Are you ready for a flexible friend?

March 21, 2003

Jack-of-all-trades Stuart Murray leaves further education for an alien higher world and finds acres of space and a fair few closed doors...

So this is what it's like to work in higher education. I have my own office, computer, phone and plenty of wall space at which to stare. I am on secondment from a further education college working on developing foundation degrees in a consortium of one university and four local colleges. It is a different culture and I am adapting.

For three years in further education, flexibility has been my middle name. I have been a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, lecturing a motley crew of students in a variety of subjects at levels ranging from general national vocational qualifications in leisure and tourism to higher national diplomas in public services.

And flexibility has kept me in a job. You could say it is one of the main differences between higher and further education. Further education will prostitute itself for student numbers and to attract all. Colleges have become demand-led. If they can find enough people who want it, and they can get approval to deliver it, they'll do it. Some colleges identify niche markets, where excluded 14-year-olds might sit in classes next to retired, mature students learning Spanish.

Such adaptability is probably the result of being bludgeoned by change. The danger for colleges is that by becoming vocational centres for their most popular courses, they sacrifice breadth of provision. But at least they are doing something about widening participation. Foundation degrees are part of that. My job is to identify demand for these degrees among regional employers and to go back to faculties to start the development ball rolling. The more vocational the discipline the easier it should be, but not always. Higher education works differently. Initiatives are adopted and implemented via committees, steering groups, development teams, monitoring panels, working parties, network groups and consultation groups. There is a strict bureaucracy to be followed.

I, like many, had preconceptions of universities. I saw them as elitist compared with further education's more homely, friendly image. Further education students often interpret this as a free ride to a qualification.

Many are just "killing time", not really knowing why they are there. No one fails, they just "do not complete". With benchmarks and rigid targets to meet, lecturers often spoon-feed. Recruitment, retention and achievement figures are used as a stick to manage staff. Should these targets not be met, management holds lecturers personally responsible.

Colleges run to a tighter set of rules as regards working practices, even down to attending the staff Christmas lunch. Lecturers might be flexible in what they teach but get little leeway in their duties: every lecturer is expected to be either at their desk or in the classroom. A full working week has to be timetabled. You have to state what you do between lectures.

Compare that with higher education. Lecturers can work from home. They have offices to themselves. In college we were cramped 12 to a room. The "open-door" policy means there are visits from students for at least one of the lecturers throughout the day.

Where is the open door in higher education? Lecturers have appointment sheets on their doors for students to book time slots. There is obviously a difference in student numbers, and the need to manage this accessibility to lecturers can colour students' perception of the approachability of staff.

Sharing an office with colleagues makes communication very informal. Issues with students, the progress of students, changes to timetables - we are aware of whatever is happening at delivery level. In higher education, I've fallen into the email culture. I have few conversations face-to-face or by phone. One reason is lecturers' teaching commitments. But even if I could knock on a door, I feel I am intruding. A closed door sends the message "do not disturb".

Another reason for hiding behind emails is my perception of lecturer inapproachability. It is daunting to approach academics with lines of letters after their name and "Professor" or "Dr" on their doors. I wonder how students feel when they need to talk, do they feel they can just knock or is that only for the brave few?

Adjusting to this new culture has been hard. Fortunately I have "can-do" managers but their attitude is not always reflected elsewhere, which can be hard when you are introducing a controversial qualification. Maybe, with my foundation degree brief under my arm, I represent a culture shift that makes academics uneasy. The autonomous masters of their trade are about to share the apprentices with us jacks of all trades.

Stuart Murray is foundation degree project officer in the Centre for Access and Learning Partnerships, University of Gloucestershire.

This is edited from an article in Link , the newsletter of the LTSN subject centre for hospitality, leisure, sports and tourism.

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