UK Academia in the News

Ever feel like the news is getting at you?
Well recently it has been my turn. Two things have felt surprisingly personal this week; firstly the announcement that postgraduate study in the UK isn’t producing value for money and secondly a new government report on self-harm suggesting GPs are not sufficiently trained for the growing epidemic. I’ll save my thoughts on the 2nd item for a little later but as a proto-/pseudo- academic I have some pretty strong thoughts on the “University Business”.

For those you not in the UK or blissfully unaware of the commentary: a think-tank has declared that postgraduate studies at British universities are not producing home-grown graduates with useful skill-sets for the job market and that the UK is in danger of under-investing in research.
Now these are two separate claims and worth two separate comments.
The 1st claim is that postgraduate students and their study are not contributing enough to our economy and it is linked to the idea that the universities are spending too much money on foreign students. Now this riles me for 2 reasons: 1st- Universities do not exist to churn out people who are money-generators; 2nd- the implication that people leaving postgrad courses are useless. I whole-heartedly believe that universities and higher-level research (as done by PGs, post-docs, lecturers and dedicated research teams) should aim to benefit society. BUT I don’t believe benefit is easily measured by economic output, nor indeed by rankings and student satisfaction ratios.
It isn’t necessarily apparent what research is going to change the world, and a lot of research will only ever pave the way for someone else but the inability to instantly generate money shouldn’t be a show-stopper. Furthermore, I don’t think it is the responsibility of a university to ‘create/train’ individuals to be good citizens and good workers. No one can make someone a good worker nor should their efficacy as an educational institution be dependent on the amount of money their leavers make.
I truly believe that for most jobs the skills required should either be learnt by age 14 (basic numeracy & literacy; ability to research ideas, make judgements & demonstrate processes; manners, teamwork and self-motivation) or be trained on job (builders, plumbers, electricians &c all fall in this category no training can be a substitute for experience for so many things). Some jobs, of course, do require specialist studies: doctors, lawyers, nuclear weapons designers… but for most of us a degree is a luxury and doesn’t make us more employable. I say this as someone with a BA & an MA and who hopes to soon have a Phd. I didn’t do this to make more money for the government I did it to learn new things and to contribute to a field of knowledge but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t developed skill-sets that are relevant to the economy in the process. I have developed my own voice and an acute eye for patterns, I have a better idea of self-discipline and time-management than most and I’m ridiculously good at spotting bullshit but it remains to be seen whether I can get a job.

The purpose of universities and the contribution that they make to the development of students is obviously important to the amount that we as a society should fund them. If we truly believe that only those that create immediate wealth-generating research and/or individuals tailored to the job-market are worthwhile then money can only be directed to areas of interest to industry and vocational studies. On the other hand if we are to foster innovation and develop indviduals as critical entities we must fund the unexpected and the apparently irrelevant.
To me it seems obvious that as a nation we are failing to invest in research.. budgets at universities are so tight there isn’t enough money for lecturers to do photocopying, departments are axed for not being profitable enough and students are treated merely as consumers and not as individuals invested in their own lives. The fact remains if you are unwilling to put money into something the likelihood is that you will get very little out. So, if you want to create a platform for the underprivileged to better themselves provide money for it, if you want to use costly materials and machines to test new drugs provide money for it, if you want to identify the trends and faults of social and economic models of the past provide money for it…
I know it feels like people do research for the hell of it, and lets be honest those who care invest their own time and money into their research projects but don’t be surprised that people walk away when they can no longer feed their families or afford their commute, don’t be surprised that the gifted walk away from innovation in favour of a regular paycheck and don’t be surprised that universities court those who will bring them the most money regardless of nationality or novelty.

I don’t believe that universities and research centres don’t need to be accountable for their finances, I don’t believe in throwing money away but nor do I think that the profit of education and scholarship is financial

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Faking it

I know that feeling like an academic fraud is a common sensation in postgrads and junior lecturers; but how much faking it can you get away with?

To use an uncomfortable analogy – in sex-positive literature and queer theory individuals are encouraged to present the uncomfortable truth in order to facilitate discussion and ultimately allow you to come closer to what you actually desire. This theory is applied to not faking orgasms – in order to allow a more frank converation about satisfying sex; and to accepting and not apologising for your body or your preferences in order not only to create a greater degree of acceptance in the general public but also to help you live in and with yourself. So what can we imagine are the consequences of not owning up to your sense of academic inadequacy and to trying to live within academic strictures?

If as baby academics we continue to believe that we should not be where we are what does that say about the overall culture and if we do not address it how can we complain? I have read analyses of the phenomenon that suggest that one of the reasons it is so common is the fact that academic high-achievers are typically perfectionist types who are vulnerable to feeling inadequate but I think there is something more worrying at work. I think there is a culture that encourages the sort of intellectual snobbery which makes it difficult to effectively evaluate our work.

