Overcoming a fear of flying leads to new adventures

September 22, 2006

...and prepare to face all those eager students. It's your first teaching assignment and you pale at the thought of standing in front of them - so how do you cope? Mandy Garner consults some first-timers on the joys and pitfalls they encountered, while Ivor Gaber (right) turns his back on the old school to join a very 'new' institution

After many years at Goldsmiths, I joined the new Bedfordshire University (a merger of Luton and De Montfort at Bedford universities) a few months back. My academic friends had two questions: why, and what's the difference? The answer to both the questions is more or less the same.

Both are good places to work - lively colleagues working at the cutting edge, good students and supportive environments. But there are differences. Luton, as it was when I was recruited a few months ago, demonstrated an enthusiasm and a flexibility in the recruitment process that made it difficult to resist.

Innovation is crucial in both industry and the academy. For universities that means new courses, new facilities and new partnerships. At older institutions change does happen, but sometimes oh-so-slowly. In a place that is working hard to make its mark, staff seem more responsive to new ideas and initiatives. In the Media School, for example, some neat footwork a year or two back means that we now have a steady stream of Chinese sports journalists and PR people coming to the university to take a specially designed MA aimed at bringing them up to speed in time for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

I experienced this sense of dynamism myself when, within weeks of arriving at Luton, I was giving a paper to 200 delegates at a conference on media in the enlarged Europe. The conference had been conceived in February and had come to fruition by May.

The following month I found myself negotiating a new qualification with a partner institution in Pakistan. The idea was to establish a joint four-year media degree involving two years in Pakistan and two years in Luton, but in this case we more than met our match in terms of an institution in a hurry. Our would-be partners wanted to negotiate a new degree in June with the first intake in September - a rather compressed timetable, even for us. We eventually agreed on a January start.

I was impressed, not just by the ease with which I was able to telephone the staff back at Luton and find solutions to seemingly insoluble problems, but also by the commitment of the quality-control team to ensure that, despite the pressures of time, the degree would be capable of meeting the most rigorous of academic standards.

It would have been possible to arrange such things in an older institution, it's just that it would have probably taken a good deal more time. This is partly because such opportunities mean more to newer institutions, but also because of a prevailing attitude in the post-92s. It's one that seems to enjoy the rollercoaster of new projects. Some never get off the ground, but some of them do actually fly, which, given the fame of the second most important institution in Luton, is probably just as well.

Ivor Gaber is research professor in media and politics at Bedfordshire University.

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