Eppur si muove

Politics UOS-6056aIt’s the end of the academic year for us, which mainly means wrap-up meetings, graduation ceremonies and preparation for the autumn. It’s also time for the “we’re not like school teachers, so we don’t get two months’ holiday” conversations with people.

As such, it’s also a good time to have a bit of a think about how things have gone and how they might change in future. As you’ll know from my last post, I’ve got plenty to think about this summer, in general, but I’d also like to talk a bit about my department in particular.

Earlier this year, the university undertook a major review of its operations, which included proposals to reduce the number of staff in Politics. While the final reduction was not as large as originally proposed, we do still have to provide effectively the same portfolio of activity in learning & teaching as this year, with fewer people.

I leave to others to discuss the wider context, but it is perhaps useful to talk a bit about how we have dealt with this situation, since it is (sadly) not uncommon.

A number of points present themselves as worth sharing here.

The first is that it is always worth considering whether everything you offer needs to be offered. As a social science, optional modules/courses/units tend to be plentiful, as colleague X arrives and says they could do something fascinating on Y, it runs for some years until X leaves and you somehow feel that Y is central to your provision.

Having sat on the QAA Benchmark group last year, I feel reasonably confident in saying there’s no consensus at all about what a ‘Politics’ degree must contain. Some methods, theory and core concepts certainly, but otherwise it’s open.

As long as you can defend the quality of the individual elements and the coherence of the overall package, then it is good to ask the question of whether something is really needed. Naturally, that’s rather easier if staff are changing, but even if not it’s still a helpful exercise in managing your portfolio.

The second is to keep students closely involved in the process. We’ve tried really hard to keep our students included in our conversations through this year – just as we do each year – because they remain our key constituency and we want to make sure that they come with us. That’s meant talking about the range of options we can offer, the impact on supervision of dissertations, the priorities for extra-curricular actions we might organise and the general involvement by them in the life of the department.

In this, we have been very fortunate that our students have engaged so positively and constructively. They’ve shown a very engaged approach that has helped us to produce a revised provision that works better for them while respecting what we can offer. It would be fair to say that their input has been critical in getting through the process as well as we have.

And that’s perhaps the third point: having a community.

One of the advantages of having a relatively small department has always been that we’ve had a high level of communication: a problem for one person has typically been a problem for us all. The strength of resolve of everyone involved – staff and students – to find a way through the review and to make the best of the situation is genuinely impressive. That there was so much support from colleagues across the UK was not only a reflection of our disciplinary solidarity, but also of the good reputation that our particular group has been able to build up over the years.

To give just one example, I found myself talking with some of my colleagues about how we’re going to develop our research activities as a group. To hear such good ideas being shared and acted upon, after what has been a tiring year, was really impressive.

So I’m happy to say that I am part of this department and of how we’ve responded. That is deeply coloured by sadness at the loss of some excellent colleagues, whose contributions have reached into every aspect of our work: we will be the poorer with their departure. However, we will not forget the values and professionalism that they helped to build.