is linked to publishing certain types of outputs in certain types of outlets what happens to all the other types of really good an important work? How to keep doing that? How do we keep researching things that are not currently fashionable or rather how do we keep researching things that aren’t related to money?
  4. A closely related point is about assessing performance in academia generally. This is utterly subjective and of course the metrics put in place across the sector or by individual institutions will be fairly crude and will not be able to capture the complexities of what we all do, the variety of what we do and the fact that we all do some of those things better than others.
  5. There is of course also the point that academics, while not badly paid really, are hardly paid according to our level of education, knowledge, skills and expertise. We have battled our way through undergraduate degrees, postgraduate degrees,  in many cases professional training and eventually PhDs. We are considered very junior in our sector at a point in our lives and at an age where many sports stars have retired and where in the commercial sector you can expect to have established a career with a salary that goes with it. I don’t know a single academic who is in it for the money but it would be nice to feel that our contribution to society is valued.
  6. Academics don’t need to be paid to perform better. In areas where maybe we do struggle it is not because we don’t want to do a good job. It’s not that we can’t be bothered to write that latest article or spent the day sitting on our backsides watching daytime TV rather than preparing teaching materials. The reality is that academics are expected to do far more of everything and the pressure on our time is ridiculous. Most departments are under-staffed, all are under-resourced. We are expected to teach more, research more, do more of our own admin because why pay administrators when the academics can just do it, we are expected to comply with more and more processes and policies with time-consuming and largely pointless paperwork… Staffing departments properly and providing crucial funding for networking, conference attendance etc will make our research and teaching better on all sorts of levels.
  7. And that I think links nicely to the thing that really pissed me off about the article – the insinuation that we (academics) need to be bribed into becoming more productive. The idea that we are a bunch of lazy good for nothing layabouts who don’t work from early May to late September and have 4 weeks off over Christmas. Every academic I know works really hard and every single one of them wants to do a good job whether that’s in teaching or in their research.

So, do I think we should have performance related pay? No, no, no. It’s a stupid idea. It’s an idea that will damage academia and HE further. It’s an idea that really does make me feel sick. There’s so much wrong with it, I still don’t really know where to start. Urgh.

The Law Teacher:…

…The International Journal of Legal Education and now also the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians (BIALL)  Law Journal of the Year for 2015. How exciting is that!?! It is a real honour and pleasure to be part of the team that makes this possible. The journal’s editor is the wonderful Chris Ashford (Northumbria Uni) and I am the deputy editor. Neither of us could go to the dinner where the award was given so our consultant editor Nigel Duncan (City University) went. This seemed absolutely perfect as Nigel was the editor before Chris and really the journal’s success is down to his work. Chris and I ( well Chris mostly) have been lucky enough to be able to build on that foundation. Nigel sent this picture from the dinner (thank you Nigel!):

IMG_0999The journal is published by Routledge and they have been fantastically supportive and really do help us produce 3 fantastic issues every year. So if you teach law, whether in a university , college or school I think The Law Teacher is worth a look. I know this sounds like a shameless plug for a journal I am involved with and in a way it is. But it is a shameless plug for a great journal that I enjoy reading and which makes a genuine contribution to my teaching and therefore my students. So if I haven’t convinced you to take a look, maybe the contents of Issue 2 of 2015 will. Take a look here and judge for yourself whether the journal makes your list of top journals. It is certainly on mine.

Thank you BIALL!

Being Head of School

I have been Head of the School of Law at the Unviversity of Bradford for nearly a year now. I have on and off thought about blogging about that and have started one or two drafts and then deleted them again. Now though, it seems to me, is a good opportunity to reflect on the last year. Being Head of School was never part of my Master Plan (as far as I have one). I always saw myself, and still do, as an academic, not as an academic manager. I applied for the interim post out of necessity rather than because I really wanted the job. If it hadn’t been me it would have been someone external and I don’t think at the time that would have been the right thing for us.

So, what’s being Head of School like? Hm, it’s bloody hard work, that’s what it is. It is frustrating on so many levels. There’s so so much pointless admin; there’s the impossibility of herding academic cats (says the worst anti-hearding academic cat ever); there is meeting after meeting with no time between meetings to follow up on things discussed in meetings; there’s only really seeing students for the wrong reasons – for plagiarism, for behaviour issues or when they have serious problems… there’s other people not doing their jobs (or my perception of them not doing their jobs, let’s try and be fair) and then there’s people doing their jobs perfectly well but just not doing things my way (yep, control freak).

