Monday, 14 December 2015

Study Tour Reflections: John Baker

And now over to John Baker for his reflections on the Study Tour....

I found participating on the tour a fascinating and rewarding experience, and it more than delivered on the expectations I had in advance.

I was really impressed by the cordiality and candour shown to us by all of the institutions we visited, and I think this spirit of co-operation which exists within Higher Education is one of the things that I think makes a career in HE Management and Administration such a rewarding one.
Some general reflections on the institutions that we visited.

I was struck by the lack of tangible power distance presented by the staff we met, hierarchies did not seem to be referred to hardly at all, and I was struck by the warm sense of connection between colleagues who worked in very different parts of the Organisation. As David mentioned at our tour wrap up meeting, “No one showed us an Organisation Chart!”

One interesting example of this cross institutional co-operation.  The Earth & Life Sciences department at VU Amsterdam was in early stages of a merger with the University of Amsterdam, but in the end it didn’t go ahead because of a campaign by their students. However the subject is still taught jointly with students being taught by academics from both institutions, and any funding allocations being distributed in a ratio. (which can change from year to year in an unplanned way, as Dutch Universities are not able to reject any applicant who has met the entry criteria for that course!)

The quality and presentation of the buildings we visited were very impressive.  Now I know from personal experience that you don’t normally bring visitors ‘below stairs’, but I was really struck by how the buildings we passed through or met colleagues in felt more often like cultural institutions, like the Tate Modern, the South Bank Centre or the shiny HQs of an architect's practice.  They had a very spacious feel, and also included much space clearly designed and designated for student interaction and activity, so that one was immediately struck by student activity without having to enter a classroom or a library. This seemed quite different to the gloomy corridors and dated concrete boxes I have encountered at many UK institutions. And there was a patent lack of security barriers and turnstiles, with discrete access readers on key doors providing a less confrontational way of controlling access, although many buildings seemed open to all.

One other thing that I found inspiring from visiting these campuses, was how the institutions seemed to visually celebrate their history, and the achievements of those who have studied with them, in a way that was easily tangible to foreign visitors, and also used the work of artists, and of their students to make their buildings and campuses more attractive and engaging spaces to inhabit.

I was also surprised that there were not more UK students choosing to study in the Netherlands, bearing in mind that the fees are only e2000 a year, and the standard of English spoken by virtually everyone we met was outstanding.

I hadn’t realised that it was only recently because of the Bologna process that the Netherlands had moved to a Bachelors plus Masters system, and most institutions reported that it was still quite rare for Dutch students not to carry on to complete their Masters, although increasingly those looking to enter into an academic career are now starting to look to complete their Masters elsewhere (if not abroad).

I, along with Andrew, was taking a lead in reporting on the theme of Employability for the tour:

Some key reflections in regard to this were surprise to learn that this area has taken greater prominence in organisational priority of late in part due to the poor ratings and feedback provided by international students who had come to study in the Netherlands with higher expectations around support and services in this regard.

Visibility of service was a key priority for most organisations, although the strength of local academic management in organisational process presented challenges for delivery of customised services and support across the institution.

The Dutch equivalent of the DLHE survey takes place 18 months to a year after the courses have completed, which I couldn’t help but feel would be a preference to the 6 months period in the UK.

I look forward to sharing more in the tour report in due course!

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