'The students hang on every word, they're rapt'

July 21, 2000

Are visiting lecturers exploited part-timers or invaluable contacts with the world of work? Anne Sebba reports.

Twice I have been a visiting lecturer. Never before or since have I faced such a well-informed, terrifying mob as when I talked to journalism students at Birmingham and Cardiff universities about my book Battling for News: The Rise of the Woman Reporter. I cannot say what the experience did for the students. It gave me a powerful charge.

"Visiting lecturers are so fresh to the teaching situation they can make a dramatic impact in a short space of time," says Nigel Howe, course leader of Salford University's sports equipment and product design BSc.

"They bring the sort of energy, drive and enthusiasm you can only give if you do it three or four times a year, as well as a dimension of realism and credibility. However hard we try to simulate, we full-timers just cannot do it in the same way."

Howe's ringing endorsement was one I heard again and again. Visiting lecturers (VLs), particularly on vocational courses, are on the increase, bringing a real buzz into university departments.

"A student is more likely to listen to someone from the fashion industry who is in the process of launching a collection. It is useful because it makes students aware of both the opportunities and the constraints," explains Suzi Vaughan, course director of the London College of Fashion's BA in design technology.

"The students hang on every word, they are absolutely rapt, so it is an opportunity for the VL to say, 'You know my name, you've seen it in the press and yet even I have difficulty keeping a business afloat.' These are the commercial realities of the fashion industry."

Vaughan believes it is the combination of her small, full-time staff providing day-to-day stability on the course with the up-to-date knowledge the visiting lecturers bring that drives home the important lessons. "The students say: 'Now I understand what you've been teaching in business studies lectures.'" Vaughan always seeks out the latest designers because, in fashion, last year's big name may be passe - or no longer in business. This year she approached new women's wear designers Tristan Webber and Shelley Fox and milliner Dai Rees. One of her most successful innovations was a "Pearce-Fionda project". "Students had to look at the way Andrew Pearce and Reynold Fionda approach luxury: very modern and understated, not brash, but the sort you are aware of when you put clothes on and handle them. The pair came to an initial briefing, returned at key points during the project and remained involved throughout. The students worked extra hard because they felt they were doing something really special."

Linda Christmas, director of the postgraduate diploma in newspaper journalism at London's City University, says: "In journalism we need so many different skills: where do you find one individual who is a good feature writer, good news reporter, good sub, and who also understands the web? They tend not to come all bundled up in one so, by employing VLs, we use our allocation of money in a more flexible way than universities could in the old days, to get highly skilled people perhaps for two hours once a week."

Christmas recognises that not only do the students love it when a VL says, "I have to rush off and write my leader within the hour," but the journalists get a kick out of being among the cream of the next generation. "It is a good deal all round and we are never short of journalists wanting to come in and help. It is particularly appealing for them. After all, what other career paths are open to journalists as they get older? There may be two dozen universities teaching journalism or media studies, but you can't just walk in at 60 when The Guardian has had enough of you. You need teaching experience first."

Business studies is another area where universities are making increasing use of visiting teachers. Anthony Hopwood, director of Oxford University's Said Business School, says he chooses VLs to illustrate problems he is dealing with in a theoretical way on his MBA course. "It is equivalent to having live case materials."

Hopwood has managed to attract such high-calibre individuals as the vice-president of IBM Europe and the finance director of Logica. "Company people generally don't expect payment. They do it because there is pleasure in working with the next generation - teaching your subject and passing on your experience." Another reason they come, Hopwood says, is to talent spot.

Clearly forging better links with industry can only help get students into jobs, but it is usually indirect. "Some VLs notice if one of the students is particularly sharp and will ask, 'What is he going to do when he leaves?' But that is rare," says Salford's Nigel Howe.

But if there are advantages to being a VL, salary is not one of them.

Most universities will not discuss how much they pay, but there is general agreement that wages are low: one department quoted an hourly rate of Pounds 25, or Pounds 150 a day plus expenses. A spokesman for the Association of University Teachers says his organisation is concerned about both the increasing use of VLs and the poor employment practices of many universities. "Visiting lecturer is just a fancy term for part-time, hourly paid staff with minimal employment rights," says a spokesman for lecturers' union Natfhe.

Although they are entitled to a written contract, some universities require that VLs sign a clause waiving their rights to claim against unfair dismissal and redundancy. "Most VLs are employed on a term-by-term basis. They are casual staff with only statutory employment rights and no job security, and they can be dismissed with minimal redress," the Natfhe spokesman explains. As a result, turnover is high.

A less serious problem has been encountered by Birmingham University's sports science department, which uses top national coaches to give a handful of lectures a year.

"When a famous coach comes in to talk there is a bit of a wow factor," says one course lecturer. "But what they say does not always add up. The fitness industry is full of quackery and I have to tell the students that there is scientific knowledge and there is coaching-lore and though the latter may be built on experience, much of it is unproven."

Vaughan suggests that the best way to sidestep this problem is to give the VL a tight brief. "If you want to get the best out the VL system you don't just throw someone into the room and say, 'do whatever you like.'" Teaching, pages 31-34

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