The History Woman's Blog

You can’t buy an education

Posted in Academia, Education, higher education, News, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on June 4, 2016

UCUAs university lecturers in the UK remain locked in a dispute with their employers over pay and working conditions in Higher Education, a survey published by private student loan company Future Finance this week revealed that less than half of students think their degree will help them get a graduate job to pay off their debts.

The issues are two sides of the same coin: the commodification of Higher Education. With home students now paying tuition fees of £9,000 per year, they rightly ask for value education in return. This involves among others high-quality teaching, well-stocked libraries, a wealth of electronic resources and specialist equipment, modern teaching and learning spaces, and decent student accommodation.

Alas, high tuition fees and the consumer culture they breed among students falsely suggests that the more you pay the more you will get in return. While this might work for cars, washing machines and smartphones, where you pay more to upgrade to a better model, it does not work for university courses. No matter how much you pay, you can’t buy an education. (more…)

Life outside academia

Posted in Academia, Comment, Education, History by thehistorywoman on October 25, 2014

AlienGetty460There is life outside academia, and by that I don’t mean that people are having more fun elsewhere. I am only suggesting that an academic career is not the natural, or even the most desirable outcome of a university degree.

As a lecturer in early modern history at a post-1992 university I know that only few of our undergraduate students will progress to a Master’s degree, and even fewer will embark on a PhD in the subject. Out of the few who do, not everyone will end up in an academic job; and with a highly volatile job market increasingly dependent on short-term temporary positions even a post-doc or a one-year teaching contract are not a guarantee of future employment in the sector.

Nevertheless, many universities still do too little to prepare their students for real life, while lecturers (in fairness) might not be the best qualified people to do so, as one of my colleagues pointed out at a recent meeting discussing ‘employability’. After all, most academics would have proceeded straight from their undergraduate degree to postgraduate study, finishing it all off with a PhD within seven or eight years before embarking on a career in research and teaching. The odd bar job aside, few academics will have seen much of the world of work outside when they are let lose on their undergraduate students. (In fact, I often feel a bit like an outsider because I worked in journalism for a number of years before becoming a full-time academic.)

Nevertheless, the percentage of graduates in appropriate employment within six months after leaving university is a key criterion in league tables measuring the success and quality of a higher education institution, and academics are supposed to prepare their students for the job market. So what can we do?  (more…)

Pretend less, read more

Posted in Comment, Education, News by thehistorywoman on March 15, 2014

nerd-glassesSince being a nerd has become cool I don’t like it any more. Big glasses are no longer the indicator of a visual impairment caused by too much reading, and pasty skin is less likely caused by long hours spent in libraries, archives or labs. It’s more likely the result of an overpriced holiday in Finland and cleverly applied make-up.

It is now socially acceptable, even hip, to be seen sitting by yourself in a murky café reading Camus. It is even more so if you’re wearing a baggy jumper you found in a charity shop, while frantically scribbling notes into your Moleskin notebook or are indeed staring into your MacBook. Not even questionable personal hygiene or unkempt hair are a safe indicator that the person next to you is a borderline genius.

On the other hand, real nerds are now heading to the gym to fight the pen pusher’s wobbly thighs and bingo wings, while buying the pretty plaid skirts and cardigans now cheaply available in American Apparel. So how am I supposed to tell them apart?

Chances are you will never know if someone is a real nerd until you have seen them walking into a glass door or actually had a conversation with them. In conversation, watch out for tell-tale signs: if the first association they make with the name ‘Churchill’ is that of a nodding dog in the back of a car, they might not be the real thing. If they can tell the difference between Thomas and Oliver Cromwell, you might be on to something. (more…)

Keeping the customer satisfied

Posted in Academia, Comment, Education by thehistorywoman on February 18, 2014

UCU_posterStrike action might be entering the hot phase later this year as the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) has approved ‘a marking boycott to be implemented from 28 April if university employers still refuse to thrash out a deal over pay’.

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association ‘have so far refused to engage in any meaningful talks over pay, despite six strikes since October 2013 and increasingly vociferous complaints from students about cancelled classes and missed seminars.’ So their employees are now going to strike where it hurts most, and it is the students who are going to suffer.

It is unfortunate that things had to come this far. Academic staff do not want to hurt their students. Lecturers are aware how important marks are to them, especially to final-year and postgraduate students who are going to apply for jobs and will be desperately waiting for their results. But nothing else will now make a difference.

As the UCU points out, in recent negotiations

This is untenable.

Academics are not greedy. Most of us are in the job we do because we love it. We are a bunch of geeks who enjoy research, writing and teaching. We want to share our knowledge with our students. Most of us could get much better paid work elsewhere. But we are still here because we care, and university bosses are taking advantage of that. They know we would not abandon our passion for research and teaching over a couple of quid a month. So they put the pressure on and see how far they can go. (more…)

The survey that didn’t surprise us

Posted in Academia, Comment, Education, News by thehistorywoman on October 19, 2013

Stress-ZebraStripesSome surveys shock us, others fill us with a sense of relief that it’s not just us. The recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) survey undertaken by the University and College Union (UCU) does both.

