"Students," said Senior Wrangler morosely.”
― Terry Pratchett, The Last Continent
Guest blog post by Dr. Odette Dewhurst, Senior Research Development Manager at Lancaster University
I went to university in 1990 as an enthusiastic, naïve 18 year old. Twenty-nine years, two degrees, four universities and eight jobs later, I am still here. Older, wiser, enthusiastic (but now with added cynicism) and almost certainly institutionalised.
I’ve been based in hospital labs as a researcher, taught human anatomy to medical students, and physiology to physicists. I’ve networked, negotiated, met deadlines, dangling from zip wires and shown PhD students the wonders of teambuilding games such as ‘floaty stick’ and ‘egg drop.’
For 16 years, I worked at one of the largest Russell Group universities in the country, until four years ago I took a leap of faith to start a new job and new life at Lancaster University; a university much smaller than I’d been used to, but one which instantly felt like home.
Higher education, like many other sectors, swims in a sea of acronym soup. Some, like REF, TEF, KEF, UKRI, HESA, HEBCI, UUK, SHRE, UCU, MOOC, SME are pretty much universal. It’s worth not getting too attached to them though, as before you know it, HEFCE becomes OfS and UKRI; UKRI is also what we used to know as RCUK, but now with added Research England and Innovate UK thrown into the mix. Moreover, don’t forget the RAE which became REF and was then joined by its siblings, TEF and KEF. Confused yet?
Each university also has its own, often unique shorthand and acronyms to learn and navigate. At Leeds, there was the mysterious ‘Red Route’ and at Lancaster, we have The Spine. There might also be FRICs, FRECs, VCEGs, UPRGs, PSAGs, PSLTs, to learn. Not to mention the delights of different IT systems….
Yes, there are lots to learn when you move between universities or join the sector from elsewhere – but, that’s one of the best things about working for a university, especially for those of us who are endlessly fascinated by the rich variety of research that takes place around them and embrace the opportunities on offer. I’ve been lucky and been given the chance to undertake external opportunities such as training to become a Myers Briggs practitioner and an ILM5 coach. Very few other places provide staff with the chance to go to seminars that span such diverse topics as digital forensics, the future of artificial intelligence, forensic anthropology, food security, the history of colour-use in advertising – or take part in or leadership sessions led by famous explorers, sports people and leading entrepreneurs.
The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next. Ursula K. Le Guin[DO1]
The HE sector today, is a very different one from the one I first entered, back in 1990. To be fair, I wasn’t overly (or even a little bit) interested in the bigger picture, or the environment in which I studied/worked - beyond the immediate lab. It was only when I moved out of hospital-based labs and into posts within ‘The Centre,’ that the external political/sectoral environment started to filter through into my consciousness. I was lucky to be involved in PhD and early career researcher development during the peak of the Roberts Funding – the heady days of having what felt like an unlimited pot of money to spend on helping to train and develop the next generation of leading academics.
Fast forward to today and the only certain thing seems to be uncertainty. The phrase ‘a VUCA world’ (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) is often heard, particularly in workshops/meetings around leadership.
I work in research development and recently we have seen a shift towards larger, more complex, multi-partner funding opportunities that often have short timescales in which to prepare and submit an application. The introduction of strategic initiatives such as the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF), Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and Research England’s E3 scheme, promise excellent and exciting opportunities, but come with significant challenges. Such challenges include short deadlines, limited notice of their launch, the need to develop new internal support processes, often-ambiguous call documentation, a limit to the number of academics who are in a position to lead such a large bid, implications for match funding and cost to universities. The latter comes at a time when the sector is facing a research funding deficit of £3.9M (Times Higher Education, No. 2,366, 19-25 July 2018) and universities are operating under increased financial pressures.
Universities aren’t known for their fleetness of foot, but we’re increasingly seeing the need to be quicker and more agile in order to keep up with the changing world around us.
I can’t write about aspects of working in HE without mentioned the B word. The ongoing uncertainty surrounding the process of the UK leaving the EU has already seen some academics who are EU nationals leave the UK. We do not know what impact BREXIT will have on our ability to recruit EU students and EU staff, or on our eligibility to access or lead European research funding opportunities. Not to mention an ever-shifting political environment meaning that we have, what feels like, a new Mister of State every five minutes – it’s already changed once during the time it’s taken me to write this blog post.
It isn’t just the research landscape that faces pressures – the sector is still digesting the recommendations from Philip Augar’s review of post-18 education, plus the wider politicisation of student fees.
In 2017, the Higher Education and Research Act received royal assent, thus becoming the first major regulatory reform seen by the UK HE sector in 25 years and leading to the establishment of two new bodies; the Office for Students (OfS) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
University finances are also seeing a squeeze due to the changes to pension contributions and many places are experiencing recruitment freezes and significant cuts to budgets.
‘So long and thanks for all the fish’ - Douglas Adams
Universities aren’t perfect places to work – but from my experience, they’re not bad. The opportunities provided by working in the HE sector, far outweigh the downsides.
I love being surrounded by people who are passionate about their work – whether that’s reducing the number of people who die from nasty diseases; exploring the nuances of a piece of literature that most of us are unaware of; answering some of the fundamental questions about life, the universe and everything; or developing some scarily clever bit of technology that’s beyond our current comprehension.
The feeling when a large research funding application that I’ve involved with, gets funded is amazing and working in HE comes with a wide range of opportunities to become engaged in a wider community. There’s also the reward that comes with working in a sector whose work is vital; not just to the UK, but on a global scale.
For me, I think the only downside is that working at a university can make me feel old. I get older, but the students on campus stay the same age. It was a sobering thought when the first cohort of freshers appeared, who were not born when I went to university, then were born after I finished my PhD. Many of this year’s intake will have been born in the 21st Century….