Category Archives: academia & universities

Managing in the Middle – shared from angiesallsorts blog

My husband Rob’s tenure as an acting head of department at Keele University comes to an end on April 1st, and it can’t come soon enough. It was always made clear that in the long run an outside person was wanted, and Rob was happy to play an interim role until a full-time appointment was […]

via Managing in the Middle — angiesallsorts

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UCU strikes – a personal perspective

At the end of July last year I posted that I had joined the UCU, mainly because I felt, as Head of School, that I needed the potential security of union membership. Now, strikes have been called over changes in the pension scheme, and I am in the position of having to ‘manage’ the effects of the strike on my School.

I won’t go into my views on the possible pension scheme changes here. However even back in the days when I was an AUT member (and a member of the university AUT committee), I never took strike action that would potentially affect students, and I am not about to start that now, regardless of the seriousness of the issue involved.

As for ‘managing’ the strike and its potential effects on my School, the HR Department have briefed Heads of Schools of their responsibilities in this regard, and these include ensuring that any teaching that is affected is rearranged, and that students are informed of cancelled and rearranged sessions. Informing students about cancelled sessions will be challenging if, as might happen, we are not informed of teaching that has been affected until after the event! UCU members are not required to signal their intentions to strike in advance, so this may well happen. Another challenge will be rearranging teaching, since there will be a limited window of 3-4 weeks in which we can do this before the summer exams start, and it won’t just be lectures that are potentially affected, but also labs. HR also suggest that we should consider asking staff not involved in the dispute to cover for colleagues that are, which is a minefield I am not prepared to enter!

All in all, there are some challenging weeks ahead, and this is yet another area in which Heads of School receive no training. I am fortunate, I suppose, to have had many years experience of the sector, and I will certainly be drawing on that going forward.

Part of the union

Almost from the time I started working in academia, back in 1984 when I began my second postdoc position at Birkbeck, until 2005, I was a member of the AUT (the Association of University Teachers). I was even a member of the AUT committee at Keele for a few years. I remember that I got increasingly frustrated with them – they didn’t help us in my School when Chemistry and Physics were threatened with large scale redundancies (which thankfully never happened), but rather, got obsessed with ‘worthy’ issues like boycotting Israeli universities. When they merged with NATFHE to form the UCU in 2005/6, I simply didn’t join the new union.

Times change, however. As Acting Head of School, I am exposed and in the firing line if anything goes wrong, and the worrying news about the pension scheme at the weekend (which turned out to be exaggerated), led me to think again. UCU membership doesn’t come cheap, but they do provide an important service for their members, and they speak up for our interests in increasingly difficult times.

Anyway, the upshot is that I have joined the UCU. With it being less than a week since I re-joined the Labour Party, it does seem as if I am returning to something more like my old self, at least in political terms!

(The title of the this post is taken from the Strawbs 1973 song of the same name).

Crazy times

This is my first blog post of 2017. I took on the role of Acting Head of my School at Keele on 1 December of last year, but the responsibilities only really started to kick in when the new semester started in late January. I have coped reasonably well with those commitments, but what has really caused me problems has been my teaching. I have been teaching a new module on Digital Forensics; very interesting, but I’ve been teaching it single handedly, and although I did a lot of advance preparation, I’ve still had to write quite a lot of material while the module has been running, which is never ideal. For example, the last two lectures, which take place next week and the week after, still have to be written, and they are on challenging topics. More about Digital Forensics in a later post, hopefully! I also had to prepare and deliver four two-hour MChem sessions on Materials Modelling, and although it is my research area, it still took time. On top of this I’m external examiner at a couple of other universities, and have had to review exam papers for them, as well as setting ones myself.

The net result of all this has been that I’ve been doing 7-day weeks, and getting in at crazy times, but still not keeping up. I was determined to write this post just to record it all, but even the time taken to write this could be spent writing some of a lecture!

We have two weeks of teaching left until Easter, and I am literally counting the days. It’s not been good, and I hope I’ll never have another time like this, with this crazy conjunction of commitments. Hopefully the next post will be more positive (:

New responsibilities

When I wrote my post on 30 years at Keele back in May, I referred to my increased responsibilities in senior roles in my School. I didn’t mention explicitly that organisational changes were afoot, with my School, Physical and Geographical Sciences, splitting into two Schools, Chemical and Physical Sciences, and Geography, Geology and the Environment. The reasons are mainly research-based. Certainly in the case of Chemical and Physical Sciences, it may sound like a more coherent unit to research funders. Of course the old School offered economies of scale, with only one of each committee needed, when now there will be two. But hopefully that issue can be worked around, at least partially.

