Recommendations 2: Research

Peter looked round the table. Everyone was staring at their own laptop screen, tapping away frantically.

He cleared his throat loudly. There was a perceptible increase in tapping frequency, but nobody looked up.

“Right, everybody,” he aimed for his best conference chairing tone: firm and in control. “It’s two minutes past, and I know how busy you all are. Let’s get started. As usual, we’ve got a busy agenda, but I’m hoping to finish in record time today.”

One by one, heads were raised, and eyes turned towards him. One or two people glanced apologetically at him, and then returned to tapping, with gestures which might have meant ‘be with you in a minute, I must just finish this email’.

Peter turned to his left. “Marjorie, do we have any apologies?”

“Professor Dawson, Professor Patel, Professor O’Connolly, Dr Wisdom, Joyce Snape.”

Peter looked disapproving. “I know that our research professors have very busy schedules, but I do think that the Research Office should manage to get their representative to this very important committee. Can you minute our disappointment that Ms Snape isn’t with us, again?”

Marjorie leaned over and whispered loudly. “Well, actually, Professor Packer, Dr Snape did send in a reasonable excuse, she’s had to go to HEFCE to talk about that audit problem with the research budget. None of the professors actually sent in a reason, I just read out their names for the apologies because they never attend. It just seemed quicker.”

Peter frowned. “Let the minutes stand, Marjorie. The Research Office should be represented at the University’s principal Research Committee, whatever the reason. How are we to get any accountability from the administrators if they don’t turn up?”

There was a slight shuffling around the table. Most people were well aware that Joyce was away trying to persuade HEFCE officials that the discrepancies in their research budget were due to confusion rather than dishonesty. A lack of accountability of research budget-holders was possibly more of a problem than the Research Office failing to act on the decisions of their committee.

Peter ignored the unease in the room. “Right. Next item. Chair’s report.”

He looke down at his notes. “The research office has sent me in a report of activity since the last meeting. Fifteen applications in, for amounts ranging from £5,000 to £72,000. Pretty small beer, but worse than that, no major grant awards since our last meeting. That’s very poor. We’re nowhere near our targets for this year. I’m going to bring this up again in item 4b.”

Phil raised his hand tentatively.

Chris nodded graciously at him. “Dr Palmer.”

“Er, Peter, Professor Packer, it’s not a very good time for writing applications. Most people have had a lot of exam preparation and marking to do. Won’t there be more opportunities over the summer?”

Peter looked stern. “I do realise that you’re relatively new to this committee, Dr Palmer, but we like to set aspirations high all the year round. If you were more successful in bidding in your area, then you’d be able to buy yourself out of all of your time-consuming teaching and marking, wouldn’t you? That should be your target for next year.”

Phil shrank back slightly. He quite liked teaching. Getting out of it wasn’t his target at all.

“Right, next item in my report. Did any of you read the Times Higher last week?”

Blank looks all around the table. Phil had it delivered every week, but he kept quiet, in case it was some kind of trick question.

“Well, maybe you should,” continued Peter, “sometimes they do have some interesting stuff. For instance, this report.” He waved a print-out. “According to this student survey, students don’t understand how important research is to the value of their degrees.”

Phil raised his hand. Peter nodded at him.

“Wasn’t it more that, er, they were asking for lecturers to spend more time improving their teaching over and above focusing on research?”

He was aware of a slight reduction in tapping, and a movement of heads towards him. Peter stared at him. He looked somewhat lost for words.

“Well, obviously, Dr Palmer, I’m no expert in social science research, but I don’t think the response rate to this survey lets us determine any such thing. Nick Hillman from HEPI is quoted here as saying ‘it is clear from today’s data that students are not always certain of the benefits of research-informed or research-led teaching. Where they exist, they need to be more clearly communicated to students.’”

Phil wasn’t an expert in social science research either, but he had downloaded the actual report. He was pretty sure it suggested that universities should put more effort into improving teaching skills, and that students were less interested in research excellence. However, he could tell that it was in a minority in the room. “Oh. Sorry. My mistake.” He shrank back in his chair.

Peter raised an eyebrow at him, and then returned to his notes. “So, I propose that the Research Committee mandates me to request a further increase in budget to cover a) a marketing campaign to explain the benefits of research to the university’s reputation and rankings and b),” he looked up to emphasise this suggestion, of which he was very proud, “and b), to employ two post-docs in each faculty, to do some science communication in addition to their research briefs.”

He looked around the table in triumph. “What do you all think?”

There was silence. Even the tapping was paused. One or two people made eye contact, unusually for this committee.

A man in a tweed jacket cleared his throat. Everyone turned towards him. “Um,” he said. “Well. It seems like a reasonable response. We definitely need to spend more time and money on research.”

There was vigorous nodding.