The summary of key findings  states that nearly two thirds of the 7,000 respondents said they thought the REF had ‘a detrimental impact on the sector’ and believed it created ‘unreasonable expectations of research outputs’. More than half of respondents also said they would ‘like to see the REF replaced by an alternative method.’ Among the most shocking, though not surprising, findings was that ‘67% of all respondents (and 73% of women responding) felt unable to undertake the necessary work on REF outputs without working excessive … hours.’

In UCU’s 2012 Stress at Work survey ‘over 59% of respondents in HE indicated they worked 46 or more hours a week’ (while being paid for 35), and ‘over 35% worked 51 or more hours.’ Over half of the respondents felt ‘pressured to work long hours’, with many citing the REF as contributing factor to this pressure.

I don’t need a UCU survey to tell me that. I have seen my colleagues panicking about getting that last item for their REF submission out on time, panicking about the quality of the book they had to rush out before the deadline, even though an extra month or two might have enabled them to add that extra bit of research that would have given it the edge. I have also panicked myself hoping to exchange an item I didn’t like so much by something I felt would rate more highly. I have also chided myself for spending my time editing collected essays while the University keeps telling me the two books I have been so proud of and enjoyed so much producing with my friends and colleagues won’t count much in the world of the REF. They want monographs and articles in the top journals. You know the story.

Balancing research and teaching

Another key problem cited in Section 10 of the report, which covers workload issues, was the inability to meet the demands of the REF while undertaking regular teaching duties, including lesson prep or giving feedback to students. According to the survey, the stress caused by the REF is ‘combined with the increasing administrative duties that academics face, including teaching-related administration, grant applications and the significant amount of bureaucracy related to the REF itself.’

I find myself so many times politely (or not so politely) ushering students out of my office to finish that lecture Power Point five minutes before I have to go to the next class, or putting the finishing touches to an article or a chapter before it has to go to the journal, editor or publisher. Conversely, I have also found myself taking home a piece of work because I was talking to a student and didn’t manage to finish it in the office. I hardly ever finish in the evening what I set out to do in the morning, and then I get another email from Registry that I was meant to hand in form X, Y or Z – yesterday. And have I marked…? In other words, something has to give, and in many cases – poor conscientious creatures that we are – this is our free time. (more…)

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Beating the queue and staying warm at the British Library

Posted in Academia, Education, History by thehistorywoman on July 18, 2013
The morning queue at the British Library, London.

The morning queue at the British Library, London
(courtesy of Rachel Weil).

Recently, an American friend of mine posted this picture of the morning queue a the British Library on Facebook. It seems to say a lot about an unashamed nerdiness (or rare regard for learning) in this country as well as about the British love for queuing. Having grown up in Germany, I usually find myself at the front of that queue no later than 9.15am reading The Guardian, waiting for the doors to open at 9.30am. Beating the BLQ is the beach towel equivalent in the world of scholarship. The British Library is my Mallorca, my Lanzarote.

Naturally, I’ve already put all the things I might need in the Reading Room in a clear plastic bag, so I can head straight down to the lockers, stow away my coat, handbag and laptop case and secure a place on the beach of learning. No minute of my valuable research time will be wasted!

The coolest place to be

In the summer months, the British Library is the coolest place to be. Literally. While other people were moaning about the heat last Saturday, I found myself freezing in the air-conditioned Rare Books Room despite wearing my denim jacket and an extra pair of leggings with my light summer dress. Presumably they need to keep the room at a certain temperature to help with the preservation of the valuable printed material held here. But it’s almost normal for us nerds to come home with the obligatory British Library summer cold.

The best advice I can give my research students before heading down to the BL is therefore not to remember to take all their documents, bank statements and electricity bills to obtain a library card. It is this: take a cardigan!


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On statistics and league tables

Posted in Education, News by thehistorywoman on September 30, 2012

The results of the National Student Survey (NSS) and the Times University Guide 2013, both published within in the last couple of days, have made one thing clear. The best universities for research are not always the best universities for teaching quality. While Oxford and Cambridge with their student-friendly tutorial system still did well in terms of student satisfaction, Edinburgh University, one of the highest-ranking institutions research-wise, was ‘ranked bottom in the country for teaching quality’, with students complaining about ‘lack of prompt feedback or detailed comments’ and more generally ‘insufficient advice and support’, The Sunday Times reported.

‘Despite their world-class reputations for research and high entrance requirements, more than a third of the 24-strong Russell Group find themselves in the bottom 40 of 125 institutions for teaching’, Liz Lightfoot writes in The Sunday Times. Of course, as with all statistical evidence, there is more than one way of reading the results.