The University have advertised externally for new Chairs who will also take on the Head of School role; the Chemical Sciences post is advertised here. But the timescale for the appointments means that Acting Heads are needed (the posts were advertised last week with a December closing date, and if interviews are held in January the earliest someone could probably start would be April/May, and probably later).

Last week I was asked if I would take on the role of Acting Head of the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences. I agreed, regarding it as both a challenge and an honour. I start on 1 December. One consequence of this is my remaining teaching preparation for next semester has been compressed into November. This is mainly the Digital Forensics module, as my other modules are ones I’ve taught before. There are some MChem lectures to prepare as well though! The next couple of months certainly promise to be ‘interesting’.

Some personal reminiscences of Gurnos Jones

This post was originally written following Gurnos’s death on 3 June 2016, in response to a request for reminiscences. As far as I know it has not been published elsewhere, so I am posting it here as a more permanent record.Jones_Gurnos 90x90

I started my career at Keele in May 1986, some 30 years ago. Initially I was a postdoc in Richard Catlow’s group, but I joined the academic staff as a lecturer in 1988. Gurnos was on my interview panel as Head of Department, along with Brian Fender (Vice-chancellor at the time), and Gurnos appointed me, and was my first Head of Department.

My main recollections of Gurnos as Head of Department are that he was firm in his decision making, but always fair. We had regular staff meetings (far more than we do now), and because we were a small but nevertheless independent department, we were responsible for a lot of decisions that are now made at a higher level. For example, I remember when Biology proposed the Biochemical Engineering degree (which incidentally is still very popular) we discussed whether Chemistry should be involved, and decided against it. A decision like that would now be out of our hands!

The first job Gurnos asked me to do was to run the 2nd year Physical Chemistry Lab. As a non-experimental computational chemist this was a challenge, but Gurnos had the view that as a chemist I should be able to do it. Thankfully everything went smoothly, and the main thing I remember was that students wrote their reports in hard backed lab books, and so carrying large piles of these back to my office, or even home, to mark, was a regular experience. I also became 2nd year tutor, taking over from Andy Fitch when he moved to the ESRF in France. In those days the administrative structure of the department was much simpler: there was Gurnos as Head, and Year Tutors. Students were also allocated tutors in the department (this was long before the University started the present Personal Tutor system).

Most of my lecturing in those days was done in the main Chemistry lecture theatre, which we had almost exclusive use of. The old department office was next to this lecture theatre, and there was a door from the office into the lecture theatre, which made a dramatic entrance from the lecturer a possibility!

My main social recollection of Gurnos was his famous pancake parties, which I was invited to once I had joined the academic staff. They were gatherings of the great and good, and I remember talking to some quite senior university staff there in the informal setting of Gurnos and Pat’s house in Larchwood.

In the present environment things are so different that it is difficult to think that a small department like Chemistry could survive. But Gurnos was a good head, and steered us through some difficult times. I will always remember him with fondness and respect.

The EU Referendum: a month to go

With a month to go before the EU Referendum, I thought it would be timely to write a quick post about why it is so important to me that we vote to remain. So, if someone asked me why I think this, these are the three points I would make:

(i) from the point of view of the UK as a whole, being part of the single market is essential for our future prosperity. If we left the EU we might be able to negotiate joining it, but at a cost, and we would not be in a position to influence any decisions made by member states.

(ii) the free movement of people between countries in the EU is particularly important for education and research in the UK. Our students can spend valuable periods of time at universities in EU countries, as can teachers and lecturers, and we can conversely benefit from the equivalent people from the rest of the EU spending time in the UK. This is very important for the education sector, and has knock-on effects in terms of creating and maintaining an internationally minded workforce.

(iii) all member states of the EU contribute to a research fund, and the funds are allocated to universities, research institutions and companies by a competitive application process. The UK does very well out of this, getting more out of it than it puts in. So much important research is funded from EU research grants, and if we left, we would lose this source of funding unless we negotiated to join the scheme from outside, which would involve extra cost and potentially less favourable terms.

There are plenty of other reasons to remain, but these are my main ones. Unfortunately the debate over the referendum has descended into a mud-slinging match between opposing sides, and there is the danger that some people might be put off voting at all. I will continue to try to put a positive spin on the case to remain in the EU, and hope others will do the same!