A blog post on a blog post

Recently the External Relations Department at the University in which I work, approached me to write a post for their academic blog: ‘Bridging the Gap’ (which can be found here).  The University is promoting the research and outputs of its staff and they had picked up on the recent publication of a book I have co-edited with Graham Steventon and Lynn Clouder from the University of Coventry.  The book originated from the work of the Disparities in Student Attainment Project that was delivered by the two universities.  Although the book focuses on the attainment of all students in HE, the original project looked at differential degree outcomes from a post-race perspective.

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As a result of the original project and the recent press attention on the minority group experience in higher education, my blog focused on degree differentials and how the University in which I work is engaged in eradicate this.

I found writing the blog quite difficult for two reasons.  Firstly, as a researcher I am bound by the ethical principle of ‘Do No Harm’.  This raised the question of how do you talk about issues that highlight that one group of students have a very different experience of higher education than another,without doing potential harm?  If I was to talk on an organisational level, I could be doing harm to the University I work at if I do not also mention that it is working hard to make a difference and has made a substantial impact in this area over the last few years.  I could also be doing damage to the group of students who I am working for.  How do you discuss a degree awarding gap without potentially generating a learned  helplessness amongst these students?  In the past I have taken a positive approach to these discussions and focused on what we know can make a difference and therefore provide a road map to success.  However, I was writing a blog and only had about 500 words to introduce the topic and highlight its recent prevalence in the press, ethically discuss the situation and then link it all to the book.  So, covering all the ethical angles in the space given was difficult.  What I wished to also say is that in order to be successful at University all students need to engage in positive learning relationship with their peers and their lecturers.  Students need to attend lectures, seminars and tutorials and to engage with the learning materials. Understanding what is required of them is crucial and also how this is very different to their previous educational experiences. In particular understanding what ‘independent learning’ entails is crucial to success. But most importantly  students need to ask for help when they don’t understand something.  Having productive discussions about these issues with University staff will help students make links at the University and start to feel a sense of belonging.

I also found the blog difficult to write as I am intrigued by the current uproar about the recent election of Malia Bouattia’s as the President of the National Union of Students.  In particular I am interested in the debates around the accusations that she has made anti-Semitic comments, her opposition to PREVENT and the accusations that she is a terrorist and how this has led to some Universities threatening to de-unionize. Malia presented via Skype at our last BME Attainment Summit about her campaign to diversify the curriculum.  During her presentation it was very evident that she is passionate about equality.  Therefore, I read with interest the defence of her election which she published in the press last weekend.  This and the debates above have since been commented on via WONKHE by the former Director of Policy at the NUS, Debbie McVitty, who has noted that Malia’s tactics will define her Presidency, stating:

The concern is less Bouattia’s political positions than her potential tactics. NUS has fostered constructive relationships with governments and the higher education sector over the past ten years, to the extent that little happens in higher education policy without NUS’s input.

Part of my interest stems from the fact that the SU at the University in which I work seem to have taken their lead from the National Union and have been an amazing support to me and the work that I have been doing, along with working very closely with the University to support its work to enhance the student experience.  I know that I am lucky as some of the other institutions I have collaboratively worked with do not have this sort of relationship with their SU.  So I hope our working relationship continues into the future.  What I do  know is that our SU are committed to encouraging further work in the area of BME student attainment.  In fact, I believe that they have invited Malia for further discussions about the curriculum. So I wait to see what further work in the area of student success that comes from this meeting.

Bye for now,

Debs

 

That Friday Feeling (#FF)

Most Friday’s are my research day when I get to return to my roots.  I look forward to Friday because I utterly love being involved in research and enjoy nothing more than collecting and analysing data. I first encountered research when I was 14 and involved in a School’s Council History Project which explored the role that Ironbridge in Shropshire played in the Industrial Revolution.  My fellow students and I were introduced to primary data sources for the first time and spent a few days in archives and records offices exploring what evidence we could find about Ironbridge at the time and what it told us. I was enthralled from the start but then it got even more exciting when I found references to members of my own family and their involvement in the Darby Foundry. Since then I’ve not looked back.

These days my research considers students in higher education and in particular what factors encourage or hinder their academic success.  My most recent project is looking at why students commit academic misconduct and is part of an HEA funded collaborative project involving Kingston University, the University of Hertfordshire, the University of Wolverhampton and DeMontford University. The outcome of the collaborative project is to share best practice with the sector about reducing the ethnicity based attainment gap.  Much of my research over the last six years has aimed to better understand what success factors could be used to reduce the attainment gap and has included:

  • the Disparities in Student Attainment Project (DiSA). – a joint programme of work with Coventry University which explored students’ and teachers’ beliefs about what contributes to ethnicity attainment gap, as well as the effectiveness of selected interventions to reduce the attainment. This work identified four areas that influence student success: the quality of learning relationships, pedagogy and academic issues, psycho-social influences and social and cultural capital.
  • the What Works Programme – is a HEA funded retention and success change programme that involves 13 UK HEIs.  The contribution to this programme made by the University in which I work, focuses on how an inclusive assessment process increases student success, positively impacts on students’ sense of belonging and reduces course level attainment gaps.
  • A University Belongingness Study – which is a quantitative and qualitative exploration of students’ sense of belonging.  This suggests that there are  differences in the perceived sense of belonging between students categorised as BME and their white counterparts. This work also explores what belongingness means to students and how it is developed or lost and the impact of this on students’ experience.
  • An HEA Strategic Enhancement Project (Retention & Success) – this examined the role of place and space in the development of student’s sense of belonging.
  • Pre-expectations of Higher Educations – a study which looked at what pre-induction students expected of their University education and compared these expectations to those of University lectures.  This comparison suggests that there are 10 gaps in the expectations of new students and those who teach them.

