Tag 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.


Equality and Diversity in Legal Education 3

And here’s the third and final part of  my reflections on the workshop on Equality and Diversity in Legal Education. Part 1 can be found here and part 2 here.

After lunch we had another set of parallel sessions and I chaired Session 2B. The  first paper picked up the theme of ‘polish’ and helping students to assimilate. Dominic De Saulles took a pragmatic view that the legal culture at the Bar is what it is and then considered our responsibilities and duties to those of our students aspiring to the bar.img_1422

He noted the significant ethical challenges we face in helping or even encouraging students to join that legal culture which might mean they have to ascribe to values they find unpalatable and lose some of their sense of self in doing so. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the Kantian ethics justification for helping students learn to pass as barristers but I need to think about this a bit more. It seems to me that what would be more valuable is to talk about resistance and how things might be changed but I also accept that for that to be possible these non-authentic lawyers need to get into the professions otherwise there is little hope of a revolution from within! Dominic had some lovely pictures on his slides and one of my favourites was this one which shows img_1426a court room with lots of people doing things they shouldn’t be – the defendant is pleading guilty thus depriving lawyers of income, one advocate has lost the plot and is showing emotion, another id ducking rather than standing up for his client….

The second paper was given by Elisabeth Griffiths and grappled with hierarchies of rights and protection under the Equality Act 2010 and how this might play out in employer networks. She had some really interesting data on networks (or lack of networks) and we had an interesting discussion about how effective those networks might be and how much they are just for show or for ticking boxes.


I was also interested in Elisabeth’s comments about how doing this research has impacted on her teaching and is leading her to be less doctrinal in her approach. I do think what and how we research can have an impact on how we teach certain topics. I guess this is an argument for having people teaching in areas where they are also research active but I think it probably also says something about the relationship between research and teaching more generally. I have weekend brain though so I’ll wait to think about that a bit more until I am back on working day brain!

The day finished with a roundtable with Pat Leighton asking what is special about researching equality and diversity; Charlotte O’Brien offering comments on teaching equality and diversity in the very contested Brexit context and Debra Malpass of the SRA providing some information about a call for statistical analysis and a data workshop coming up shortly (sorry I tuned out on the project call because I can’t do stats). The roundtable touched on many of the thoughts I’d had throughout the day – we need more and better information about how inequalities are playing out across legal education and training and in the professions. We need longitudinal data, we need data that is richer and deeper than a questionnaire will offer, we need high quality qualitative empirical data and we need high quality clear and comprehensive quantitative data and we need to keep talking – to each other, to our students, to those in the profession and to anyone who will listen – and, perhaps more importantly than all of those – to those who don’t want to listen. Yes, most of all we need to be talking to them!

Equality and Diversity in Legal Education 2

Here’s part 2 of my reflections on the University of Sheffield School of Law and LERN co-hosted worksop on equality and diversity in legal education.

The day continued with a parallel session where I listened to 3 papers which were all interesting and which all triggered different but related thoughts and ideas. The first was about how we can achieve  more inclusive legal education in the context of disability and it engaged with both the lack of visibility or presence of disability in the legal curriculum and problems of access to legal education for disabled students. img_1416The idea of what a good lawyer is again came up. If a good lawyer is the person who can stand the heat in the kitchen then any notion of weakness means you can never be a good lawyer. Declaring a disability or asking for an adjustment therefore becomes impossible. Hidden disabilities in particular are then easily construed as a deficit. For example you cannot be a good lawyer if you are dyslexic because law is text based and you need to read things quickly…Surely it can’t be beyond us to think about these skills differently.

The second paper was about how we can actually build a curriculum around the students in the classroom and start from their experiences. Jenny Gibbons from York Univeristy explained how she did this for her employment law module. I like this idea. You talk to your students about their experiences and knowledge and build on that – this means the content of the module has to be fluid and flexible and about developing skills and constructing knowledge, not about learning or acquiring knowledge. That can be challenging to do in an institutional context which is keen on measuring very specific learning outcomes and ensuring the equivalence of experience for all students. It is also a challenge to traditional teaching orthodoxy because the classroom experience for the teacher is less structured, less safe and less planned. That can be scary. In fact, it is scary. It’s daunting walking into a classroom not being quite sure what is going to come up, what you’re going to be discussing and where the discussions might take you. Of course it is easier to simply set some questions and go through the answers… it’s also more boring, less rewarding and less likely to actually engage the students and encourage deep learning.  So there – I’m all for asking questions you don’t know the answer to and to being open to learning from our students.

