March 28, 2013

Working-time culture: no need for taught CVs

I sympathise with Steve Sarson (“Students are sent to the rat race maze: syllabus is history”, Opinion, 21 March). Like him, I teach history undergraduates and I agree that it is improper for employability skills - writing CVs and the like - to be embedded in seminars as doing so steals valuable time from teaching. Similarly I do not think that basic training for the world of work should win students credits that count towards their degrees.

Unlike Sarson, I am also the employability director for my department, tasked with improving students’ chances of securing jobs or study places within six months of graduation (the standard metric). It is hard to know what to do, but that does not mean we should do nothing or that the “employability agenda” will go away.

Prospective students at our open days - and, increasingly, concerned parents, too - would like to know what a degree will do for them. No one in higher education wants to commercialise learning in the way Sarson fears, but it is a fact that if one pays for something, one expects it to have discernible value.

Ideally, all students would take the initiative early on to inform themselves of their options, engage actively with their institutions’ careers services, take positive steps to secure work experience and so on. None of this would have to spoil the halcyon days of university: a little might go a long way.

The problem is that many students do not do this, and yet we spend more and more time and money on events that mostly attract those who are already self-motivated. It is the diffident and inert remainder that we need to reach, which is one reason why, on the surface, compulsory employability teaching seems attractive.

Apart from anything else, however, these measures will not work. Students are most likely to feel that they have taken the “employability module”, tick it off the list and forget it. We might think instead that it is incumbent on all lecturers to foster in students an awareness of life after graduation and an inclination to plan for it. It should not take much, and it is good for the subject (not least in the arts and humanities) to encourage reflection about the abstract skills being learned, as well as good for students’ powers of self-promotion in job interviews.

More universities might consider awarding skills diplomas separate from degrees and earned gradually through attendance at employability events, internships and so on across three years. Some purists and traditionalists will bridle at this, and employers may well attach little worth to such diplomas. It would also take time to set up and administrate. But a university where all undergraduates naturally engage in this sort of fairly low-level activity all the time would be one where, hopefully, we could create a culture in which taught employability components are no longer just undesirable but also unnecessary.

Malcolm Gaskill
Professor of early modern history
School of History
University of East Anglia

Maybe Steve Sarson could capitalise on the hijacking of his seminar by asking his students to prepare CVs (highlighting both strengths and weaknesses) of historical figures who obtained unlikely roles. One thinks of Henry VIII applying to become head of the new Church of England in the 1530s, Winston Churchill becoming prime minister in 1940 - and maybe even Jesus Christ founding a major belief system.

Peter B. Baker

Open the floodgates

“Fools’ gold? (14 February) is an excellent and perceptive summary of the extant open-access proposals. Let me declare now that I am an editor of an Elsevier journal that currently runs on the traditional principles of publishing. The vast majority of papers submitted to my journal are from overseas, so if the supply of UK authors dried up, it would have little significant effect on us. The Finch report set out to achieve an end point, so did not look at a proper business plan and how the proposals would work in practice. Suggestions such as the need for a transition period are simply an attempt to fog minds, as they completely ignore the steady state thereafter.

As a recently retired academic, I do not have the funding to publish in open-access journals, so would have to pay for the privilege from my (meagre) taxed academic pension. Under this new egalitarian system, the rich can publish but the poor cannot. Great! At least the approach could have the benefit of slowing the flood of mediocre papers as universities would need to ration their publishing funds.

But there is a conundrum that no one has mentioned yet. Many journals have a rejection rate of 50 per cent or so. I know from my own experience that much of the work of publishing an article goes into refereeing and assessing the reports. So what happens if an article is rejected under the open-access plans? Is there to be a submission fee as well as a publication fee, or will the successful subsidise the unsuccessful? If a journal is running a bit low on funds, I can see a great temptation to accept anything, as long as it is paid for, thus bringing down the quality of publication.

With my editorial hat on, I would send the open-access concept paper back to the authors for thorough revision.

R. D. Adams

Times Higher Education offers excellent commentary on open-access publishing, but your recent news article “Root-and-branch confusion over fees” (14 March) omits to discuss the impact of recent US initiatives on publicly funded research.

The bipartisan Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act, currently before both houses of Congress, proposes a six-month embargo period before articles are made open access. And the separate Obama Directive on open access, unveiled last month, also prescribes a six-month embargo.

Although both initiatives allow for consultation, the six-month rule is tightly specified.

As the US accounts for nearly half of all co-authored articles in science, technology, engineering and mathematics or medicine, it is difficult to see how “green” open access with a six-month embargo can be resisted, with “gold” becoming a minor route.