“Thank you, Professor Pargeter.” Peter joined in the nodding. “So, I take it that’s agreed. Minute that, would you, Marjorie. Obviously it’ll find its way to Senate from there, but I won’t wait for that. I’ll go and see Phyllis straight after the meeting, to get an appointment with the VC. Excellent. Right, next item….”

The tapping resumed.

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Recommendations 1: Professional experience

Bob was making good headway on the marking. He wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but he was almost enjoying it. Not in itself, because it was a very boring exam task which had produced 173 almost identical answers. More because it made him feel in contact with the students. Which was a bit weird, because it was only looking at their papers, and he didn’t even know any of them, but it was sort of evidence of progress. The University College hadn’t been quite the same. The numbers had been so small, and things were kind of incremental there; a proper first year group showed a lot more evidence of change. Or something. Anyway, he was happy to be back in the department, even if he had copped for covering Harry’s exam marking while he was off sick. And he’d known that would probably happen. Harry was always off sick in May and June.

He was listening to Bob Dylan. He becamse aware of a slight noise behind him. Oh God. He hadn’t been singing along, had he? He draped the headphones around his neck and turned round. His Head of Department was hovering behind him.

“Sorry, Gordon. Was I disturbing you?”

Gordon looked confused. “Sorry. No. What? Sorry to disturb you. I can see you’re up to the eyes in it.” He waved at the two piles of exam booklets.

Bob followed the gesture with his eyes. “Oh, no. That’s fine. They aren’t going anywhere. I’m probably ready for a break anyway. Coffee?”

“Why not.”

Bob led the way.

Gordon looked round the little kitchen area. The shelves held a surprising variety of jars of coffee and boxes of tea bags, all carefully labelled. There were a few notices on the walls.

“REMEMBER TO RECYCLE THE MILK CARTONS”

“Your mother doesn’t live here. Wash your own cup AND SPOON.” That one had appended to it, in red biro “But somebody sexist does live here. Everyone should wash their own cup, wherever they are”

“Please get rid of your milk on Fridays”

“My son is doing a sponsored litter-pick on Sunday, could you sponsor him? You can sign below and leave the money in the jar underneath”.

“Union meeting 2pm Wednesday, to discuss management restrictions on notices in open plan offices”

“I haven’t been in here for a while. It’s quite cosy, isn’t it?”

“Home from home, Gordon. Milk and sugar?”

“Just milk, please.”

Bob handed him the mug. “Cheers.”

“Anyway, Gordon. Did you just want to have a look at the kitchen, or was there something in particular?”

Gordon looked blank for a moment.

“Oh. Yes.” He looked at the hand which wasn’t holding the mug. “Must have put it down somewhere.” He backtracked to Bob’s desk. “Here it is.” He picked up a slim document, branded in Higher Education Academy colours, and handed it to Bob. “Student Experience Survey 2015. Go to page 5.”

Bob opened the booklet. Gordon leaned over and pointed at the second graph on the page. “Look at that. It says students value industry and professional experience the most, more than teaching and research.”

“That’s interesting.” Bob was thinking about how he could use the information to encourage his colleagues to develop more links with employers. It was bloody difficult trying to get them to engage with the profession. Some of them had no idea how much practice had changed in the last ten years, particularly on the financial advice side. He scanned the back page of the executive summary. Not a massive sample, but maybe it was robust enough. He’d have to check out the full methodology.

Gordon seemed to be waiting for more of a response. “Yes, well, I think it’s more than interesting. Do you see what ammunition this gives us with the VC?”

Bob was at a loss. “Um. Well…”

“Because we’ve got so many professional qualified academics. Just what students say they want. And yet the VC is always nagging us to do more research. ‘Get more people in the REF,’ he says. Well, that isn’t what the students want. This shows it. We’ve got a different skillset in this department.”

Bob thought that this was a bit of a leap. “Well, there are benefits to being research-active,” he started.

“Yes, yes, I’m not saying there aren’t.” Gordon took the report back from him. “I’m just saying that we can take the pressure off a bit, and focus on those industry credentials.”

Bob sighed to himself. “True. Well, I’ll make sure I incorporate the findings into my student experience plan for next year. So we can build on those credentials. OK?”

Gordon looked mollified. “Yes, good idea. In the meantime, I’m going to get an appointment with the VC to ask him to stop banging on about research and start promoting professionalism.” He drained the mug and put it in the sink. “Right, I’m going straight off to ask Phyllis for an appointment.”

He turned right out of the kitchen. Bob stood still for a moment. Ten seconds later, he passed the kitchen entrance, going in the opposite direction. He glanced at Bob. “Haha. Forgot which office I was in. The door’s the other way on this side, isn’t it?”

Bob gave a polite smile. “We all do it.”

Gordon hadn’t waited for a response. Bob heard the electronic lock click on the main door.

He turned to the sink and washed and dried the two cups. He smiled to himself. You couldn’t knock Gordon for trying, but he didn’t think the VC was going to give up on research that easily.