Being Head of School is also rewarding on all sorts of levels. There’s something really amazing about shaping the School, it’s programmes, its research and in a way there is also something amazing (if insanely infuriating) about having to justify, explain and fight for that vision. A visison which is so common sense to me and so alien to almost everyone else in the Faculty/Institution: That of a liberal legal education that is focused on learning, skills and personal growth not employability, labour markets and making money. A vision that has thinking about social justice on all sorts of levels, well actually that has thinking – full stop – at its heart. It’s a battle, every day is a battle to try and keep true to some key principles – people and their academic freedom are the most critical thing in a Law School. Freedom to shapre their careers, do their learning and research, interact with each other and learn from each other (I mean both students and staff here) – freedom to not be constrained by corporate PowerPoint slides and uniform VLEs, freedom to think and challenge and freedom to be wrong. This might sound great but then the realitiy of day to day and disengaged students and overworked colleagues hits and dumbing down, not questioning templates and processes etc is just easier. Not fighting every singly idiocy (and there are many) is easier. Not forcing your students to think is easier. Add that a lot of this goes against current university policy – Corporate PowerPoints are a must – and you can perhaps understand that I have very mixed feelings about the last year and the future.

If I am going to be Head of School for any longer (shortlisting for the post takes place Monday) I need to think really carefully about which principles are red lines and I need to think really carefully about how I can protect colleagues and students from the far too prevalent neo-liberal crap we are spoonfed daily and I need to think really carefully about how I look after myself. Because this is personal, this is about everything I believe in as an academic and a law teacher and as such, I can’t just leave it on my desk  on a Friday to come back to on Monday; I can’t just stop thinking about it so I have to find a way to deal with all the crap that I will inevitably take home with me… I don’t know whether I want the job for any longer but I do feel like it’s a job I have to keep doing for a Law School I passionately believe in, for students who are for the most part amazing and for colleagues, academic and administrative, who are an inspiration every day

Exams? Yeah, I hate the buggers too

I was asked by the Pearson (the publishers) to contribute a session to the annual Law Express revision day. They asked me to talk about exams and in particular about how you survive them.

I never liked exams as a student and I wasn’t initially all that good at them. I just didn’t get the point. After a conversation with my tutor at university I realised that I didn’t have to get the point, I just had to treat taking exams as a skill that can be learned like any other skill and I had to let go of the idea that to do well in an exam you have to know everything and remember it.

So that really was the message I wanted to share – if you’re taking an exam just remember that as long as you have attended classes, done the work you’ve been asked to do as you’ve gone a long and have done a sensible amount of revision, you will know and understand a lot of stuff. You do not need to learn everything, you need to understand it and then there might be one or two things you absolutely have to remember (and they can be written down very quickly) but the rest you just need to think about. Trust yourself and remember to use your brain when you get into the exam.

The other key message is this: There is no right way to prepare and to deal with exam pressure and stress – work out what works for you and stop worrying about what others are doing. To be honest people who start writing the second the examiner says ‘you may start’ freak me out a little. I still wonder what the hell they are writing  – I’d like to at least read the question paper before I start writing but then I guess others get panicked by the fact that someone next to them isn’t writing immediately. It’s about what works for you and we’re all different.

I still don’t really like exams, luckily I don’t have to take any but I don’t like setting them either. Exams are weird, artificial and sometimes unnecessarily hostile with the uncomfy chairs, too small desks, loudly ticking clocks and stern looking examiners/inivgilators. Pens never run out in lectures, they save that for exams, water bottles only leak in exams, your usually comfy pants suddenly make you feel really self-conscious and then you can’t remember anything at all… But try and remember this: Exams are there to test your ability to apply what you know to a practical or theoretical question within a given time. They are not a memory test, so it is not about remembering lots of information, it is about understanding stuff and if you understand something you will be able to think about it, use it and develop it when you get into the exam room.

Anyway, just in case they are useful to any of you, my slides from the day are here:

Exam tips