'I got to 30 and was shattered. I thought, I will choose life'

August 17, 2007


There are not many academics who can say they have haggled over money with Victoria Beckham. But Philip Crowther, senior lecturer in events management at Sheffield Hallam, is one.

"Negotiating a price with Victoria was quite surreal," recalls Mr Crowther, who organised a birthday party for the Beckham's son Brooklyn in the cinema he managed in Manchester before he turned to academe. "It's quite odd negotiating a price with someone who could clearly afford to buy the whole cinema. I quite warmed to Victoria, though. She was who she was, but she was not prepared to let me take the piss on the price," he laughs.

As well as putting together one of the world's most high-security children's parties, Mr Crowther's pre-academic career involved being executive head of sales at Blackpool Pleasure Beach and running health clubs for the fitness company Esporta. "I was working 70 or 80-hour weeks, getting phoned up at weekends. It got to the point when my mobile rang at the weekend and I just did not want to answer it. I got to 30 and I was shattered. I thought, 'I will choose life'," he says. Life consisted of setting up his own consultancy and teaching part-time at Sheffield Hallam and Leeds Metropolitan universities to make some money while the business took off. He found that he enjoyed teaching so much he decided to make it his career.

When a vacancy came up at Sheffield Hallam last August he applied, having built up from part-time to full-time. He took a £25,000 pay cut on his earnings at Esporta, and his company BMW is a thing of the past. However, he says, he now has the quality of life he was seeking and is enthusiastic about his new career: "The thing I enjoy most is the role of the tutor in facilitating learning."

He uses his experiences in industry to bring his teaching to life. The Beckhams, unsurprisingly, work well. For example, he gets students to consider all the different groups that had to be dealt with when setting up the Beckham birthday party as a way of teaching about managing the diverse interests involved in a big event. "I find more informal and interactive sessions seem to be more effective in engaging the students," he says.

He had a few culture shocks on joining academia. The level of autonomy is much higher than in the private sector; staff are trusted to work without being watched, he says. Management styles are also less authoritarian in higher education. "In industry, we had lots of performance indicators and short-term targets. In academia, you do the work and if you are not delivering then it is an issue; but in the leisure industry you have to be visible all the time," he says.

The only downside is that he finds it harder to see the career progression path through academia, although he thinks this may get easier once he has been in the sector for a little longer.

A short spell of teaching in Hong Kong, where the university runs courses, also produced some surprises - the students were not used to participating in class and were more accustomed to passive lectures.

"I ended up tearing up the sessions I had prepared before I went and doing them differently as I learnt what I needed to do to get a reaction from the students," he says. "I felt I was a much better tutor by Friday than I had been on Monday."

Mr Crowther has not completely abandoned the commercial world for the classroom. He recently took a contract on behalf of the university with Yorkshire South Tourism to get local businesses involved in the International Indian Film Academy Awards, Bollywood's answer to the Oscars, which took place in the county in June.

The work varied from showing businesses how they could make use of the event to research into the economic impact previous Bollywood award events have had. Mr Crowther employed two of his students on the project, which helped to bring home to him the importance of practical work in learning. "It was a powerful learning experience for them. It underlined the impact for me of being as creative as possible with your teaching style and examples, especially for event management," he says. "The great thing about being a modern academic is that it is not just teaching and research; universities are also being asked to position themselves as consultancies and training providers."

I GRADUATED FROM Loughborough in recreation management (1995); Leeds Metropolitan MBA (2003)

my first job was as a graduate trainee at UCI Cinemas

my main challenge is taking on new responsibilities while staying true to my work-life balance

what i hate most are supremely arrogant Premier League managers who seem incapable of acknowledging the blatantly obvious; on a par with my hatred of politicians who lose touch with reality and insult our intelligence with spin

In ten years

I would like to be in academia, having achieved a good balance between teaching, research and consultancy. I would like to research how universities use events to market themselves and look at best practice.

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