Research Councils UK should be revising its already revised guidance as I write.

Mike McGrath

Knee-squeeze reaction

Why did Felipe Fernández-Armesto feel the need to begin his article on sex scandals in higher education by describing a former student as “Statuesque. Stunning. Spectacular,” before suggesting “more salacious” epithets, too (“Dens of inequity?”, Opinion, 21 March)? Such unlooked-for remarks are surely just the sort of thing that can in themselves constitute sexual harassment in the context of the student-teacher relationship. They certainly made me feel uncomfortable: would you want your tutor describing you like that?

Fernández-Armesto also presents an ­unhistorical account of changes in the customs and mores surrounding such abuse. In his day, he claims, “there was no shame and no attested harm in a priest pinching a choirboy’s bottom”. No attested harm? Rather than the free-floating relativism to which Fernández-Armesto seems to ascribe changes in attitudes towards this behaviour, he might at least have hinted at the deep and complex social forces that have created a situation where (often, although lamentably not always) victims of abuse can finally speak out and resist their abusers.

By privileging the cases we “all know…in which alleged abuses have proceeded from accusers’ imagination”, Fernández-Armesto’s article conveys little more than nostalgia for the days when bosses could squeeze their secretaries’ knees with impunity.

Tom Cutterham
St Hugh’s College

I can understand that Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s student would have needed to appear as she did had the tutorial topic been “embarrassingly scanty uniform as a given of historiography”. Otherwise, couldn’t she have worn a wrap?

Michael Thomas
Associate lecturer
The Open University

Access dividends

In regards to “QAA highlights problems with UK accounting degree” (News, 21 March): I felt it was important to address three points.

First, students are deemed as registered on the BSc programme on registration with the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. They are not “enrolled” with Oxford Brookes University, and students have a variety of options available to them after completing their Acca “fundamentals” examinations. It is up to students whether they take this optional route while undertaking their professional qualifications.

Second, the phrase “Money well spent?” in the article’s picture caption may give the wrong impression about the programme’s financial implications. There are a range of options available to students and the research and analysis project submission, which costs £160, is the only additional fee paid in order to gain the BSc degree.

Finally, the recognition issues raised are not specific to this course but relate to a variety of degrees, in particular distance-learning programmes, across many jurisdictions.

The principal aim of the BSc in applied accountancy is to widen access to Oxford Brookes and provide Acca students across the world with the opportunity to obtain degrees and study for a better future.

Jane Towers-Clark
Programme lead
BSc in applied accountancy
Oxford Brookes University

Truly avant-garde

I was disappointed with the reader responses to “Lines of investigation” and “Opus versus output”, your articles about artistic practice as research (7 March). Of the two professors emeritus numbered among your three correspondents, John Radford expresses something closest to what I had in mind: but his commitment to a disciplinarity pursued “at the highest level” fails to acknowledge the difficulties with that notion when it comes to art practice (“Artistic assessment”, Letters, 14 March).

In his editorial on 7 March, John Gill refers to a myth - that of creation or creativity - by adding to that myth himself: “There was a time…when art was art and research was research.” In “Lines of investigation”, Malcolm Quinn, associate dean of research at the University of the Arts London, suggests that for the kind of research at stake, the “British system offers an opportunity to think through what it means to be an artist in the university”. I suspect this niche opportunism sits ill with Radford’s call to expand both the conception of research and what universities are charged with in promoting it.

On the other hand, as someone with a background in university lecturing in the art and design sector, I would firmly reject the path towards increasing professionalism, including the professional doctorate as the criterion of choice (advocated by Andrew McGettigan in his letter).

There is a kind of art practice that is far more radical than the sphincter-related celebrity of Daniel Ploeger or the shape-shifting of Roberta Mock. It is implicit in Nicholas Till’s assertion in “Opus versus output” that higher education institutions need “proficient and experienced practitioners”. It is a practice that challenges the official apparatus of research and its agenda at root. It is teaching.

Michael Marshall

Real-world concerns

The Financial Times’ Michael Skapinker queries the effectiveness of online lectures (The week in higher education, 21 March): “how long are people watching before they flip to Facebook?” As anyone who has sat at the back of a lecture to a group of laptop-toting students in recent years will testify, this is not a problem confined to online lectures.

Colin Johnson
University of Kent

Fragile position

Chris Ormell, with his “key incoherencies that have quietly enabled so much palpable retrogression” (“Infinite regression”, Letters, 21 March), seems to have forgotten that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

Robert Wilson
Professor of mathematics
Queen Mary
University of London

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