If we own up to feeling like fakes  can we open up discussion about what real would be – and in doing so make it unnecessary for others to fake it and feel more satisfied in our academic activity?
Is it possible to make a diverse range of academic (learning, writing and teaching) styles more acceptable by telling people we prefer it to be different.. that we feel uncomfortable in the current mode?

Discuss!

DSA worries

It turns out that I should have re-applied for my disabled student allowance at the beginning of the academic year. Apparently you have to fill in their forms every year but no one told me.

So although I failed to keep any of my receipts and am too embarassed to ask for any extra assistance, because my university provided me with a mentor I have had to fill in a new application – though this only became apparent when they applied to the govt for their reimbursement and was the 1st I knew about it.
According to my disability support liasion I don’t need to have new Dr’s evidence, which came as both a relief and a surprise. A relief because a certifying letter from the Dr is expensive and time-consuming (approx £30 and 2 weeks – despite being attached to a uni the health centre even charge for letters for extenuating circs at their own uni!!!) and a surprise because of the current government’s attitude to disability (i.e. prove it umpteen times and we still probably dont think you deserve DLA, ATOS I’m looking at you!).

I’m worried.
I’m terrified they’ll decide I’m not entitled, that the university will ask me to pay for the mentoring services (which I only took because I thought they were funded). I’m terrified they are right. That I am a malingering fool, after all I’m not on meds at the moment.
I’m not very good at asking for money or support. In all my years as a PG and despite being allocated a fund every year I have never claimed money back from the university, for conferences or photocopying. I have never complained at the difficulties and costs associated with returning library books as a distance learner or the extreme panic any form of admin not explicitly emailed to me has caused. I accept both that travel is required and expensive and that I made the choice to live away (to stay with my partner, support network and job) and that standard PG resources are all campus based and even that all disabilty resources are campus based – but I feel like maybe just maybe there should be/have been someone to support me through the financial issues and the DSA forms and checked up that I was getting help. Am I asking too much? Am I just jaded?

University Mental Health and Wellbeing Day

Today the University Mental Health Advisers Network has encouraged universities across the UK to hold a series of events to promote good mental health.

My University has suggested a 5-a-day plan for maintaining/improving wellbeing. These are:

  • connect with the people around you
  • do something active
  • take notice of the world
  • learn something new
  • give to others

The idea is to suggest positive things individuals (and especially students) can do to improve their own wellbeing – with the theory not only that prevention is better than cure but also that although efforts to destigmatise often attempt to promote dialogue a lot of effort is put into recognising symptoms and promoting equality it starts from a notion of right and wrong mental states rather than a continuum of health, the former of which van lead of course to reinforcing a sense of internal stigmatisation. I think that, of course, awareness goes hand-in-hand with positive activity and steps that encourage students to look after themselves and each other can only be lauded.

My only real quibble is that as a distance-learner I can’t assess how the day has gone or actively partake in any of the events.

As part of this national day I have had a chance to look at the documents published by UMHAN which include suggestions for improving access to HE for people with mental health difficulties, improving reporting of mental health disabilities and engaging with support from the DSA scheme and frameworks for institutional support. And I have to say I’m impressed, I’m especially impressed with their section of guidance for students and I look forward to seeing the suggestions and guidelines more widely publicised

Freshers Fun & Silly Thoughts

Aw Bless.

Its Fresher’s week (for the uninitiated -that’s the first week of Uni for 1st year, mainly 18 yr old students) and they are busy meeting new people and going on pub crawls more or less in that order.
So it would be fair to say that as a reasonably small real ale pub (with resolutely no shots!) we are not on most crawl lists – we are well known to the Real Ale Society (the landlady might be local CAMRA young members rep) & to Rock Soc. (Just the odd one or two former members drink here… + we have mead..)  – but not really ‘safe’ for freshers. Still there are always the few who make it through our door of their own free will.
Tonight the darlings wanted to know about cider, music and relationships and oh my goodness the world holds so much more of all of these than they have experienced and walking into our bar was just the beginning..

In other silliness I really need to get over my feeling that Sleepy hates me. Also I spent a quarter of the night with the new pub name emblazoned across my chest – but it was only a subtle clue!

Working

So contemplating this whole earning money malarky – the pub trade isn’t the easiest way to keep the money flowing but I want to be able to do my research as well  – what options lie before me? And what happens when I finish the PhD?

I have been contemplating administrative jobs (the experience can’t hurt in any field), but right now there is an internship related to the impact factors in the REF submissions for my local university (not my home institution incidentally). It would be an interesting experience and paid a damn sight better than the pub but it would also be full-time. Would my thesis allow for me to be distracted by a 9-5 job? Would my mental health be improved by the structure or worsened by the pressure?
Some encouragement from my partners has encouraged me to write an application but I am very nervous.

Now I have just spoken on the phone to a rep from Enterprise Inns – I expressed an interest in finding out about pubs in Cornwall – but again I have to consider whether this is a viable opportunity. First and foremost am I prepared to take on a leasehold arrangement with part-tie rather than pushing for a free house proper? Secondly could smother cope? and Lastly could I finish this PhD?

So Many thoughts…