The third paper was about globalized legal education and the benefits this might bring and it got me thinking about what truly globalized legal education might be. We also talked about whether globalized legal education and/or exchange programmes could help students build the all important cultural capital (and start to develop some of the sort of professionalism required – See post  1 in this series). I’m afraid I missed some of this paper because I got sidetracked thinking about what globalised legal education would really mean. Not that I have got very far with this but I was thinking about the tensions between law being jurisdiction specific and the (perceived?) need to teach legal rules which will mostly be set in the national context and the idea of global legal education.

So by lunch time my head was already full of thoughts and ideas. I was beginning to make connections to some of the things I have been thinking about for a while and which I will pick up again soon – questions around academic identity and how that plays out in law schools and what impact that may have on students too. Watch this space – it’s currently all swirling round in my brain and I need to wait for it to settle before I manfully articulate this.

After lunch I chaired a session with two excellent papers which you can read about in part 3 and if you missed my thoughts on the keynote, have a look at part 1.

Equality and Diversity in Legal Education 1

Yesterday I attended a brilliant workshop hosted by the University of Sheffield School of Law and the Legal Education Research Network (LERN). A big thanks to Tammy Hervey for urging me to register and for reassuring me that I could come along and just be. This workshop was advertised at a time when I couldn’t even begin to imagine wanting to be in a room full of academics, never mind think about stuff. In the end I did, as Tammy predicted, have a fantastic day and enjoyed chairing a session, too.

The day kicked off with a slightly depressing and thought provoking key note by Professor Hilary Sommerlad. Depressing because research seems to be indicating that things are getting worse in the legal profession rather than better; thought provoking because there are so many barriers to equality and diversity and yet they seem to me to always come back to how we think about what a ‘good lawyer’ is. If we don’t reconceptualise that, we’ll never make any real progress. Why is it that we can’t get past this? Why is it so difficult to remove some of these barriers even where the solution appears to be blindingly obvious?

Hilary talked about two of her projects in particular. The first study is roughly 10 years old now and looked at how LPC students saw the legal field. As part of her focus groups participants drew pictures of lawyers as they saw them/imagined them and the pictures she shared were all quite similar – white, male, middle class lawyers working long hours being paid lots. Interestingly Hilary pointed out that when talking to her participants and highlighting that they were painting a picture of people that were  (in many cases anyway) very different to themselves and not very sympathetic, some participants said that this was part of the appeal. Others were also keenly aware of their otherness and the fact that they’d never fit in. It reminded me of the meal I attended at a very posh restaurant in Leicester at the beginning of my second year as a law student. I had come in the top 6 students in my year and a well known City Law Firm took us out for tea. I didn’t wear a dress, I wore trousers and a shirt. I didn’t tone down my Yorkshire accent, I didn’t hide the fact I came from a single parent family and I didn’t hide the fact I hadn’t gone to a grammar school. I ordered the wrong wine and probably the wrong thing off the menu. I chatted, happily, with the people from the firm about the privilege of going to university, the fact that I had enjoyed Tort more than Contract and that I was looking forward to spending Christmas at my Gran’s in the deepest depth of West Yorkshire. I didn’t know that this was not how you played the game – nobody had told me the rules. I didn’t know there were rules! I wish I had known. If I had I might have played better. Not because I wanted desperately to get a training contract with that firm but because if I know what the rules are I can challenge them, break them, laugh at them. I think everyone else at that dinner was invited for an interview – I never heard from them again.

Anyway, I digress. The second project Hilary talked about is a study recently published about how recruiters see talent and merit. I wasn’t surprised to hear that merit equals academic achievement. I have spoken to people responsible for recruitment who, after a glass of wine or two and a lot of nudging admitted that they want to recruit people who look different but otherwise are identical because it allows them to hit diversity statistics without actually doing anything different or risk ‘alienating clients’.  It’s disappointing and slightly sickening to see how little progress has been made in the legal profession.