Yesterday was, as always, an enjoyable day.  I am analysing data at the moment which is exciting, testing, trying, challenging and stimulating all at once. But yesterday I added fulfilling to that list too. Because yesterday I started to see new links between the findings from this study and the ones that are listed above.  I love it when overlaps occur between pieces of work which help to create a more coherent holistic picture.  Needless to say, I’m already looking forward to next Friday; in fact, I can’t wait to get back down to this………

 

Bye for now

Debs

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Is an outstanding research supervisor out of the ordinary?

I was very pleased to see that the Times Higher Education Awards have added a new category for this year’s set of awards: the ‘Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year’.  I think this is brilliant because a lot of my colleagues who are senior researchers are overlooked in the University teaching awards, which often focus on undergraduate teaching, because senior researchers, more often than not, deliver postgraduate courses. (N.B, I’m fully aware of the debate about teaching awards being divisive but I’m choosing to ignore that in this post).  However, I was surprised by the THE’s definition of, or more correctly criteria for selection, of an outstanding research supervisor (see below).

Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year

This award will be given to the individual who has created the most supportive, stimulating and inspirational research environment for PhD students. Submissions will be accepted from students, supervisors themselves, or their colleagues, but student testimonies must be included. 

Judges will be looking for a supervisor who:

• demonstrates enthusiasm for the role, is flexible in regard to supervision sessions, and is prepared to go the extra mile to help navigate students through difficulties, be they academic or otherwise

• challenges students while encouraging them to contribute something substantial to their specific area of academic discourse

• provides additional support and facilities to give greater scope to the PhD, or to enable it to be completed early

• is exceptionally supportive through the planning for assessments and the PhD viva

• offers constructive employment and career advice post-graduation

From my experience as Research Developer, and therefore the person who trains and develops the research supervisors at the University in which I work, virtually every supervisor I meet demonstrates these qualities with all the postgraduate researchers that they supervise.  We are a widening participation University and this extends to our doctoral student community. Our postgraduate researchers range in age (from 21 -85), range in research experience (some of our PGRS are experienced academics, researchers and practitioners) and where they are based (our PGRS may be from a few miles down the road, from Devon or Scotland or even based half way around the world). Consequently, flexibility is central to everything our supervisors deliver and not one of them would think twice about going the extra mile to support their students, whether that be academically or pastorally.  

As part of my role I deliver research development opportunities for our PGRS and it is rare for a session to go by without at least one of the workshop delegates telling me about the passion and enthusiasm of their supervisors and the motivation this provides for them. Our supervisors are known for never saying no when their students need encouragement. They ensure their students are challenged but feel bolstered by this, and every stage of the doctoral life cycle is fully underpinned and supported.  

Yesterday in an open meeting our VC asked us to be ambitious.  I think our research supervisor take this a step further and are very obvious ‘Outstanding’!!

Goodbye for now,

Debs

It’s never too late.

Today I was struck by this article in the New York Times about the US trend toward ‘older people’ taking on the challenge of doctoral studies. The piece talks about how although the average age of the doctoral student in the US has dropped over the last decade, there has been a noticeable increase in people over 40, mainly women, who are starting doctorates.  The story opens by discussing Robert Hevey, 61, who is in the second year of his PhD. It moves on to discuss the resilience and motivation that older doctoral students bring to their research. Not forgetting to mention that making doctoral programmes accessible to the older candidate is good business sense given the ageing population.

I know that there is a clear difference in the accessibility of higher education in the UK compared to the US and our approaches to doctoral education differ greatly, but I read the article with a smile.  This is also a trend in the UK, or at least at the University in which I work. As I doubt that we are that different to most Post 92s, it’s probably a trend elsewhere too.  In the University where I work widening access is central to the organisation’s raison d’etre and as a result we have an established cohort of ‘distinguished doctoral candidates’.  A recent press release relating to this very topic discussed how our ‘ group of older students’ have a combined age in excess of 1000 and our eldest doctoral candidate is currently 85 yrs old.

What I feel is missing from the New York Times article is an acknowledgement of the benefits that mature doctoral students bring with them.  They offer a host of transferable skills, years of professional knowledge often in the areas in which they chose to research and professional contacts that enhance the University’s links to industry, to name but a few.  The doctoral supervisors at the University in which I work offered a multitude of examples of what their mature doctoral students have given to the University. One supervisor discussed how his student had taken him and a group of masters students to Westminster and introduced them to ministers who wished to discuss his research.  Another supervisor told of how her student was an inspiration and support to other doctoral students. My own doctoral student has taught me so much about being a research supervisor, which I have used to enhance my practice with my other students.  So yes, ensuring our research environments cater for the ageing population is a good thing but the financial benefits are the tip of the iceberg. Older doctoral students enhance our research environments in hundreds of other ways too.

Our distinguished doctoral student celebration (with thanks to the University of Wolverhampton for the photo)

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Elke, who I had the privilege to supervisor and who has taught me so much.

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Goodbye for now,

Deb