It might just be that Russell Group students have a stronger sense of entitlement and therefore are more likely to criticise the quality of teaching they receive, as History Professor and TV presenter Amanda Vickery (@Amanda_Vickery) suggested on Twitter. But it might also be that academic departments ‘hire on ability to attract research funding’ with the candidates’ ability to teach as ‘an afterthought’ only, as the journalist and Associate Lecturer at Brunel University Mark Shanahan (@Leapfrog Mark) commented. So students are bound to ‘lose out’. (more…)

What happened to social justice and equality in Higher Education?

Posted in Education, News, Politics by thehistorywoman on July 10, 2011

What’s wrong with Higher Education in the UK? Nothing, if you look at it from afar. The UK has some of the best universities in the  world as our VC never fails to remind us. We come second only to the US, and students from all over the world are attracted to study here by the smell of tradition and the shiny prospectuses praising our achievements. Alas, these foreign students are increasingly roped in to fill the funding gaps of a crumbling system, as the recent visit by Universities Minister David Willetts to South America has reminded us. According to a report by the Observer, the Brazilian government is willing to provide up to £18,700 per student in fees.

Wealthy foreign students count as so-called ‘off-quota’ students. This means they are not taking away places from UK candidates, but help universities expand and attract the best and brightest from all over the world. But there are two issues here. Are universities really going to select the brightest rather than those best able to pay? And what is going to happen to all these bright foreign students once they are here? It is great if we can offer them an excellent education and future prospects. It is not so great if we see little clusters of Chinese, Egyptian or Brazilian students huddled together on our campuses with unhappy faces, talking among themselves in their own language, wondering if they will ever make friends among the locals. Those who do integrate well and want to stay in contrast might find it hard to get a job – or a visa for that matter – when they have finished their degree. Can we square that with our consciences, or are we really exploiting them as cash cows?

But foreign students aside, the Government has found another ingenious way of creating divisions in the great community of learning by allowing the best universities to compete in a free market for students with AAB grades (or better). This will undoubtedly mean that the most successful universities can expand and grow wealthier to their heart’s content, while the others will create ‘the rest’ looking enviously at the research money and shiny labs of the better off.  The Sunday Times has already announced the creation of a UK Ivy League ‘headed by Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, the London School of Economics and Bristol.’ (I would link to the article, but the pay wall won’t let me). Government reforms are ‘expected to lead to a concentration of students with the highest grades in a small group of universities, starving mid-ranking competitors of some top potential recruits and possibly forcing them to lower their fees from the maximum £9,000’, Jack Grimston writes. Figures to be released by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) later this week, are also ‘expected to show that about 40% of the 56,000 students gaining grades of AAB or higher are already concentrated in nine universities’ – something that comes as little of a surprise after research by the Sutton Trust revealed earlier this week that just ‘five schools in England sent more pupils to Oxford and Cambridge over three years than nearly 2,000 others combined.’

It seems all so wrong. The Higher Education reforms by the Coalition Government are taking away money from crucial teaching budgets, leaving universities to fend for themselves in an open market for off-quota and foreign students. Some institutions will clearly benefit from this increasing commercialisation of education, others will die, and the rest of us will hope for a new government.

Fees, fees, fees

Posted in Education, News, Politics, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on April 9, 2011

The government’s decision to allow universities to charge UG tuition fees of up to £9,000 per academic year clearly was an own goal. A BBC survey shows that about half of all higher education institutions in the UK are planning to charge the full fees, and even those who don’t on average demand more than the £7,500 the government had bargained for. In fact, the average fee is likely to be closer to £8,500, leaving the government to foot the bill until the new graduates are earning more than £21,000 per year. If the job market doesn’t pick up quickly, there won’t be many graduates to do so in the near future. (more…)

Academics with real jobs

Posted in Conferences, Education by thehistorywoman on July 25, 2010

I have been to quite a few academic conferences this month and was shocked to see the conditions under which some of us work. On the surface it all looks perfect. Dr So-and-so from such and such a university giving a paper on his recent research on x, y and z. Their affiliation is perfectly inconspicuous. And then during the break over coffee or lunch, or in the evening at the bar, the truth comes out. Her second one-year contract has run out, and she can’t find a new job. So she is clinging on to her old institution as long as she can while thinking about going abroad. A colleague from southern Europe, despite holding various positions and titles at his institution, is not paid for his teaching at all. He can only hold on to his ‘job’ because his wife brings home the money. Only by the end of the second day of the conference do I find out that he has a ‘real’ job as well that pays at least some of the bills. But he won’t tell me what it is. Academia seems to be the last bastion where ‘money’ is a dirty word. You’re expected to live alone on the love for your subject, and if you can’t , you are somehow inferior to the others. Because it means you are somehow not quite good enough to have made it. (more…)