The key point from the key note for me was the fact that clearly so many people self-select themselves out of a career in law or out of particular sectors within the legal professions because they don’t see themselves as fitting in. I wonder how many more select themselves out of studying law because they think it’s not for them? We need to talk about this, unpack it and challenge it. People should never have to make a decision about whether or not to follow their dreams based on having the wrong accent, the wrong parents, the wrong background, the wrong whatever it may be.

So what do we do to change things? Do we try and help our students achieve that particular type of professionalism that Professor Sommerlad talks about? Do we help polish them? This doesn’t sit comfortably with me. If we teach them to pass in that world, to assimilate we change nothing about the culture and we might well make them really quite miserable! Leaving aside the fact that I never could teach someone how to speak properly, dress to impress and talk about the right sort of things, I don’t think we should be suggesting to students that they should be doing this. However, I do think we should tell it as it is. We can’t raise aspirations without being honest about what that might mean and what students might have to deal with to get into the professions, stay there and progress. Part of our job then has to be to teach students about the sort of professionalism that is expected, about the behaviour that is expected and the sort of things some people in the professions will take for granted and that which will go unquestioned and unchallenged. I also strongly believe that teaching critical thinking skills and encouraging students to question and challenge everything is more important than ever. To go back to one of my favourite books on legal education – we need to empower students to have their own conversations, make their own choices and take their own chances (See Anthony Bradney).

The key note made me think again about what lawyering is and what it means to be a good lawyer. How do we model this in the class room? What assumptions do we make and are they justified? What messages are we sending by what we say and do in the classroom and elsewhere when engaging with students? What are we telling students about lawyers and being a lawyer? What are we not telling them? How much difference does what we say make given that they get their messages from all sorts of sources including TV series and films as well as society generally? What is our role in the identity formation of our students and what is our responsibility in all of this?

As usual I have far more questions than answers for now! For part 2 of my reflections see the next blog post and for part three, the one after that.




Induction 1

I am stuck on a rather delayed train from London to Leeds and while I’ve been sitting here, I’ve been reflecting on the academic induction I did yesterday. In common with other institutions Leeds Beckett University offers an induction for all staff (which I haven’t done yet but you’ll see from the title of this post that I am keeping my option open for blogging on that one too!) as well as a full day induction for new academic staff. That full day was yesterday.

So, organisational issues aside (you know me, poor organisation drives me just a little crazy and there were one or two issues) here are my thoughts.

  1. Academic inductions are impossible, just impossible to get right
  2. I would have liked to be given a pack or folder with the information in and just left alone to read. There was nothing there that I couldn’t have just read and in fact I have forgotten a lot of the stuff we were told already and will have to find it again on the website or in the various bits of literature we were given
  3. I am not sure what I would put into an academic induction
  4. I am not sure I would have two slots for the Quality people. I say this in spite of the two short talks by the Quality team actually being amongst the better ones of the day. Somehow it sent the wrong message
  5. Graduate attributes are a funny concept – they are supposed to distinguish graduates of the same subjects from different universities but this presumes that institutions have different graduate attributes. It struck me how similar those of my previous and current institutions are – they just use different terms to describe them
  6. The research people got it – they brought leaflets, said a very quick hello and then left. I now have names which I can link to faces and leaflets to remind me as and when I need information
  7. It’s good to have a slot about equality and diversity – if we have to have slots at all. I still maintain that a new academic staff folder that you’re given when you start would be better! Maybe with a networking lunch or something where new academics can meet key people.
  8. While it was probably useful to be given an overview of services etc by central university teams there was a fair amount of stuff that referred us back to School based teams/people. It would be more useful for me to meet them but not right now, when I need them because otherwise I will just forget
  9. I have not been that bored in a very very long time. I feel awful saying that but I really was bored stupid. It was all so pointless. Yes, I am back to the folders idea.
  10. Ok, I’m trying not to be negative. Was there anything good – well I met a few people I’ll probably not see again; I touched based with the Centre for Learning and Teaching; I… nope, that’s it I think

I do wonder if everyone feels like this about the induction or whether this is me being particularly cynical again. Am I just being the proverbial cat that doesn’t want to be herded in any way at all? Do I underestimate the level of experience I have in HE and does that impact in how useful I think the induction was? I also realise that I may have tuned out a whole load of really useful information and that this might all come back to bite me when I really need to know something and can’t find the answer!